Posted February 1998
SPECIAL: BIODIVERSITY FOR FOOD AND AGRICULTURE
|This Special is an extract from "Human Nature: Agricultural Biodiversity and Farm-based Food Security" by Hope Shand, an independent study prepared by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (December 1997). The full publication is available in Portable Document Format (PDF)|
In Amazonian Ecuador, 473 tree species have been recorded on a single hectare. In Panama, 1200 species of beetles have been collected on a single tree species . Despite these impressive statistics, current knowledge of tropical forest diversity is shockingly incomplete. In the supposedly well-inventoried region of Iquitos, Peru, nearly 70% of extracted timber comes from a tree species first recognized by Western science in 1976 . Estimates of the proportion of tropical insect species still not described range from a low of 65% to a high of 99% . Although mammals are one of the best known groups of organisms, a new genus of bovid, Pseudoryx, possibly related to oxen, was discovered in remote forests of Vietnam in 1992 .
Food security, income, nutrition, employment, energy sources and overall well-being of rural people are linked to the forests. Rural people living in and around forests depend on a large variety of forest products for subsistence and income, including foods and spices, building materials, medicines, fibres, fodder, resins, oils, latex and industrial materials. A new study by scientists from Cornell University (New York, USA) conservatively estimates that the value of non-timber products harvested from tropical forests is $90,000 million per annum . When forest ecosystems are degraded, and when local people lose access to forest resources, the livelihood and survival of millions of forest-dependent people is at stake.
The link between forests, biodiversity and food security is made abundantly clear in FAO's 1996 Report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. In Africa, the most frequently cited cause of genetic erosion is destruction of forest and bush lands . Most Latin American countries providing data also report "major genetic erosion" of economically important forest species . Worldwide, forests harbor genetic resources of plants, animals and microorganisms that provide the raw material for genetic improvement in crops and livestock. For example, the wild relatives of avocado, banana, cashew, cacao, cinnamon, coconut, coffee, grapefruit, lemon, paprika, oil palm, rubber and vanilla are found in tropical forests . Export products from these crops were valued at over $23,000 million in 1994 . Red jungle fowl, ancestors of the domestic chicken, are found in the hottest and most humid forests of Asia. The genetic variability contained in red jungle fowl is considered one of the most important sources of genetic diversity for domestic chicken breeds - whose genetic base is extremely narrow . Worldwide, forests and forest industries provide wood products valued at over US$400,000 million per annum (including timber, furniture, pulp and paper, and fuelwood) .
Following timber, rattans are the second most important source of export earnings from tropical forests, accounting for more than US$1,000 million annually . Approximately 90% of the rattan used commercially comes from the "wild." Of the 104 species of rattan found in the Malay Peninsula alone, 98 are threatened or endangered . Three-quarters or more of the South's population depend on woody species as their primary energy source. Because so many people depend on fuelwood to prepare, process and preserve food, there is an implicit relationship between fuelwood and food security.
Fuelwood accounts for 58 percent of energy use in Africa, 15 percent in Latin America and 11 percent in Asia . An estimated 100 million people in the South cannot get sufficient fuel to meet energy needs and almost 1.3 billion are consuming fuelwood faster than it is being replenished . The demand for firewood is not just in rural areas; urban and industrial consumption of fuelwood and charcoal are also major factors in forest degradation and deforestation .
Forests provide vital ecological functions. Their absorption of carbon dioxide and release of oxygen through photosynthesis help to control the level of greenhouse gases. This process, in turn, helps moderate fluctuations in global temperatures and provides the atmospheric elements essential for all living things. The widespread conversion of forested ecosystems in the South to grasssland and pasture contributes to the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and the build-up of greenhouse gases. During the 1980s, conversion of tropical forest to grassland contributed approximately 1.6 gigatons of carbon per year to the atmosphere. This is equivalent to about 16% of the carbon emissions released by the global consumption of fossil fuels for industry and transport, currently estimated at 5.5 gigatons of carbon per year .
