Chapter 1 Sustainability in a changing world

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The evolving concept of sustainability
An historical perspective


A world without forests is unthinkable. Yet the world's forests are disappearing at an increasing pace. More forest was lost between 1981 and 1990 than has been recorded in any other decade in human history.

This is not happening for trivial reasons. Forests are being cleared to provide land for food and cash crops. Fuelwood is the main cooking fuel of nearly half the world's people. Wood is essential for building construction and a host of other uses. Timber exports are a source of foreign exchange for many countries.

Cutting trees and clearing forests make perfect sense to those who are doing it. But as the trees disappear there are also losers. Forest dwellers, often the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, are deprived of their homes and livelihoods. Fuelwood and other forest products become harder to obtain. Land is eroded and lakes and dams are filled with silt. With fewer trees to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the risk of global warming is increased. As plant and wildlife species become extinct, biological diversity is reduced.

The evolving concept of sustainability

If sustainable forest management means an attempt to freeze the world as it is, it is clearly impossible. There is no prospect of an early end to the pressures causing the clearing of forests. Large areas of forest land, especially in the tropics, will inevitably be converted to agricultural use in the coming decades. Logging and cutting for fuelwood will continue.

The challenge is- not to prevent these activities but to manage them. The aim must be to ensure that wood and other forest products are harvested sustainably, that forests are cleared only in a planned and controlled way and that the subsequent land uses are productive and sustainable.

The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987), commonly called the Brundtland Commission, clearly recognized the necessity for a broad approach to sustainability. It said "sustainable development is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations".

The concept of sustainability has deep historical roots in forestry. Much early forestry in Europe was concerned with the preservation of forests as wildlife reserves for hunting by kings and nobles. Later came the concept of managing forests for a sustainable yield of timber. This was achieved by balancing the volume to be harvested against the growth predicted from regeneration and planting. "The sustainable management of forests for the production of wood is based on a deceptively simple principle. All that needs to be done is to harvest the wood at an average annual rate no greater than the forest in question can grow it..." (FAO, l993d).

Management of the forest to provide a sustained yield of timber is still what many foresters have in mind when they talk of sustainable forest management. This definition focuses on the production of wood and does not address the wider issues of the ecological and social functions of forests, with which timber production may only incidentally be compatible or may even conflict. Over the past two decades management solely for wood production has been a cause of steadily growing concern to those affected by the loss of other benefits. It has led, in an increasing number of areas, to confrontation and even physical conflict between loggers and people living in and around the forest areas being harvested.

The concept of sustainable forest management has therefore evolved to encompass these wider issues and values. It is now seen as the multipurpose management of the forest so that its overall capacity to provide goods and services is not diminished. A forest managed in this way will provide timber on a sustainable basis and will continue to provide fuelwood, food and other goods and services for those living in and around it. Its role in the preservation of genetic resources and biological diversity as well as in the protection of the environment will also be maintained.

The application of forest management in this wider sense would, today, represent enormous progress in most of the forest areas of the world. Yet, arguably, even such a broad definition of sustainable forest management is still too restrictive. It could be interpreted as confining forest management to those areas where a sustained yield of forest products and services is, at least in principle, achievable. There is a need for explicit attention to those huge areas where the forests are disappearing as a result of encroachment and clearing for agriculture, where excessive grazing is preventing natural regeneration of trees or where cutting for charcoal-making and fuelwood is leading to the degradation or disappearance of woodlands.

In many countries, it is precisely in such areas that the need for management of the remaining natural forest is greatest. Because of demographic and economic pressures born of poverty, much of this forest clearing and damage is, in practical terms, unavoidable, but a great deal of it is carried out in ways that are needlessly destructive and self defeating. Legal and social systems often encourage excessive land clearing; trees are cleared from lands that cannot sustain agriculture; the cleared timber is burnt rather than used productively; and long-term social and environmental impacts are ignored.

