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Management of forest genetic resources:
status and challenges1

C. Palmberg-Lerche and S. Hald

Christel Palmberg-Lerche and
Søren Hald are officers in the Forest
Resources Development Service,
FAO Forestry Department.

International and regional activities provide important support to national efforts to ensure conservation and sustainable use of forest genetic resources.

Forests are arguably the single most important repositories of terres-trial biological diversity. Forest trees and woody plants help support the life of a wide range of other organisms. Since they are long-lived, outbreeding, generally highly heterozygous and often found in variable environments, many have developed complex mechanisms to maintain high intraspecific diversity. Genetic variation is needed to ensure that species evolve and adapt to dynamically changing environmental conditions. It is also needed to maintain the potential for improvement to meet changing human needs and end-use requirements. The continued ability of forest trees to provide goods and services thus depends on the maintenance and management of forest genetic resources.

Seed collection for provenance testing on dry-zone poplar Populus simonii in Inner Mongolia, China


This article describes work carried out at the international level in the field of forest genetic resources. It points to the urgency to translate general principles and international agreements into operational national programmes for wise management of these valuable resources; to the need to review national forest genetic resources programmes within the framework of regional plans and activities; and to the desirability of developing action-oriented, country-driven frameworks to ensure complementarity of action at the global level. Special reference is made to regional and subregional workshops recently supported by FAO and international and national partners to facilitate the development of action plans for the conservation and sustainable use of forest genetic resources.


For most agricultural crops, genetic diversity can be sampled, collected and relatively easily stored and conserved in seed banks. In contrast, the long-term storage, maintenance and regeneration of collections of forest tree seeds present a number of problems.

Forest genetic resources are most commonly stored, in the long term, in living trees. Variations in forest cover, quality and composition have direct and decisive impacts on the extent and patterns of genetic variation in forest trees. Threats to the integrity of forest genetic resources include deforestation resulting from changes in land use, forest habitat degradation and alteration, inappropriate forest harvesting practices, and atmospheric pollution and climate fluctuations and change. In most regions of the world, these threats have increased in recent decades.

Genetically diversified local populations, which may possess valuable attributes, are further threatened by introduction of non-local forest germplasm for forest plantation establishment, which may lead to hybridization of local and introduced gene pools and to various degrees of loss of local adaptation in subsequent tree generations.

The aims of genetic management are to safeguard the evolutionary potential of ecosystems and species and to ensure the enhancement and sustainable utilization of the genetic variation available to meet present and future human needs. The specific objectives of genetic management will change over time, as environmental, economic and social conditions and requirements continually shift. Attention should therefore be given not only to those tree species, populations and genetic traits that are considered useful today, but also to those of potential future economic, social and environmental value.

Since it is possible to conserve an ecosystem and still lose specific species, or to conserve a species and lose genetically distinct populations, genes or gene complexes that may be of future value, it is important to specify clearly, at the outset, the level or levels targeted. Decisions regarding strategies and methodologies of conservation and genetic management will depend not only on the biological characteristics, genetic variation and variation patterns of a given species, but also on the degree of knowledge available regarding its silviculture and management; its present use, importance and uniqueness; perceived threats; and, quite decisively, the institutional capacities in the countries directly concerned, including infrastructure and availability of medium- and long-term funding.

The two main strategies for the conservation of genetic resources, in situ and ex situ conservation, complement one another. In situ conservation is the maintenance of a population in its natural or original habitat, within the community of which it forms a part. In practice, in situ conservation of forest genetic resources is carried out in forests experiencing varying degrees of human intervention, from strict protection to intensive management for specified goods and services.

Ex situ conservation includes conservation as seed, pollen or tissue, and conservation of genetic materials in live collections such as plantations, arboreta and clone banks, or in especially established ex situ conservation stands.

Exploration and assessment of native poplar Populus ussuriensis in Changbashan Nature Reserve, Jihu, China



Many countries have elaborated national policies or special programmes for the conservation of biological diversity, including forest biological diversity and forest genetic resources. Growing attention to conservation reflects increasing concern about human-induced alterations in forests and the long-term maintenance of the health and overall productivity of forests and forest ecosystems.

The preamble of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), adopted in 1992, affirms that States have sovereign rights over their own biological resources, and that they are responsible for conserving their biological diversity and for using their biological resources in a sustainable manner.

National policies and programmes relating to forest genetic resources may cover a wide range of activities, from conservation measures taken to protect rare and endangered species and populations, to regulations governing seed collection and transfer in socio-economically important tree species, to comprehensive approaches to the management of ecosystems and forest genetic resources. Countries are increasingly recognizing the cross-sectoral nature of conservation programmes and the importance of integrated strategic approaches to conservation.

