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Annex 3: an overview of the forestry situation in Latin America and the Caribbean

Historical perspective

Forests originally covered a large portion of the Latin American and Caribbean Region and were modified relatively little by the native inhabitants. The conquest and colonization period marked a breaking point with the incorporation of agriculture and livestock practices that were imposed by the conquerors and which still persist today. The land, which was previously communal, went to the colonizers, and a large portion was subsequently owned by the states that were established after their emancipation from the colonizing Crowns.

The overall land tenure situation in almost all of Latin America and the Caribbean is reflected in the fact that much of the land still belongs to the states who regulate its use. Population growth and the forest colonization process prevail throughout the region and expansion of the agricultural and livestock frontier continues to the detriment of natural forests.

State-owned land is normally protected through legislation, but it is invariably invaded by landless peasants, settlers and small and large companies, who exploit or eliminate the forest cover. Various land reform systems and settlement processes conducted by governmental agencies have developed systems for transferring the land to local inhabitants, but often with poor results. The greatest part of invaded land with forest potential continues in the hands of the State, without the stage of granting land titles being completed. As a result, deforestation is considered an ‘improvement’ and land not covered by forests is considered more valuable than forested land. As the land does not belong to the occupant he has no access to credit or to reforestation programmes, and little interest in conservation.

Forest resources

At the beginning of the present decade, there were approximately 1 800 million ha of tropical forests of which Latin America has more than 900 million ha. Of these, approximately 675 million ha are of dense humid forests, of which more than half are located in the Amazon Basin. In addition there are another 100 million ha of secondary forest.

Table A3
Estimations of the land area, forest cover and deforestation rates in tropical Latin America and the Caribbean

subregionnumber of countriesland areaforest coverannual deforestation
  million hamillion hamillion haannual percent
Central America and Mexico7239.679.
Tropical South America71 341.6864.6802.96.20.7
total/average331 650.2992.1918.17.40.7

The annual deforestation in Latin America between 1981 and 1990 was 7.4 million ha/year; a rate of 0.7 percent per year for the decade of the 1980s, the highest of any region in the world (see Table A3).

In almost all the countries of the continent, forest resources have continued to be affected by overgrazing, wood extraction, forest fires, mining exploitations and the building of infrastructure such as roads and hydroelectric dams. This has led to wind and water erosion and serious problems of flooding and sedimentation in rivers, among other effects.

Forest management

Many native mixed forests of the region have been degraded due to the exploitation of only a few commercial species, and also to selective extraction, leaving the worst specimens in the forest in a poor sanitary condition and with low commercial value. In addition, damage has been caused by forest fires, insects and fungi.

Although real progress in the management of natural forests in the region is limited, some countries are now modifying legislation and assigning resources to conserve the forests. Increasingly, there is a realization that the survival of natural forests will depend on their use and maintaining the principles of economic and social development on an ecologically sustainable bases. However, the solution to this equation is extremely complex and, in view of the multiple factors involved, has yet to be solved in most of the region.

Despite the problems, there has been progress in forest management. Plans and programmes have been initiated in many countries in the region, and a growing number of projects are in execution. In addition, governments are assigning greater economic resources which are being supplemented by funds from outside the region.

Legislation prohibiting the exploitation of specific resources is being enforced, and moratoriums are being established regarding concessions until more information is available on the use and management of the resource. Recently, some countries have modified their legislation, eliminating incentives to destroy the forests. Regulations have been promulgated suspending permits and grants, and prohibitions have been established that limit hunting to subsistence of local indigenous communities.

Several countries have continued with watershed management programmes and projects, and multilateral international organizations are increasingly financing projects of this nature. Nearly all of the countries of the region have created systems of protected areas to assist in the conservation of the remaining forest.

There has also been a considerable improvement in the recognition by legislators and policy-makers of the need for nature conservation. The general public also believe that the environment is a factor that warrants consideration, and thanks to modern communications, they rapidly become aware of what is occurring in other places. These factors have a bearing on the existence of a more favourable attitude on the part of individuals, enterprises and industries towards conservation measures.

Forest plantations

Save for a few exceptions, there is an imbalance between deforestation and forestation or reforestation. However, more and more countries in the region are adopting coherent policies for forest plantations, and important progress has been achieved by some countries as a result of adequate incentive policies. Also, the existence of plantations in some areas has considerably reduced the pressure on the natural forest, particularly for production of wood, delaying its exploitation although not eliminating it.

There is a strong correlation between sustained incentive policies for reforestation (with great reductions in plantation, administration and management costs) and the high plantation rates. The amounts invested by the State in these subsidies are more than recovered by the increased industrial activity and by taxes paid on these products and their consumption.

Forest products

Wood production and timber supply is a major economic activity in the region, although not always reflected in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) due to difficulties in obtaining reliable production and consumption statistics. In addition, the real participation of the forestry sector in national economies tends to be undervalued, and exploitation of forests outside the legal framework often prevents the availability of real production figures.