If sustainable forest management is to be achieved such issues must be addressed, and the concept needs to be widened further- or, perhaps better, viewed as management for sustainability. This approach, of necessity, must be a holistic one, encompassing land-use planning and the wider questions of rural development. Within this framework, it becomes a broad-based and multifaceted activity. Management for sustainability will therefore first be concerned with securing an improved livelihood for the present generation, while maintaining the potential of the forest heritage for future generations. Second, the forest potential must be seen within the broader context of rural development, in which the allocation of land to different uses is part of a dynamic process but where a balance is maintained between forests and other forms of land use in which trees have a role. Third, responsibilities for forest management must be clearly identified and competing interests must be reconciled through dialogue and partnership. Finally, forestry activities will have to compete for scarce financial resources and both the production and the environmental functions must be shown to be worthwhile to both users and financers (FAO, 1993e).

Sustainable forest management therefore involves planning the production of wood for commercial purposes as well as meeting local needs for fuelwood, poles, food, fodder and other purposes. It includes the protection or setting aside of areas to be managed as plant or wildlife reserves or for recreational or environmental purposes. It is concerned with ensuring that conversion of forest lands to agriculture and other uses is done in a properly planned and controlled way. It also covers the regeneration of wastelands and degraded forests, the integration of trees in the farming landscape and the promotion of agroforestry. It is a multidisciplinary task, requiring collaboration among government agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and, above all, people, especially rural people. It applies at local, national, regional and global levels.

There is a long way to go before such comprehensive forest management is likely to be practiced in most parts of the world, particularly where the forests are now under greatest threat. But the concept nevertheless serves to provide an overall policy direction and long-term goal In the meantime, there are opportunities for intervention towards the object of sustainable management virtually everywhere. What is required is an open-minded, objective assessment of what should and, equally importantly, can be done in any given location followed by mobilization of the will and the resources to carry it out.

An historical perspective

The present threat to forests is not unique in human history, except in its scale. Massive forest clearances were a feature of the early civilizations of Assyria, Babylon, China, Egypt, Greece and Rome Much of this forest clearing was to provide land for agriculture, but these societies were also voracious consumers of wood for cooking, heating, copper smelting, pottery making, brick-firing, house construction and shipbuilding.

For more than 10 000 years the forests of the Mediterranean region have been cleared; those that remain cover about one-sixth of the region, on land that cannot readily be cultivated, and they have been degraded by humans and their animals. The export of high-quality cedar wood from Lebanon to Egypt began nearly 5 000 years ago and led, eventually, to the virtually complete destruction of the cedar forests. Early commentators were aware of the environmental consequences. The Greek philosopher Plato, writing in the fourth century BC, noted that with the removal of the trees in Attica, "there has been a constant movement of soil away from the high ground and what remains is like the skeleton of a body wasted by disease" (quoted in Thirgood, 1981).

At times, the pressure on the forests eased. The collapse of the Roman empire and the subsequent economic decline of much of Europe led to a regrowth of forests in some areas; the same happened at the time of the Black Death in the fourteenth century. But each time, as populations and economies recovered, the forests came under attack again.

In the United Kingdom, where population growth and economic development were especially rapid, the natural forests were heavily depleted by the late Middle Ages. Iron-making, which at the time was a small-scale industry carried out in the forests, was particularly destructive. By the sixteenth century most of the accessible wood resources had been exhausted in England and iron makers turned to the woodlands of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Timber also began to be imported in large quantities for every purpose. The Great Fire of London in 1666 was said to have been welcomed in Bergen, Norway because of the boost the rebuilding gave to timber exports.

Laws were passed in several European countries in an effort to protect and expand wood resources, especially oak for shipbuilding and pine for masts. The laws were only partially successful, even for these limited objectives. The forest cover of France had shrunk from perhaps 35 percent of the country's area at the beginning of the sixteenth century to about 25 percent by the middle of the seventeenth century, and despite reforms of forest administration and forest laws by Louis XIV and his Minister of Finance Colbert in 1661, the situation continued to worsen because of shipbuilding and the smelting of iron ore. Nevertheless, these reforms laid the basis for a forestry tradition, a strong forest service and the many examples of woods managed sustainably for wood production that exist today.