Forest vegetation helps support the resource base by nutrient cycling. Forests keep soil from eroding into rivers and aid in flood control and the prevention of silting of reservoirs. An estimated 40 percent of the South's farmers depend on forested watersheds as a source of water for irrigating crops or watering livestock .
Many forest species, their potential use to society, and their ecological importance have yet to be discovered. Untapped treasures contained in the genes of forest-dwelling plants, animals and microorganisms include undeveloped medicines, crops, animals, pharmaceuticals, timbers, fibers, pulp, soil-restoring vegetation, petroleum substitutes and countless other products and amenities. The bark of the rare western yew tree (Taxus brevifolia), found only in the old-growth coniferous forest of the Pacific northwestern United States, was recently found to be the source of taxol, a potent anticancer chemical. The US National Cancer Institute recently discovered a promising anti-AIDS drug, michellamine B, that comes from a rainforest vine collected in Southwestern Cameroon . If forest felling continues at its present rate, and if reservoirs of traditional knowledge continue to be lost, new and existing sources of scientific information will be forfeited and vast potential biological wealth will be destroyed.
The causes of tropical deforestation vary from region to region. The primary activities associated with deforestation include: the permanent conversion of forest land to agricultural use; harvesting of fuelwood and charcoal; commercial logging; dams; oil and mining projects; shifting cultivation; expansion of urban and industrial areas; overgrazing and fodder collection.
Although small farmers are frequently blamed as the leading causes of tropical deforestation, it is increasingly recognized that shifting cultivation systems as traditionally practised by forest-dwelling people in the South are not only sustainable, they also actively encourage diversity . A study of shifting cultivators in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Amazon prepared by FAO in 1991 concludes:
"Shifting cultivation is a complex agricultural system that is well-adapted, under certain conditions, to the environmental limitations of the tropics. It is not primitive, nor necessarily destructive. It requires in-depth knowledge of the tropical environment and a high degree of managerial skill to succeed".Today, poverty, land use patterns and population pressures are reducing the land available for shifting cultivation. Shorter fallow periods and overuse of available land are turning traditionally sustainable methods into destructive ones. It is more often the newly arrived migrants, poor and landless people without generations of traditional knowledge, who are driven to over-exploit forest resources .
Conversion of forests to agriculture - primarily by small-scale, subsistence farmers - is frequently cited as the single greatest cause of forest destruction in the South . The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), in a 1996 press release, reported that "Poor farmers could destroy half of [the] remaining tropical forest . Whether they are victims of unjust land tenure systems, refugees from political or social unrest, or settlers from poorly-conceived development programmes, poverty and the lack of access to land and jobs are the underlying causes of deforestation linked to poor farmers. Government policies in both the South and North are often at the root of these problems.
Examples include subsidies to cattle-ranching and timber industries; agricultural development and colonisation policies that encourage clearing of forests; tax incentives for land development that lead to concentration of land ownership; undervaluation of forest resources and the people who inhabit them; lack of legal recognition for indigenous peoples land rights.
From 1980-1990, commercial logging for international and domestic consumption increased in Africa, Asia and Latin America - with a rise in both area and volume harvested. According to FAO, 5.9 million hectares were logged annually in the tropics from 1986-1990, with 83% of the cutting in primary forests . While many believe that commercial timber can be harvested "sustainably," the evidence is hard to find. When the International Tropical Timber Organization conducted a study of "sustainable timber production" in 1988, it succeeded in identifying only 1 million hectares - or 0.12% of all timber producing tropical forests - that met their definition . FAO claims that "little progress has been made in the sustainable management of natural forests" . Logging is only one of the causes of forest destruction, but its impact is magnified because it opens up the forest to further encroachment, and because most logging takes place in primary, species-rich forests . Logging roads allow both displaced people and extractive industries to enter previously inaccessible forest areas.
