Species related programs

FAO provides technical assistance in implementing development strategies through field projects, undertaken in cooperation with national agencies. Several forestry projects have components related to genetic resources, especially in seed collection and procurement, in situ conservation and forest management, forest tree domestication and natural areas protection.


 1. Evaluation of field trials in arid and semi-arid zones

In 1979, FAO with financial assistance from UNEP and IPGRI, began a project entitled Genetic Resources of Arid and Semi-arid Zone Arboreal Species for the Improvement of Rural Living(1979-1987). Eleven countries in the arid and semi-arid regions of the world participated in the systematic collection of seeds of some 281 provenances of 43 species, mainly of the genera Acacia and Prosopis, and in the establishment of comparative trials. Participating countries included: Argentina, Chile, India, Israel, Mexico, Niger, Pakistan, Peru, Senegal, Sudan and Yemen. Danida Forest Seed Centre, DFSC (Denmark), CSIRO (Australia), CIRAD-Forêt (France) and Oxford Forestry Institute (UK) also collaborated in various stages of the project.

Summary information on earlier phases of the programme is available in Forest Genetic Resources Information No 16, 1988 'Final Statement of the FAO/IBPGR/UNEP Project on Genetic Resources of Arid and Semi-arid Zone Arboreal Species for the Improvement of Rural Living' (for reprints please contact us at the address below). Further progress was reported in Forest Genetic Resources No 23 in 1995 "Progress in the evaluation of field trials established within the framework of the FAO project on genetic resources of arid and semi-arid zone arboral species (french language only)."

Young Acacia Albida, Niger. Photo: Roberto Faidutti

A global evaluation of selected field trials was initiated in 1989 by FAO and DFSC in collaboration with national institutions. During 1990-1994, 26 trials in six countries (Brazil, Burkina Faso, India, Pakistan, Senegal and Sudan) were assessed. Individual assessment reports are being finalized, with a global synthesis, and all results are being made available on the DFSC Web site, International Trials of Acacia and Prosopis: Overview of results

2. A review of the effects of Prosopis introduction in Sahelian Africa

From the 1930's onwards, Prosopis has been introduced in many countries of the world, especially in dry and semi-arid zones, because of its capacity to withstand harsh environments and its potential in the restoration of degraded lands. In some areas, especially in Sahelian Africa, it has naturalized and is now a constituent of many natural and cultivated ecosystems and grazing lands. While the environmental, social and economic benefits brought by the tree are widely acknowledged, there is a growing awareness of its limitations, under inappropriate management or control measures , or in sensitive and fragile areas. FAO has launched an intersectoral approach to the issue, aimed at documenting the benefits brought by and drawbacks of the tree.

3. Selected Publications on Acacia and Prosopis 

A number of documents on resources and uses of Acacia and Prosopis have been published by FAO, or in partnership with FAO's collaborators. Some of these documents are now available on line :

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Mediterranean conifers

 Cedars of Lebanon

In the early 1970s many initiatives were launched by the various countries of the Mediterranean basin regarding the exchange of forest seed and the establishment of plantations to compare species, provenances and progeny. Such initiatives sought to identify the sources of the seed most suited to local environmental conditions. No information is available on the present status of many of these trials, and international literature mentions only a few publications. It is feared that unless special attention is paid to this issue, the trials and their results, whether actual or potential, will be lost for good - despite the fact that the choice of appropriate species and provenances affects the success of reforestation and forest and environmental regeneration.

In April 2002 the Committee on Mediterranean Forestry Questions Silva Mediterranea decided to maximize the most important results of the initiatives carried out. France (the General Directorate of Forestry and Rural Affairs of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Rural Affairs) decided to support these initiatives, entrusting scientific coordination within the country to the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). Other countries agreed to take part in the project by collecting data at a national level and supporting research efforts linked with the validation and publication of data, as well as the coordination of scientific summaries. The work is organized as a Silva Mediterranea working group. For more information on this subject, kindly consult the dedicated web site.

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American mahogany

Conservation and utilization of genetic resources of mahogany species in Central and South America

The two most important Meliaceae genera in the neotropics are Swietenia and Cedrela. From the last century up to the present time the Mahoganies, as they are commonly known, have been of fundamental importance for the development of the forest industry in Latin America, in the generation of revenue, and in the development of rural communities. Species of these genera cover the Neotropical territory from the north of Mexico to Brazil and Argentina, passing through Central America and the Caribbean Islands. They are also important in plantation programmes outside of their natural range, notably in Asia and the Pacific.

Deforestation caused by changes in land use in many countries in Central/South America and the Caribbean has lead to the loss of some populations of mahoganies in the Neotropics. Deforestation has also lead to fragmentation of previously continuous populations and, in combination with dysgenic selection (the harvesting of the best individuals), the genetic constitution of many natural populations is likely to have been negatively affected.

A Satellite Event organized by FAO's Inter-Departmental Working Group on Biological Diversity on the occasion of the Ninth Session of the Commission on Genetic Resources in October 2002 presented a paper on mahogany in Mexico (paper published in Biodiversity and the ecosystem approach in agriculture, forestry and fisheries).