The commercial use of mixed natural forests is characterized by the limited number of species employed both for internal consumption and for export. A representative case is that of Brazil: in spite of having the greatest tropical wood potential of the world, its participation in the world market is only somewhat higher than one percent of international trade.

Forest products are of particular importance for rural communities, indigenous populations and peri-urban or urban inhabitants of low economic resources. Fuelwood and charcoal are their principal sources of energy, mainly for cooking and, in colder areas, for heating. Fuelwood is not only important in direct domestic consumption but also in industrial use. Also very important is the production of poles, beams and other round timber for the construction of houses, particularly at the rural level.

There is an imbalance between demand and supply of timber and basic construction products in most of the Latin American and Caribbean region. There is also an increasing expansion in the radius and time of supply to inhabitants of towns, villages or the rural population. Supply and demand is very irregular with greater availability where population densities are lower and particularly critical in the arid and semi-arid zones of the region.

Deficits are being overcome by establishing plantations for energy purposes in zones of greatest demand, and through the use of simple technologies that improve the quality and economy of combustion. However, these efforts are rather isolated and insufficient to cover the growing needs of the population.

Non-wood forest products are significant in the region, but their contribution to the satisfaction of the basic needs of the population—particularly important in the more isolated rural sectors—is often underestimated. The exportation of non-wood forest products is becoming an important source of national income, and is of particular significance for rural communities in providing job opportunities and possibilities of increasing family incomes.

With limited economic resources applied to the promotion of non-wood forest product activities, it is possible to attract resources directly towards the less favoured communities, thus contributing indirectly to forest conservation, sources of energy and raw material for the elaboration of various handicrafts and products of daily use.

There remains in the region a need to clearly identify ‘non-wood forest products’, to classify them according to the raw material and the use to which they are destined, to promote dissemination campaigns, to highlight their importance and usefulness for trade, and to exchange information and research material regarding these products among the countries of the region.

Forest industries

Forest industries that use round logs from natural forests as raw material, are facing problems of supply. This, coupled with the small number of species used, protective forest legislation and inappropriate forest management, is creating critical situations with regard to the availability of timber in many areas of the region.

From the technological viewpoint, the industrial equipment available is mostly obsolete (usually between 30 and 50 years old), of low productivity and frequently resulting in products of low quality. This equipment is generally dimensioned to saw logs of large diameter, which are increasingly rare. The most efficient production is achieved in installations equipped with modern technologies, whose supply of raw material comes from plantations and managed natural forests.

Sustainable management methods are being identified to serve as a basis for industrial development, with consequent economic and social development. The ecological management of forests will affect the availability of raw material for the primary processing industry, and places value on the environment, landscape, soil and water conservation, and improvement of air quality, etc.

Forestry institutions

In most Latin American and Caribbean countries, government forestry institutions are undergoing transformation as a result of macroeconomic reforms introduced by structural adjustment programmes, and the increased social demands on the forestry sector. In addition, changes in national development policies and the greater importance accorded to private initiatives, have contributed to a modification of the role of forestry administrations. Many countries are also decentralizing the management of their forest estate, by strengthening regional agencies and involving the local communities so that they will have a more active role in the sector's local decisions and actions. Several countries have, or are in the process of, establishing national commissions on environment, attached to the Presidency of the Republic, to Ministries of Foreign Affairs or other high level offices also concerned with forestry matters.

Notable changes have been made, or are being made to forestry legislation in many countries of the region. Numerous decrees, laws and regulations are being modernized with the aim of improving protection, management and use of forest resources.

In recent years, important changes have occurred in the planning of forestry development, and in the adoption of policies for the forest sector. Much of these changes result from the UNCED meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Agenda 21, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Declaration of Forestry Principles, as well as from the impact of the Tropical Forests Action Programme (TFAP) through the National Forestry Action Plans.

Information gathering, analysis, synthesis and formulation of general and specific plans has been carried out in almost all the countries, many within the context of the Tropical Forests Action Programme— thirty-two countries in the region have participated in the TFAP.

The initiative has fostered the formulation of numerous specific projects as well as contributed to redefining and establishing precise and clear strategies for the development of the forestry sector. TFAP as a planning exercise has helped the developing countries to perceive and programme their goals, and permitted an in-depth analysis of the objectives and priorities of the forestry sector by harmonizing criteria and points of view of all related national and local institutions and groups.


The forest resources of the region are under great pressure, reflecting the social and economic situation. Serious deficiencies persist in their conservation and management. Nevertheless, positive changes are expected as a result of modifications in policies, legislation and actions occurring in recent years. The greater awareness of the population and governments of forestry problems has brought about a general increase in concern for forest management. This in turn has resulted in the allocation of increasing resources for the forestry sector and the establishment of more protected areas.

Although all the countries in the region have declared extensive zones as protected areas, tangible progress in the management of these areas is scarce. Perhaps the greatest progress is occurring at the level of awareness of politicians and governors. There is now greater interest to legislate on the matter, and an increasingly marked awareness in the region in favour of the conservation of the forests.


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