Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Sustainable forest management: lessons of history and recent developments

J.-P. Lanly

Jean-Paul Lanly is Director of the FAO Forest Resources Division.

Consideration of the evolution of the concept of sustainability, and an analysis of recent efforts to identify criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management.

Through the ages, forests have occupied a unique yet ambiguous position in the human subconscious and imagination, as well as in society, oscillating between two opposite and conflicting poles. In one, forests were cleared wherever the economic expansion or growth of local populations or entire nations apparently so required (and they still are in much of the developing world) to make room for other forms of land use, mostly agriculture and grazing. They were, and still are, seen as obstacles to "development". Often enough, forests and wooded areas were even viewed as threatening, perhaps accursed places, home to evil spirits, demons, witches and savage beasts. Indeed, the root word for forest in several Indo-European languages is "for", meaning "that which lies outside" (outside the home, village or everyday use): alien and thereby invoking our instinctive distrust for unfamiliar beings and things. In certain industrialized countries, where the forest is recolonizing the rural landscape, some do not hesitate to describe the physical and psychological pressure it exerts on people as "the stranglehold of the forest".

In the other and opposite pole forests are seen - for example, by some urban dwellers in the industrialized countries - as one of the last and most important havens of unspoilt and "genuine" nature. Forests, particularly unutilized, unmodified, unmanipulated, uncultivated and unmanaged forests (or nearly so), thus become a link in the chain that binds us to a pristine dawn world, long before the advent of the plough, when small groups lived sustainably and self-sufficiently in the virgin forests, hunting or gathering to meet their subsistence needs. This concept of the forest has come back in force in the last two decades in a "back-to-nature" movement that finds particularly fertile and broad expression in the debate on the conservation of biological diversity. The ordinary person, quite dismayed by the growing and seemingly inexorable "artificialization" of his or her life context, easily finds this a compelling argument.

As in all realms of human thought and action, the way to reconcile different people, and people with the forest, may well be to take an approach that addresses both of these antithetical views. Forests must be seen not as an obstacle to development but as one of its sustainable tools. Forest management must be seen as an instrument for conserving the biological diversity of our planet, averting climate change and enhancing our life context, and not as a component of global "artificialization". This is the challenge for every forest manager and for all of the "major groups" (as defined in UNCED Agenda 21) who have an interest or responsibility in this domain, particularly local communities, non-governmental development and conservation organizations, the private sector and the intergovernmental organizations, especially FAO. This is the same challenge as that expressed in the Paris Declaration of the Tenth World Forestry Congress in 1991 and in the Forest Principles adopted by UNCED in June 1992, and upon which a great many countries, organizations, conferences and international initiatives have focused over the past three years: balanced and sustainable forest management for the conservation and development of forest ecosystems.

Forests have been viewed by some as obstacles to development...

SOME LESSONS FROM HISTORY The global challenge facing the world's forests can only be tackled successfully if we learn what the history of society and that of forests have to teach. We must be realistic even when the scope of the challenge calls for some optimistic and even utopian thinking. The lessons are many: only those that seem most essential are presented below.

Within the boundaries of nations, social evolution from hunter and gatherer to modern postindustrial societies generally shows a decreasing curve of land area in the form of an inverted S-curve whose pulsations represent alternate phases of accentuated deforestation and relative reforestation corresponding to apogees of civilization, e.g. the Khmer and Mayan empires from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, contrasting with post-war, post-epidemic periods that decimated "forest-clearing" populations. With industrial development, the flow of deforestation slows to a threshold which may be very low - only 3 percent of the United Kingdom was covered by forest at the beginning of this century - from which the forest area again expands through natural regeneration, forestation and reforestation. Although this evolutionary model is not inevitable (any country at any time can diverge from the pattern through clear and forceful policies favouring the forest), historical analysis, particularly of the industrialized countries, shows this pattern to be generally valid. One of the corollaries of the reduction of forest area in a given zone is the fragmentation of the initial forest cover into more or less isolated stands, with all the ensuing implications for the management of these resources and the maintenance of their biological diversity.

...while others see them as havens of unspoilt nature

Abundance, whether of forests or any other natural resource, is a poor counsellor: history, unhappily, shows that rational and measured resource use is only resorted to when people's needs can no longer be met. And despite the proliferation of national, regional and global plans, programmes and other strategies, no significant progress seems to have been made by human society in the effective anticipation of scarcity. It seems that where there is abundance, or presumed abundance, people are no more willing now than in centuries past to listen to the true prophets. Again, there is nothing inevitable about this, but if our goal is to promote sustainable forest management, we would be unwise to ignore this historical constant.