The management of an appropriate combination of genetic resources areas in a range of locations under diverse environmental, institutional and silvicultural conditions is the most efficient way to conserve various levels of genetic variation and overcome risks. However, the variety of types of field repository of genetic resources (including nature reserves and other protected areas; private and publicly owned, managed and unmanaged, natural forests and plantations; trees outside forests managed in agroforestry systems and growing on homesteads and along rivers and roads; arboreta and botanic gardens; and field trials established within the framework of selection and tree improvement programmes) and the need to ensure complementarity among them constitute a major organizational, institutional and technical challenge.

With these complexities in mind, considerations related to forest genetic resources have been integrated in a number of countries within wider frameworks, such as national forest programmes and biodiversity status and action plans developed within the framework of CBD.

National programmes provide the basic framework for action, but they have a number of limitations. The natural distribution of many forest tree species crosses political borders. Furthermore, some tree species, populations or provenances have little current importance in their countries of origin but have become socially or economically important outside their natural ranges. Such situations raise questions regarding responsibilities in conservation, especially in relation to in situ conservation. Furthermore, a number of introductions, frequently of undocumented origin, have evolved into landraces which are well adapted to specific environmental conditions outside the species' natural range. These landraces are an important component of genetic conservation, and collaboration between two or more countries is therefore called for to ensure complementarity of in situ and ex situ activities.


The greatest number of plant species occurs in tropical areas, often in developing countries with limited financial, institutional and human resources. Funding for research and development in the field of genetic resources is, however, available primarily in developed countries. There is a growing awareness that responsibilities and associated costs in conservation of genetic resources, as well as benefits derived from their use, must be shared in a fair and equitable manner. Thus issues related to access and transfer of genetic resources, transfer of technologies and funds, and property rights and the fair sharing of benefits are increasingly debated.

While national programmes form the building blocks of genetic conservation, collaboration at the international level is highly desirable to help ensure that activities in individual countries are complementary, compatible and mutually supportive. International collaboration can also help draw attention to conservation issues of global concern - such as threats to widely used provenances of socio-economically important species - and can help propose joint remedial action for urgent problems.

Forest genetic resources in the international forestry dialogue

The importance of conserving forest biological diversity was highlighted at the policy level at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992. The subsequent ratification of the legally binding Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has major relevance to forest genetic resources conservation. CBD adopted a work programme for forest biological diversity in 1998 which is currently undergoing further development. The programme makes reference to forest genetic resources and integration of related concerns both in the conservation of biological diversity and in sustainable forest management.

In the intergovernmental policy dialogue on forests that followed UNCED, neither the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF) nor the subsequent Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF) focused specifically on forest genetic resources in their programmes of work. However, relevant issues regarding the conservation, management and sustainable development of all types of forests were discussed in general terms.

Since 1995, participants in the high-level, informal Interagency Task Force on Forests (ITFF) - FAO, the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Bank and the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) - have collaborated in promoting issues related to forest biological diversity and forest genetic resources. Other international institutions with activities in this field include the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations (IUFRO), among others; the last-mentioned organization recently established an interdisciplinary task force on the management and conservation of forest genetic resources, which will report on its work and findings to the XXI IUFRO World Congress (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, August 2000).

Technical mechanisms

Although the need for a specific focus on the management of forest genetic resources has received increasing attention over the past 30 years, there is to date no forestry equivalent to the Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which focuses on agricultural crops. That plan, adopted by the Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig, Germany, in June 1996, makes reference to wild relatives of cultivated plants, often found in forest ecosystems, and to domesticated tree crops (fruit-trees, rubber, etc.), but explicitly excludes forest tree genetic resources.

FAO established a Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources in 1968. The panel regularly provides advice to FAO, and indirectly to the world community, on programmes and priorities in the field of forest genetic resources. Its work complements that of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (formerly the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources), whose mandate was expanded in 1995 to cover "all components of biodiversity of relevance to food and agriculture", including - in addition to agriculture in the strict sense - domestic animals, forestry and fisheries.

In line with recommendations of the Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources, FAO has developed the Worldwide Information System on Forest Genetic Resources (REFORGEN) (see Box below). Many other international, regional and national organizations and institutions have established largely complementary databases or search engines on forest and tree genetic resources. The challenge will be to ensure compatibility between the major databases and to establish links between them for easy retrieval and use of all available information.

A global information system
on forest genetic resources

The FAO Worldwide Information System on Forest Genetic Resources (REFORGEN) makes available reliable, up-to-date information for use in planning and decision-making at the national, regional and international levels. The system, which has been developed through the close collaboration of FAO, governments and national institutes, included by spring 2000 information from 146 countries on more than 1  600 tree species. The system includes information on:

    institutions dealing with conservation and utilization of forest genetic resources;

    main native and introduced tree species and their major uses;

    threats to species and populations;

    tree species managed for in situ conservation;

    ex situ conservation activities;

    tree improvement programmes;

    availability of forest reproductive materials for conservation and research purposes.

