Millions of people around the world depend on forests for medicine, building materials, fuel, income -- and food. FAO estimates that around 500 million people live in or near forests, and in some places, forests are the primary source of food. But almost everywhere, forests provide regular supplements to people's diets.

In many developing countries, forest foods represent a much-needed safety net, helping people get by between harvest seasons, when crops fail or during times of drought, famine or social strife. In some areas, forests support livestock production by providing fodder, and in others -- for example, coastal mangrove swamps -- they support local fisheries.

But beyond these direct contributions to food security, the environmental services provided by forests play a critical role in ensuring sustainable agricultural production: forests and woodlands help filter and maintain water supplies, protect against soil erosion and land degradation, moderate climate and slow global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Forests are also rich deposits of biological diversity and provide large numbers of poor people with fuel for cooking food and heating their homes, while forest-based employment gives many others a source of cash income.

"The survival of forests really constitutes a guarantee for the survival of mankind," says El-Hadji Sene, Director of FAO's Forestry Resources Division. "They provide so many different products and services, serve so many important functions."

At the World Forestry Congress in Quebec City, Canada, 21-28 September, FAO will be stressing these multiple linkages -- and the essential role forests play in preserving other key resources, such as water and soils.

A milestone meeting

According to Sene, the meeting is an important step in what he describes as the ongoing journey towards sustainable forest management. "The Congress brings forest people from around the world together to find ways to harness the products, goods and services that forests provide, without harming forests -- in short, how to apply the idea of sustainable development to forests," he says.

Since 1947, FAO has played a lead role in sponsoring and organizing the event, convened every six years to bring diverse forest stakeholders from around the world to the table to discuss a wide range of issues. As many as 3 000 people are expected to attend this year's meeting.

Beyond its role as a conference sponsor, FAO also plays an active part in the discussions and learning that happen during the event. This year, experts from the Organization will be speaking on subjects such as measuring forest resources, sustainable management practices, climate change, deforestation, forest fire management, forest-based poverty reduction and trade opportunities for non-wood products.

A shared journey

FAO's involvement in the World Forestry Congress complements its involvement in other ongoing international discussions regarding forest policy.

Based on FAO's track record in the forestry sector, in 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development asked the Organization to play the lead role in coordinating international action on combating deforestation. In this capacity, FAO has collaborated with partners both inside and outside the UN system to make the last ten years productive ones, including helping service and support additional multilateral mechanisms for addressing global forestry issues. These include the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests, the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests, the United Nations Forum on Forests and the Collaborative Partnership on Forests, which coordinates inputs from international agencies and is chaired by FAO.

"We're also very engaged in the implementation of other mechanisms and conventions that relate to forestry, especially the first Río Conventions," Sene notes.

This emerging international framework for enhanced cooperation has already resulted in tangible results, notes FAO in State of the World's Forests 2003.

- More than 100 countries have revised national forest policies and developed national forest programmes, taking into account the need for wide participation by different stakeholders.

- 150 countries are involved in international efforts to establish criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management.

- Areas under official forest management plans have increased to 88 percent in developed countries and around 6 percent in developing countries.

- 10 percent of the world's forests now fall within protected forest areas.

- The involvement of local communities in forest planning and management is growing.

Working for the future of forestry

Forests and forestry have been a part of FAO's mandate since the creation of the Organization in 1945. Today, FAO's Forestry Department continues to work on a wide range of issues important to the sector, including community-based forestry and poverty alleviation, forest degradation and deforestation, sustainable forest management, conservation and biodiversity, management of forest fires and the relationship between forests and climate change.

One important new area of work involves FAO's collaboration with countries and regional associations from around the world to develop a common set of criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management.

"The idea," says Sene, "is that these indicators can be the basis for best practices, the basic elements that guide the practitioner towards sustainable forest management."

For more information on work being conducted by FAO's Forestry Department and the messages FAO is taking to the World Forestry Congress, browse the links to the right of this article.

September 2003

George Kourous
Information Officer, FAO
+39 06 570 53168