Scarcity, although the usual precondition for clear and forceful policies aimed at sustainable resource management, is not sufficient reason alone, however. Again, history has much to teach us. The shortage of wood for ship's timbers in Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century failed to induce all European governments to manage their forest resources on a permanent basis. Although the Venetian Republic of the sixteenth century and the Kingdom of France in the seventeenth did begin to introduce measures and management plans to ensure a regular supply of timber from their own forests, other European countries preferred to depend on foreign and sometimes overseas resources. Recent history shows that many wood-deficit countries have been neither politically resolute nor materially successful in managing their forests. Unquestionably, in many developing countries the primary reason for this is the lack of financial, technical and institutional resources, and, not surprisingly, UNCED's Forest Principles stress this. An additional and obvious problem is the very low priority accorded the forest sector in countries whose first objective is to bridge the food and energy gap of their people, although trees and forests do clearly contribute in many ways to food security and, of course, directly to domestic energy.

There is no guarantee of success even where the political will and priority to the sector are present. Participatory and intersectoral approaches may still be lacking; forestry actions are often not integrated into overall land-use planning and management at the local and national levels; the negative impact of policies and actions in related sectors such as demographics, agriculture, energy and industrial development on sustainable forest management is not addressed; local participation in the design and im-plementation of forestry programmes is not enlisted, and appropriate training, incentives and financial investment are lacking.

Another basic consideration is simply the length of time it takes to produce wood, generally the main source of forest revenue. This time-lag means that investments in forest management are slow to return benefits, to private owners, and to national and local authorities whose political lifetimes tend to be much shorter than forest production cycles. Thus, only a tiny portion of forest income is ploughed back into the forest by the owners, impeding sustainable management and even threatening the survival of the forest itself. At least one solution to this acute and longstanding problem would be to assess all goods and services provided by the forest and then "internalize" these "externalities" into economic accounting. Soil and water conservation, downstream protection of human lives and infrastructure, the conservation of biological diversity, enhancement of overall living conditions and the cultural and aesthetic values inherent in the forest should all be figured into the equation. Nowhere near enough research has been done on estimating the economic value of forest services and including them in price-setting mechanisms. Since economic considerations are what makes the world go round, such a step could be an objective and non-coercive means of sustaining forests.

As we near the dawn of the third millennium, what is the outcome of all these centuries of forest management (or mismanagement)? The situation can be described very briefly as follows:

Oscar Fugalli

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS Based on the Brundtland Commission's definition of sustainable development, which stresses meeting the needs of present and future generations, FAO and its Governing Bodies have concluded that for agriculture, forestry and fisheries, sustainable development also implies the conservation of land, water and the genetic patrimony, and the utilization of technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable techniques not harmful to the environment.

To simplify, sustainable forest management is the tool allowing forests to contribute fully to sustainable development overall. The novelty of the concept of sustainable forest management - as compared to the most advanced forms of forest management in use today whether by the national forest services, communities or the private sector - is primarily its systematic approach to sustaining each component of the forest ecosystem and their interactions.

Scarcity provokes concern for forest resources, but is not a sufficient condition for sustainable management

In forests which can be used for wood production, this means combining production with other management objectives, above all the conservation of plant and animal biological diversity and soil and water conservation. Similar intentions were not lacking in the classic management concept of sustained yield (for wood), primarily in the most erosion-prone mountain areas, but it is now agreed that forest management must systematically address the full range of issues. Multipurpose forest management is a form of sustainable forest management to the extent that its objectives and means sustain the essential functions and components of the forest ecosystem.

FAO's definition of sustainable development requires a basis of technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable methods. Concerning the first, experience, empiricism and caution have so far partly offset the lack of technical knowledge on the function of forest ecosystems and on how different interventions affect them. As for economic viability, the lack of tools available for quantitative assessment of the services offered by forest ecosystems has already been mentioned. This is a particularly serious barrier to sustainable forest management and retaining forest cover in the developing countries. Last, social acceptability differs according to whether the context is national or local. In the national context, an industrialized country where the urban public prevails differs from a developing country where most of the population is rural.

The complexity of the concept of sustainable forest management is on a par with the complexity of the relevant ecosystems. To be able to apply the concept as clearly and simply as possible, it is essential to describe it in terms of guiding principles and criteria and the corresponding quantitative or descriptive indicators.

The benefits of soil and water protection must be figured into forestry balance sheets

Criteria for sustainable forest management

Over the past three years, a number of countries, for example, Canada, have attempted to identify criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management at the national and the forest management unit levels. This has been paralleled by international initiatives by countries with comparable forest situations: timber-producing countries in the humid tropics under the auspices of the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO); European countries as part of the follow-up to the Ministerial Conferences on the Protection of Forests in Europe, held in Strasbourg in 1990 and in Helsinki in 1993 (known as the Helsinki process); and non-European temperate and boreal countries as part of the follow-up to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe seminar of experts on the sustainable development of temperate and boreal forests, held in Montreal in 1993 (known as the Montreal process), are examples. Additionally, international environmental protection organizations, particularly the World Wide Fund for Nature, have also attempted to define sustainable forest management.

