Assessing environmental impacts of forest use

FOREST UTILIZATION can have impacts on the environment both at the forest level and at the macro level.

At the forest level, several activities can have direct and indirect negative impacts on plant and animal resources and on ecological functions of the forests (including conservation of biological diversity and carbon and water cycles). These include poorly planned and implemented extraction of timber and non-timber products, the construction of logging and transport roads, the construction of facilities for logging camps or for recreational activities in the forests and waste accumulation. Active forest utilization can also have direct and indirect impacts on human health and on cultural and social foundations in nearby areas. Different forms of forest utilization vary in the severity, irreversibility, probability of occurrence and significance of their impacts. They range from low-impact activities such as occasional collection of non-wood forest products (NWFPs) to high-impact ones such as commercial timber harvesting or conversion of natural forest to plantations.

At the macro level, environmental impacts are determined by policies, plans and programmes. These impacts need to be assessed and mitigation measures promoted when necessary. Specific issues include, for example:

  • the linkages between environmental concerns and forest products trade;
  • the effects of the application of environmental standards in forest operations and industries;
  • ways of considering the environmental costs of forest operations and of compensating for environmental benefits of sound forest utilization;
  • increased recognition of the economic potential of national and international markets for the environmental services provided by forests;
  • promotion of policy tools to capture the value of these services.

Political pressure by environment-conscious groups is at the root of policies influencing forest use, such as logging and log export bans, and the implementation of legally binding international conventions such as those on biological diversity, climate change and international trade in endangered species. These environmental conventions are the platform for policies and practices aimed at maximizing the local and global environmental benefits of sustainable forest use.

FAO's work: awareness raising and capacity building

FAO aims to promote forms of forest utilization that improve the livelihoods of people without compromising the environmental functions of forests. The objective is to address, in a systematic way, key environmental and social issues related to forest utilization and to promote best practices to maximize positive impacts, as well as mitigation measures for identified negative impacts. Awareness raising among a variety of stakeholders, including the public and private sectors (including industry) and civil society organizations, is a fundamental aspect of this work.

FAO¿s work in environmental impact assessment and mitigation is related to the Organization¿s work in environmentally sound forest harvesting and operations, but with a wider scope, including issues such as the integration of biodiversity and carbon management considerations in environmental impact assessment; the role of green-market-driven mechanisms (certification and ecolabelling) in the adoption of environmentally sound forestry practices; ways to compensate for the environmental benefits of these practices; and developing markets for environmental services provided by forests. This area is thus also closely linked with FAO¿s work in forest products trade and marketing, forests and climate change, and wildlife and protected areas.

Main activities include the following:

  • training, publications and workshops, and provision of technical and policy guidance and expertise, to help member countries maximize the positive contributions of forest utilization and reinforce their capacity to assess and mitigate negative environmental impacts of forest activities and policies;
  • seminars and networking about the environmental consequences of forest activities among a variety of stakeholders;
  • collecting and sharing of information and technical knowledge on the impacts of forest utilization activities through case studies and comparisons of country experiences;
  • developing indicators of environmental impacts of forest utilization, and participation in international initiatives in this area;
  • establishing partnerships and exploiting synergies with other organizations working in environmental impact assessment, such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Secretariat, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF);
  • facilitating access to sources of funding for environmental assessment and to financial mechanisms for transfer of funds for environmental benefits of appropriate forest utilization.

A central theme of this work is the environmental impact assessment (EIA), which is widely used as a tool to assist in decision-making. In several countries EIA is mandatory for forest activities. An important feature of EIA is public participation and transparency throughout the assessment process.

At the macro level, a tool called strategic environmental assessment (SEA) is used to assess the environmental impacts of policies and programmes. Such assessments help unravel the complexity of linkages between policies affecting forest utilization and environmental conditions.

FAO¿s work on environmental impact assessment includes the following publications: Environmental impact of forestry (FAO Conservation Guide No. 7, 1992), Economic assessment of forestry project impacts (FAO Forestry Paper No. 106, 1992), Assessing forestry project impact: issues and strategies (FAO Forestry Paper No. 114, 1993), Valuing forests: context, issues and guidelines (FAO Forestry Paper No. 127, 1995), Environmental impact assessment and environmental auditing in the pulp and paper industry (FAO Forestry Paper No. 129, 1996) and A training manual for environmental assessment in forestry (Report for the FAO regional project ¿Forestry Planning and Policy Assistance in Asia and the Pacific" 1996). Recent concern about environmental impacts of forest utilization at both the local and global levels has created new demand for assistance, and FAO is now renewing emphasis on this area.

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last updated:  Tuesday, July 26, 2005