Information on on-going efforts to establish a network on the genetic resources of mahogany in the Neotropics

Based on concern about the genetic integrity of the mahoganies the Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources has over the years flagged the urgent need for national, regional and international action to promote and further the conservation and sustainable use of mahogany species. These calls for action are in line with similar recommendations passed by a number of national and international institutes and fora, notably by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). As a follow-up to a recommendation of the FAO Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources, the FAO Forestry Department recently published the report Genetic resources of Swietenia and Cedrela in the Neotropics - Proposal for coordinated action. The report, written as a synthesis paper by Mr. F. Patino of Mexico and based on contractual work for FAO by four experts from Central and South America, describes the ecology, silviculture, management, utilization and conservation of mahogany species in the region. The report also list on-going activities and gaps in current knowledge and activities, and propose programmes of collaborative activities in the region. A summary of the report is included in the annual newsbulletin Forest Genetic Resources No 25. The full report, in Spanish and English, is available from the Forest Resources Division of FAO.

The International Symposium on Genetic Resources, Ecology and Management of Big-leaf Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), was organized in October 1996 in Puerto Rico by the International Institute of Tropical Forestry (USDA Forest Service), in technical collaboration with FAO. The symposium agreed upon and highlighted a number of priority issues in need of attention, and welcomed a proposal by FAO to support networking activities among institutes working on the conservation and management of genetic resources of neotropical mahogany species. The general aim of the proposed forest genetic resources network was to support the programmes of national institutes already active in this field in countries which expressed a wish to participate, and to help strengthen links and collaboration between them, thus ensuring complementarity of action. Country-driven action within the framework of the network would be carried out in a manner complementary to already on-going or planned work in this and related fields coordinated by other agencies or institutions.

A draft project proposal for networking activities in genetic resources of mahogany species was subsequently elaborated by FAO consultants from the region. The proposal was submitted by FAO in 1997 and 1998 for comments and suggestions to institutes in potentially interested countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and in other tropical regions. The proposal was also made available to the CITES Secretariat, and has been preliminarily discussed with participants in recent CITES-related meetings, with a view to streamlining possible future forest genetic resources activities with trade-related action being proposed within the framework of CITES.

The draft proposal was discussed in a side meeting on genetic resources of mahoganies, organized in connection with the 20th Session of the Latin American and Caribbean Forestry Commission in La Havana, Cuba, in September 1998. The side meeting was attended by some thirty participants representing thirteen countries and three regional or international organizations. While countries of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty cautioned against potential overlap with planned activities within the framework of CITES, others showed enthusiasm for the proposal, which they confirmed should -as originally proposed- focus on scientific and technical activities related to the conservation, enhancement and sustainable utilization of mahogany genetic resources, and include a range of species of Meliaceae occurring in the region. The participants agreed to further discuss the draft proposal in their respective countries and, following such discussions and careful in-country analysis, provide additional comments to FAO for incorporation into the proposal.

Based on feed-back from countries and on availability of funding, consideration will be given to the organization of a regional workshop to finalize the proposals and to initiate corresponding activities.

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Neem, Azadirachta indica A. Juss. (Meliaceae), is an evergreen, multipurpose tree species native to the Indian sub-continent and south-east Asia where it has been traditionally used for centuries. The species adaptation to hot and dry climates has made it one of the most commonly planted species in arid and semi-arid areas, both within its natural range and outside, in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. In the African Sahel, neem is mainly planted as shade tree and in windbreaks, although production of fuelwood by pruning and use in local pharmacopoeia are important. In its natural range, particularly in India, products derived from neem have been widely used for centuries for many medicinal and pest management purposes. Fruit are particularly rich in azadirachtin and other pesticide compounds.

 Azadirachta indica tree with fruit, Burkina Faso. Photo: Roberto Faidutti
Several public organizations, private corporations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals are promoting the development of research on neem and its cultivation in various ecological conditions. Extracts of neem oil and chemicals for industrial uses are gaining more and more attention worldwide. Much work has been carried out on the characterization and utilization of neem natural extracts and chemical compounds, on testing their pesticide properties, on the potential for cultivation of the species in many developing countries, and on extending its utilization by local farmers and rural communities.

Despite the widespread use of neem, global programs for the evaluation and improvement of the genetic resources of the species were not initiated before 1994, mainly because of seed storage and transport problems which placed a serious constraint on seed collection and transfer. As a result, the genetic material found in plantations is generally thought to have been originally chosen in an empirical, restricted manner, and its genetic base is frequently likely to be very narrow, particularly in countries located outside the natural range of the species. Neem decline has affected many Sahelian countries in the 1990s for which a number of interacting environmental and genetic factors have been alleged, possibly aggravated by pathogens.

While neem has a potential for domestication and utilization at a wider scale as a crop tree, knowledge about the extent and pattern of genetic variation, inside and outside its natural range, is scarse and fragmented. It is important to keep in mind that, besides its pesticide properties, neem is a multipurpose species which is widely used for environmental conservation and restoration, including soil amelioration and the provision of shade, and as ornamental tree.

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Poplars and willows

Poplars and willows were among the first forest tree species to be domesticated. Farmers in temperate and sub-tropical zones have incorporated them in agricultural systems and the rural landscape for hundreds of years, due to their fast growth, wide range of products and other benefits, and ease of propagation by vegetative means. In the case of the poplars the ability to hybridize within the broad taxonomic sections of the genus Populus has also been important. Poplars and willows are mostly fast-growing, easy to propagate vegetatively, and provide a wide range of goods and services. Their adaptability to a wide range of climatic and soil conditions has led to their widespread use in developed and developing countries; they play an important role in rural life in countries with economies in transition.

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last updated:  Tuesday, July 26, 2016