All information is aggregated at the species and country levels.

The information system, which is now available through the Internet, complements information contained in national databases and information systems as well as databases on threatened and endangered trees administered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC).

REFORGEN can be accessed on line at: .STM


Regional approaches to the conservation of forest biological diversity and forest genetic resources are especially useful when countries have comparable institutional conditions, ecological needs and societal requirements.

A number of international and bilateral development agencies and non-governmental organizations working at the regional level support activities related to conservation of forest genetic resources, including exploration, evaluation, genetic conservation and tree improvement, incorporation of genetic considerations in the sustainable management of forests and woodlands, development of technical methodologies, specialized training and capacity building, and strengthening of national institutions.

Examples of regional and subregional
programmes and projects for
forest genetic resources conservation

The South Pacific Regional Initiative on Forest Genetic Resources (SPRIG), supported by Australia, has helped develop comprehensive strategies and coordinated action in five island countries.

The Integrated Regional Strategy for Seed Procurement in Central America and the Dominican Republic, carried out by concerned countries with the support of the DANIDA Forest Seed Centre, aims to strengthen national forest seed programmes and to enhance subregional cooperation.

The Tree Seed Centres' Network of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has been instrumental in supporting the establishment or the strengthening of existing national tree seed centres in 12 countries in eastern and southern Africa, with early support from Canada.

The Central Asian and Transcaucasian Network on Plant Genetic Resources (CATCN-PGR), coordinated by IPGRI, focuses on the conservation of genetic resources of crops and forest trees in eight countries of the subregion. It benefited during its establishment from the experience and assistance of the EUFORGEN programme.

The newly established Sub-Saharan African Programme on Forest Genetic Resources (SAFORGEN), coordinated by IPGRI in collaboration with FAO, aims at strengthening national research institutes and regional forest research programmes in countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

In some regions, collaborative programmes have been developed to coordinate work among countries. An example is the European Forest Genetic Resources Programme (EUFORGEN), established as follow-up to a resolution of the first Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe, held in Strasbourg, France in 1990. EUFORGEN is coordinated by IPGRI with technical support from FAO. Five species-specific networks have been established within the framework of the programme, which supports the development of methodologies and "best practices" in in situ and ex situ conservation of genetic variation in targeted pilot species or groups of species, the exchange of reproductive materials for research and conservation purposes and the exchange of information and expertise.

In recent years, regional approaches have been complemented by ecoregional approaches and by action focused on common priority species or groups of species.

Examples of
species-specific networks

The Project on Genetic Resources of Arid and Semi-Arid Zone Arboreal Species for the Improvement of Rural Living, initiated in the early 1980s, is coordinated by FAO in collaboration with the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), UNEP and the DANIDA Forest Seed Centre. It focuses on the exploration, collection, exchange, evaluation and conservation of genetic resources of dry-zone multipurpose species, with special reference to Acacia and Prosopis species.

The International Neem Network, coordinated by FAO, aims at characterizing the extent and patterns of genetic variation of Azadirachta indica and helps collaborating countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America make appropriate use of the potential that this species offers in arid lands.

The International Network for Leucaena Research and Development (LEUCNET) is based at the University of Queensland, Australia.

TEAKNET, focused on Tectona grandis, is hosted by the Forest Department of Myanmar.

The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) and the recently established International Centre for Research and Training on Seabuckthorn (ICRTS) are both headquartered in Beijing, China.

Many cooperative tree improvement programmes involve several countries, which may be tied by geographical closeness, ecological similiarities or common interest in certain species. Cooperatives have often been established with a broad perspective, including seed exchange and tree improvement as well as conservation of genetic resources. An example is the Central America and Mexico Coniferous Resources Cooperative (CAMCORE), hosted by North Carolina State University, Raleigh, United States, which deals with the exploration, collection, exchange, testing, improvement and conservation of conifers and some broadleaved species originating in Mexico and Central America.

Regional forest genetic resources workshops and action plans

Since 1998, FAO, in collaboration with national and international partners, has helped convene a series of regional and subregional workshops to support countries in the development of country-driven regional action plans for the conservation and sustainable use of forest genetic resources. Since national plans and programmes will vary according to local conditions and national needs and priorities, the aim of these workshops is not the development of a single conservation model for all countries, but the elaboration of a framework for national action which would be valid at the regional level and as consistent among regions as possible. The development of regional action plans can be seen as a first step towards the development of a global plan of action.