An FAO overview, made in 1994, of the results of these four initiatives showed consensus on the characterization of sustainable forest management through six criteria, including older (although not always clearly formulated) concerns, such as the conservation of biological diversity, and more recent priorities such as global carbon cycles and climate change. They can be summarized as

A seventh criterion from the Montreal process concerns the policy and legal framework and capacity to implement sustained management. This differs from the other six in that it only indirectly characterizes sustainable forest man-agement, as one of its "tools" (as in Programme Area A of Chapter 11 of UNCED Agenda 21). This qualitative difference between the first six criteria and the seventh is important for several reasons: the indicators for the first six are quantitative and for the seventh mainly descriptive. Indicators for the first six are objective whereas, for the seventh, several assume a reference to "models" which may not be universally recognized, and some may not be necessary to sustainable management in certain national situations, for example, research capability in a country able to benefit from research findings obtained by others under similar circumstances.

In these national and international initiatives, a number of quantitative or descriptive indicators in each criterion are common to more than one: age and class structure for the extent of forest resources; protected areas and fragmentation of the forest cover for the conservation of biological diversity at the ecosystem level; and forest health and vitality indicators such as air pollution deposits, pest and disease damage and watershed management for protective functions of the forest.

These criteria are conceived so as to make them all applicable both locally (at the management unit) and at higher planning levels (especially at the national level). This is not true of the indicators: some may be common to different levels, but others are specific and detailed descriptions of sustainable management at the management unit level. The Helsinki and Montreal processes (and to a lesser extent the ITTO effort) have tried to get countries within a region or major ecological area to agree on national level criteria and indicators. The other initiatives (and to some extent the ITTO effort), especially some national and NGO initiatives (including the Forest Stewardship Council), have worked on the identification of indicators at the forest level for possible utilization in the certification of wood and other raw materials harvested from a given forest, perhaps even as a possible component of an ecological label for processed products.

At the request of several intergovernmental meetings, FAO in cooperation with ITTO undertook to harmonize these various initiatives, thus helping to implement governmental commitments taken in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to formulate, with the support of all parties concerned, "scientifically sound criteria and guidelines for the management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests" (Agenda 21, paragraph 11.22[b]). The first expert meeting of representatives of countries involved in the Helsinki and Montreal processes, ITTO, countries outside these initiatives (in the arid zones of Africa and the Near East), and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, was held in Rome from 13 to 16 February 1995,organized by FAO in cooperation with ITTO.

A clear division has emerged from recent discussions on criteria and indicators at the national level between public and private managers, on the one hand, and scientists and representatives of conservation organizations, on the other. This division concerns the soundness of certain indicators and the technical and economic feasibility of their evaluation at the national level rather than the need for or content of sustainable forest management.

Surveys by European countries on forest dieback attributed to air pollution illustrate both the problem of achieving a coherent set of reliable findings at the regional level, and the cost of gathering and processing the data. Indicators for sustainable forest management are only of interest at the national level if they can be clearly and objectively evaluated at that level. This assumes clearly defined indicators not open to personal interpretation and whose evaluation is not prohibitively expensive compared with objectives.

The best way to reduce data gathering and processing costs may be to integrate the evaluation of these indicators into national forest inventories. These already list a number of parameters directly related to the indicators identified by the international processes. Other parameters, primarily environmental, must be added so that each country can meet its commitments within the framework of these initiatives.

The same is true, mutatis mutandis, at the forest management unit level, for which the management inventory should include the list of sustainability indicators. Recent experience in public forests in industrialized countries, as in the European countries with economies in transition, where all forests were regularly inventoried before each management review, is useful in this respect.

At the international level, FAO, in cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme, the UN Economic Commission for Europe and the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations, has broadened the discussion, identifying global parameters related to soil and water conservation, the conservation of biological diversity, carbon storage and other functions and services of the forest. FAO's Forest Resources Assessment 1990 attempted an assessment for all industrialized countries for some functions other than wood production and, for tropical areas, loss of species diversity, fragmentation and the intended uses of deforested lands. At all levels - forest, national, regional and global - much remains to be done to integrate the compilation of indicators for sustainable forest management in the "assessment and systematic observations of forests" (to use the terminology of Agenda 21 Chapter 11).

Defining sustainability and its criteria and indicators is a formidable challenge


Probably a main element of UNCED's influence in forestry will be the affirmation of the expanded concept of sustainable forest management or, to use a fashionable term, the evolution of the paradigm of sustained-yield forest management to that of the sustainable management of forest ecosystems. Whichever term is used, the key is for all the parties concerned - owners (public, private, local communities, companies), concessionaires, lessees, governments, forest administrations, non-governmental conservation organizations, cooperatives, men and women, young and old - to reach an understanding on what sustainable forest management means and on its implications for conservation, development, protection and production. The next step would be to try to implement the concept in all existing wooded areas, as well as those to be created or recreated, so as to avoid overspecialization and the prospect of a landscape exclusively characterized by extremes, with, on the one hand, unmanaged forests with access barred to all, or all but a few, by law or by their very impenetrability, and, on the other, wholly artificial "wood factories". Either would be an admission that we are incapable of managing forests on a sustainable and holistic basis.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page