Evidence from the Brazilian Amazon and West Africa suggests that the loss of biodiversity in forest ecosystems far exceeds the deforested area. Degradation and fragmentation of forests magnifies the destructive impacts of deforestation . "Fragmentation" refers to patches of forest that are not deforested, but are too small to support remaining populations of plants and animals. Forest edges are particularly vulnerable to degradation. Because of the so-called "edge effect" the negative effects of deforestation extend approximately 1 km. into adjacent habitats. A 1993 study based on satellite imagery of the Brazilian Amazon found that the rate of deforestation averaged about 15,000 sq. km. per year from 1978-1988, while the rate of habitat fragmentation and degradation was about 38,000 sq. km per annum .
Although temperate and boreal forests are generally considered "stable," this description masks the rapid disappearance of old-growth stands, and the forest degradation occuring in some regions. Old growth forests are among the richest habitats found in temperate areas. In some cases, the rate at which they are disappearing exceeds the rate of forest deforestation in many tropical countries . In Western Europe, old growth forests now account for less than 1% of total forest area. Among temperate countries only Canada and New Zealand hold more than 20% of their total forest area as old growth forests . In Europe and North America, pollution from industrial and transportation activities and wildfires have threatened forests and the genetic resources of a range of species. Forests in Germany and Czechoslovakia, in particular, have been severely affected.
The effects of global warming could be catastrophic for forests, especially in higher latitudes. According to WWF International, even a 1 degree C absolute change in temperature could eradicate 25% of the world's boreal forests . Tree species found in both temperate and boreal forests have slow migration rates and thus have limited ability to adapt to new climatic zones. Scientists predict that higher temperatures and drought caused by global warming will trigger forest fires and invasions of pests and diseases, thus accelerating the loss of forest biodiversity. A 2 degree C increase in temperature, for instance, would quadruple the area of forest in Bristish Columbia (Canada) that is susceptible to attack by spruce weevil .
Plantations play an important role in satisfying future demands for wood and fibre. However, when tree monocultures replace native forests, they transform diverse forest ecoystems into high-yielding, genetically uniform tree farms . When industrial tree plantations are based on uniform, introduced species, the native biodiversity is inevitably lost. According to WWF forestry consultant, Nigel Dudley, "Replacing old-growth, natural forests with plantations gives the impression that forests are being restored. But a plantation is about as similar to a natural forest as a football pitch is to a flower-rich meadow" .
Agroforestry - the integration of trees, crops and livestock - is both an ancient practice and a new field of scientific study. Agroforestry not only supports rural communities and sustains agriculture, it also conserves the genetic resources of valuable tree species and crops. Present-day Mayan farmers in southern Mexico and Central America, for example, manage as many as 60 to 80 tree species in an individual forest garden, and as many as 200 species in a village . In addition to trees selected for food, firewood, building materials and medicine, nitrogen-fixing tree species may be selected to maintain soil fertility, leguminous trees are used to shade coffee and cacao crops, while other trees are planted for fodder, or to regenerate fallow lands . Building on traditional knowledge, new research on agroforestry aims to give small and subsistence farmers new techniques to intensify and diversify agricultural production, and reclaim degraded land . Community-based and controlled forest management is emerging as one of the most promising strategies for slowing tropical deforestation . Ideally, community-based management systems not only control and regulate the harvest of timber species, but also integrate practices such as non-timber product harvesting, the marketing of lesser-known tree species, restrictions on harvesting to protect soil and water quality and to protect wildlife .
In parts of Southeast Asia, governments are experimenting with joint management programmes by transferring responsibility for publicly-owned, state-managed forests to some degree of local-level management and control. In their recent study of "community based" or "joint management" forest programmes in Asia and the Pacific, researchers Owen Lynch and Kirk Talbott explain that some national governments invite community involvement because once-vast forest resources have dwindled to the point where they can no longer satisfy extractive, commerical industries . In other words, there's little forest left to lose. Forced to acknowledge the failure of state-managed systems, some governments are turning to forest-dependent communities, many of whom have ancestral rights to forests, but have been typically marginalized or disenfranchised by government forest policies in the past.