Provenance trial plots of introduced species in Samoa, supported by the South Pacific Regional Initiative on Forest Genetic Resources (SPRIG)


At the workshops, of which three have been held to date, participating countries assessed the status of their forest genetic resources following in-country consultation among institutions and stakeholders; evaluated the relation of forest genetic resources programmes to related programmes in other sectors and to overall development plans; defined national priorities and requirements in the conservation, enhancement and sustainable utilization of their forest genetic resources; identified target species and genetic resources activities of common interest; and determined priority areas for future collaboration among countries in the region.

The first of these workshops identified the main components of a subregional action plan for the Sahelian and North-Sudanian zones of Africa. The workshop was facilitated by FAO in collaboration with IPGRI and ICRAF in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in September 1998. A synthesis document on the state of forest genetic resources in the subregion, based on national reports prepared by participating countries, provided the background for discussions and for the subregional action plan. When fully operational, IPGRI's SAFORGEN programme (see Box on p. 31) will provide a useful platform to help implement a number of the research-related activities identified in the action plan.

A second subregional workshop was convened in April 1999 as follow-up to recommendations made by heads of forestry of Pacific Island countries and territories. Supporting organizations included FAO, the Australia-funded South Pacific Regional Initiative on Forest Genetic Resources (SPRIG) project, the Forestry Division of Samoa, the South Pacific Community/UNDP Pacific Islands Forests and Trees Support Programme, and the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme. A subregional action plan on forest genetic resources was prepared based on national reports from countries and territories concerned and on a subregional synthesis on status and priorities in forest genetic resources discussed at the meeting.

A workshop for the countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was held in June 2000 in Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania. Based on country reports on the status of forest genetic resources and ongoing activities and priorities, participants identified specific joint actions in the exploration, collection and exchange of forest germplasm; evaluation, tree improvement and safeguarding of seed supply; and conservation in and ex situ. These actions will constitute the elements of a subregional plan to be implemented by countries under the overall coordination of the Forestry Sector Technical Coordination Unit (FSTCU) of SADC. The action plan will be underpinned by an existing SADC network of national tree seed centres.

FAO plans to help facilitate similar workshops in other regions, pending identification of international, regional and bilateral partnerships and of necessary funding. Attention will be given to those regions that have explicitly requested support in this field and those where institutional networking mechanisms already exist, as they can help facilitate development and subsequent implementation of the action plans.

The above flexible, country-driven, step-by-step process towards coordinated action in the management of forest genetic resources complements other initiatives currently being undertaken at the national, regional and global levels, such as the elaboration of National Biodiversity Status and Action Plans under CBD and the sharing of technology, expertise and information through CBD's Clearing-House Mechanism.

Pacific Subregional Workshop on Forest Genetic Resources, held in Apia, Samoa in April 1999



The conservation and sustainable use of forest genetic resources help underpin local and national development by contributing to food security, poverty alleviation, environmental conservation, economic and social advancement and the maintenance of cultural and spiritual values (FAO, 1997). While some natural and human-induced losses in biological diversity over time are inevitable, diversity between and within forest tree species can be maintained at acceptable levels and managed through a wide range of human activities. Conservation and enhancement of forest genetic resources can be achieved through the inclusion of genetic management concerns in activities ranging from the production of wood and timber and the management of protected areas to the demarcation and maintenance of wilderness reserves.

Forest genetic resources considerations should thus increasingly be included as an integral part of silvicultural and forest management practices, and they should also form part of national and local strategies for the maintenance of biological diversity in and outside protected areas. Genetic conservation considerations should, furthermore, constitute an explicit component of forest tree improvement and breeding programmes and plans.

The scope and urgency of the problem call for long-term political commitment at the national and local levels. Cooperation among a range of national agencies, institutions and local communities within countries is a prerequisite for the implementation of sustainable genetic management programmes.

Vegetative propagation of Intsia bijuga, a highly valuable timber species, at a Samoa Forestry Division nursery, for enrichment planting


Since genetic resources do not respect political boundaries, national efforts for their conservation and wise use, which must at all times form the basic building blocks of regional and global strategies, can be usefully complemented by international support and coordination. Joining efforts across national borders will ensure complementarity of action, will make the best use of scarce resources and will help fill the considerable information gaps in the forest resources field more quickly. While countries have sovereign rights over and responsibility for their genetic resources, coherent action at the regional and global levels will facilitate the solution of problems at all levels.


1 This article is based on the paper "International action in the management of forest genetic resources: status and challenges", prepared for the XXI IUFRO World Congress, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, August 2000. For further information on interregional action in forest genetic resources, including the regional and subregional action plans referred to in the article, see the FAO forest genetic resources homepage ( and back issues of the FAO annual news bulletin Forest Genetic Resources.

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