Another illustration of the link between early forest laws and naval needs comes from Sweden, where the head of the forest service wrote in 1978 to the Swedish Navy to advise that 35() ha of oak trees planted in 1829 at the request of the Navy were now ready for collection (Swedish Forest Service, 1978). Despite these laws the forests continued to disappear under the inexorable pressures of population growth and economic development. There was also a deep feeling among many people that clearing the forests represented human progress. John Morton, an eighteenth century English writer, said: "In a country full of civilized inhabitants, timber must not be suffered to grow. It must give way to fields and pastures, which are of more immediate use and concern to life" (quoted in Thirgood, 1989).

Destruction of the natural forests took place over most of Europe. It accelerated as the demand for fuelwood and timber grew rapidly in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. But with the continuation of economic growth and industrialization, the pressures on the forests gradually eased. By the early years of the present century, the total area of the European forests had more or less stabilized, and in the past decade it has even increased slightly. In particular, the pressure on the Mediterranean forests for the supply of fuelwood and for land for agriculture has eased, although the risk of damage from fires continues.

In the United States, a similar process took place. Huge areas of forest were cleared in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the population grew and industrialization got under way. Westward expansion left a trail of ghost towns with abandoned sawmills surrounded by cleared forests. But, as in Europe, the present century has seen a stabilization of the area of forest.

The reasons for this transition from rapidly diminishing to stable forest areas in the industrialized countries of the Northern Hemisphere are complex. The substitution of coal and then oil for fuelwood is one obvious factor. But more important were the major demographic and economic changes that took place as industrialization and economic growth proceeded.

Rural populations fell drastically as people flooded into the cities and towns. By the turn of the present century, the average proportion of the population living in the rural areas of the industrialized countries was around 40 percent compared with 80 percent or more at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Today, in Europe and the United States the rural population is about 25 percent of the total. National population growth rates have also dropped to around replacement level in most of the industrialized countries.

Industrial Revolution.

Equally important were the changes that took place in agricultural production Subsistence farming gave way to an increasingly capital-intensive form of agriculture relying on mechanization and high inputs of fertilizers and pesticides. Rather than requiring ever-expanding amounts of land, agriculture became more productive, which led eventually to the present politically charged problems of crop surpluses and the need to "set aside" or take out of food production increasing amounts of farming land.

Although history does not repeat itself exactly, the experience of the industrialized world helps shed light on what is happening with regard to the pressures on forests in many developing countries. Expanding populations, especially when they are at subsistence level and there is significant rural-urban migration, need increasing amounts of land to feed the urban people. Even highly punitive forest-protection legislation is likely to be largely ineffectual in the face of the desperation of people trying to grow enough food to stay alive.

It is only with increased agricultural productivity and stabilized populations that the pressure to clear forest lands diminishes. This transition can be seen taking place today in some of the rapidly industrializing countries of the developing world. The Republic of Korea, for example, where the rural population has fallen sharply while agricultural production has increased dramatically, has reached the turning point at which the area of forest can begin to expand again. In other developing countries, such as Thailand and Malaysia, forest depletion continues but the economic and demographic conditions for stabilization of the remaining areas of forest are beginning to emerge.

In many other developing countries, however, rural population growth continues virtually unabated, agricultural productivity is low and stagnating economies offer few employment opportunities for those wishing to leave the land. In such cases, increasing pressure to clear forest for agriculture is inevitable.

The parallels with the experience of the industrialized world are thus obvious, but what makes today's situation in the developing world different, in a quite fundamental way, is the sheer impact of population numbers and the pace of change. For example, the population of the

European continent grew from about 140 million in 1750 to 265 million by 1850, to 392 million by 1950 and to 499 million by 1990. The population of the United States grew from 23 million in 1850 to 151 million in 1950 and to 248 million in 1990 (Hoffman, 1992). Today, on the other hand, around 50 million people are being added to the rural populations of the developing world every year. At the same time, the rate at which the forests are disappearing is far faster than at any other time in human history.

Sustainable forest management will have a vital role in human welfare and development in the coming decades. But it is only a part of the response required if the rate of depletion of the world's forests is to be slowed and eventually halted. What is ultimately needed is the same transformation of economic and demographic conditions in the developing world that has made stabilization of the forest area possible in the industrialized countries.

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