The growth of community-based initiatives is impressive. In India, for example, 15 state governments have adopted joint forest management resolutions (as of mid-1992) and over 9,000 village organizations reportedly participate in managing 1.5 million hectares of government forest land . A recent national inventory in Thailand found nearly 12,000 community forest management initiatives, including both community institutions created to manage forests, and organizations promoted by schools, temples and other local institutions .
Unfortunately, co-management and community forest initiatives proposed by most governments fail to legally recognize the traditional, community-based property rights of forest dwellers, including indigenous peoples. Lynch and Talbott conclude that many programmes "are little more than short-term, renewable (and cancelable) contract-based reforestation initiatives" . Despite major shortcomings, the dramatic growth in community-based forest initiatives could be an important step in building policies that embrace secure community rights and local control.
New approaches to forest management based on sustainable production of non-wood forest products are increasingly popular, especially with some NGOs and consumers in the North. Ideally, the harvesting, processing and trading of non-wood forest products can improve food security and nutrition for the rural poor, while increasing income and job opportunities. The concept of sustainable harvesting of forest products is economically and environmentally appealing, but its success depends on more complex political realities. Ultimately, sustainable utilization of forest ecosystems will succeed only if local and indigenous people have ownership and control of land and forest resources. As forestry researcher Alan Durning puts it, "Secure tenure is the first necessary condition of a sustainable forest economy. Without it, the people who actually manage the world's forests will have little reason, and less authority, to safeguard forest health" .
Sustained utilization of forests, coupled with the maintenance of a network of areas dedicated to the protection of ecosystems and their functions, offers the best approach for lasting genetic conservation. The protection of forests does not require the creation of parks or nature reserves that exclude local people. Experience shows that when local people are excluded from protected areas, degradation is more likely to occur . Conservation policies are more likely to succeed if they work with local people to use and enhance forest biodiversity as part of their livelihood, incorporate local systems of knowledge and management, and support local ownership and control of resources .
FAO's forest policy has provoked blistering criticism from NGOs over the past decade. Most of the criticism centered on the Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP), launched in 1985, and administered by FAO. The TFAP, directed by the World Bank, the FAO, UNDP and the World Resources Institute, was conceived as an international coordinating mechanism to increase investment in countries with tropical forest and promote programmes to check deforestation. But TFAP was sharply criticized by NGOs for ignoring the policy-related and root causes of deforestation, increasing rural impoverishment, and accelerating rather than curbing tropical deforestation - especially in primary forests . In 1990, the World Rainforest Movement was joined by some 50 NGOs from 15 countries who called for a moratorium on funding for the TFAP until it was radically restructured. NGOs and governments have also criticized FAO's record on participation, and have called for improvement in FAO's involvement of women, indigenous peoples, NGOs and the private sector.
In recent years, FAO has completed internal reforms of the TFAP and its forest department. Historically, FAO's Committee on Forests has been the undisputed leader within the UN system on global forestry issues. But this is no longer the case. FAO continues to be recognized for its technical expertise and activities, but the political debate on forests has now shifted to other intergovernmental fora - the primary venue being the Intergovernmental Panel On Forests created by the Commission on Sustainable Development in 1995.
The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), Agenda 21, and the Conventions on Biological Diversity and Climate Change all reinforce the critical role of forests in sustainable development and food security. Chapter 11 of Agenda 21, "Combatting Deforestation" outlines voluntary actions for conservation and development of sustainable forests. The UNCED also drew up a non-legally binding authoritative statement of principles for the management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests, know as the "forest principles." UNCED's consensus on forest principles, though voluntary, represents the first-ever commitment on responsibilities beyond national boundaries. The principles respect national sovereignty over forests and request all countries to adopt sustainable patterns of production and consumption. The responsibility for implementing agreements rests with national governments.
The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) will review progress on forestry issues in 1997. Recognizing the special need for intergovernmental political debate on forests, the CSD recommended in April 1995 the establishment of an "Open-ended ad hoc Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF) to address the worsening forest crisis worldwide and intergovernmental actions needed to address these problems.
