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Electronic sharing of forestry information: opportunities and responsibilities

The widespread and growing concern for forests and the unacceptable levels of deforestation and forest degradation are reflected in a wide range of recent initiatives and activities - at local, national, regional and international levels. These activities may be practical (for example, the efforts of individuals, communities, enterprises and countries to improve forest management practices at the field level) or institutional, or policy-oriented (for example, the numerous national and international processes that have been spearheaded by the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests).

Fundamental to the success of any of these efforts is access (by all concerned parties) to broad, accurate and up-to-date information. This need for better information has been widely recognized and most, if not all, of the important players in the forests and forestry sector are dedicating dramatically increasing human and financial resources to this end. In these efforts there is an implicit, if not always explicit, recognition of electronic information systems and, specifically, of the Internet, as the logical vehicle through which information should be made available.

The number of Internet sites containing information on forests and forestry is already large. A search (in English) revealed that there are more than 65 000 sites with the words "forest" or "forestry" in their titles, and there are nearly 1.5 million references to these words within the text of documents available on the Internet. This number will increase dramatically in the near future as the fruits of the efforts mentioned above begin to appear on-line.

Not surprisingly, the information available is a diverse collection and has its limitations. Users can find it difficult to obtain easily the information they require, or to verify the source or quality of the data retrieved. This, combined with gaps in certain types of data (perhaps most notably on the extent and condition of forest resources), has led to calls for the development of a system that would bring all of the electronically available forest and forestry information into one site. The term coined by one of the promoters of such an approach is a Global Forestry Information System.

Although initially appealing, such an approach - the single, one-stop "shopping centre" for all forestry information, managed by a single service provider (or even by a consortium of organizations) - requires further consideration. The difficulties of trying to manage the already large, dynamic and continually increasing volume of available information on forestry-related topics would make the creation and continuous updating of such a site daunting from a practical point of view in terms of both the human and financial resources it would require. From a political standpoint, the varying positions and organizational mandates of the many organizations with forestry-related information would make consensus on a single presentation unlikely.

Perhaps a more workable vision for a Global Forestry Information System is of a conceptual network in which all the providers of forestry-related information provide the best and most user-friendly access to the information on which they have a comparative advantage while creating links to other providers of relevant information. This would not impede any provider from copying the information that another source makes available and offering it on their own site, as long as appropriate credit were given to the original source of the data.

Another great boon for forestry information on the Internet would be the adoption of a standard system of classification for forestry and the systematic introduction of this classification information into the metadata of Internet-accessible documentation. In theory, widespread adoption of such a method would enable Internet researchers to search efficiently and exhaustively on as wide or narrow a topic as was desired. Moreover, such a decimal system would be language-independent. The Oxford System of Decimal Classification for Forestry (published by the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux in 1954 and revised in 1981) would seem a reasonable candidate for this.

In conclusion, timely, reliable and transparent information on the forest sector is a vital ingredient to the process of sustainable management. All organizations and institutions with a commitment to sustainable forest management should capitalize on the capacity of the Internet to coordinate and link information providers in order to maximize the value of information available.

This issue of Unasylva contains, as promised in the previous edition, additional articles on sustainable mountain development. These articles help to complete the focus on the topic and should also help to promote interest in the recently declared International Year of the Mountain (2000) for which FAO has been designated lead agency status within the United Nations system.

In addition, the issue contains a number of unsolicited articles, continuing the commitment of the journal to providing a forum for expression and a venue for its readers to publish relevant work. Readers are reminded that Unasylva is available in electronic form on the Internet at Comments or articles may also be submitted via e-mail to [email protected].

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