The IPF is currently the focal point for resolving intergovernmental forest issues. The IPF is not an implementing body; it meets four times and will submit recommendations to the Fifth Session of the CSD in 1997, when it is scheduled to review forest principles. The IPF's mandate is complex and broad. It includes: implementation of UNCED decisions relating to forests at the national and international level; international cooperation in financial assistance and technology transfer; review and development of technical and socio-economic factors for sustainable forest management; trade and environment policies relating to forest products and services; identifying legal mechanisms and/or institutional roles for achieving these goals. Programme elements with special significance to food security include, among others, attempts to look at underlying causes of deforestation and traditional forest related knowledge. The International Tropical Timber Agreement under its coordinating body, the International Tropical Timber Organization, was established in 1983 as an intergovernmental body outside the UN system. The primary focus of the ITTO is the promotion of tropical timber as a commodity; the vast majority of its budget comes from Japan. ITTO has equal representation from tropical timber "producing" nations and "consumer" nations in the industrialized world. Attempts to broaden the timber agreement to include binding commitments to environmentally sustainable forest management in both tropical and temperate areas have been unsuccessful to date. In 1993, the ITTA was re-negotiated, but it has not yet entered into force. The ITTA now operates under a "successor agreement" that was opened for signature 1 April 1994.
The World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development is often described as a "Brundtland Commission" for forests. It is co-chaired by Ola Ullsten, former Prime Minister of Sweden and Emil Salim, former Minister of Population and Environment of Indonesia. Established in 1995, it is an independent dialogue outside of the UN system that provides a forum for principal stakeholders in global forestry debates with the aim of addressing constraints and promoting implementation of forest decisions in Agenda 21 and the Forest Principles. The Commission plans to hold five regional hearings 1995-1997. A final report on regional and international policy reforms for equitable and sustainable forest management is expected in time for the CSD's 1997 review of forests.
Criteria and indicators: regional processes - Several regional meetings have been held by governments (with some participation from NGOs and international organizations) to develop "criteria and indicators" of sustainable forest management. Regional meetings now underway include the Montreal, Helsinki and Tarapoto processes, among others. While much of the discussion on criteria and indicators focuses on the scientific basis for sustainable forest management, NGOs are pressing for the inclusion of social and economic criteria, particularly the need to acknowledge the rights of indigenous and other forest communities.
The Forest Stewardship Council is an NGO-initiated effort to harmonize forest product certification programmes around the world. With headquarters in Oaxaca, Mexico, FSC's members include NGOs (such as WWF, Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth) as well as timber traders, indigenous peoples organizations and community forest associations. FSC was founded in 1993 to develop a model for the labeling of "good wood" - a process for assessing the forest sources and methods used in extracting timber so that consumers of timber (and, in some cases, non-timber products) can choose to support socially and ecologically sound forest management.
The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is staking a higher profile in forest-related research and policy, believing that poverty alleviation, through increasing agricultural productivity, is key to addressing tropical deforestation. In 1996, CGIAR invested $24 million (approximately 8% of its total budget) in forest research at two CGIAR research institutes specializing in tropical forestry: the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) based in Indonesia and the International Center for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) based in Kenya. The CGIAR uses a mix of science-based approaches, including genetic improvement of "cinderella trees," agro-forestry, research to intensify agricultural productivity on existing crop land, as well as a system-wide programme dubbed "Alternatives to Slash-and-Burn." Many NGOs, including RAFI, view CGIAR's new-found enthusiasm for forests with suspicion, fearing that an emphasis on agricultural intensification and new technologies will promote a second, non-sustainable Green Revolution that will drive still more of the world's small farmers off their lands.
In reviewing the myriad multilateral approaches to the issue of forest conservation, the overwhelming impression is one of political deadlock. Timber-exporting countries, by and large, are neither prepared to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples nor the need to conserve. Timber-importers, heavily influenced by corporate interests, are not interested in conserving forest diversity or in assuring the rights of indigenous peoples. The current situation is disgraceful and untenable.