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Creating work and caring about workers in tropical forestry

Gunnar Segerström

GUNNAR SEGERSTRÖM, of the FAO Forestry, Department, is a logging and transport engineer.

Tropical forestry's potential for creating jobs is examined in theory and in practice. The human problems of forest work, says the author, are among those which need to be given special consideration. For instance, the difficulty of maintaining normal family life in remote wilderness areas makes it hard to find and keep good workers. Specially designed forest villages may be one of the best ways to provide social amenities and an atmosphere attractive to workers and their families.

In Asia and the Far East an assessment has been made of the employment created by a massive rehabilitation forestry programme converting 100 million of the region's 518 million hectares of operable forest to well-managed forest. The initial rehabilitation, if carried out during a 25 year period, will employ the equivalent of 4.8 million full-time workers during the whole phase. When these forests reach a productive stage, forestry operations will provide continuous employment for the equivalent of 4.4 million full-time workers. Processing of the wood can employ an additional labour force of some 20 million. If one includes the workers' dependents, and considers part-time work, well over 100 million and perhaps as many as 200 million people could benefit. This small example, based on meagre statistics, illustrates the potentials of forestry as an employer.

Various occupations in forestry can be offered to a great number of people, with only modest investment in cases where forest resources already exist. However the virgin tropical moist forest is, as long as the lesser known species are not utilized, a poor source of employment if it is to remain forever as mixed forest and not converted to uniform plantations. It has been stated that the conversion to monocultures of exotic or indigenous species is more often an act of replacing something unknown with something about which at least a little is known. The sustained yield performance of indigenous moist tropical forests is mainly concerned with the length of the cutting cycle between selective fellings. Different intervals have been used from 15 up to 6070 years, depending on the prevailing conditions. The manpower needed for the management of indigenous forest when logging is carried out with manual or rather primitive mechanical methods would be about one man-day/ha/year, with an average output of 1-2m³/ha/year. If the tropical forest is replaced by man-made forest, clear-cutting of the old forest has, of course, first to be carried out.

The tropical forest may contain from 100-300 m³/ha and it requires, as a rough average estimate, 4-12 man-days/ha for one feller with a power-saw and one helper to fell this. For terrain transport with mechanized methods (skidding wheel tractor), another 5-15 man-days/ha may be needed, and the loading al. landing and long-distance transport by truck (say 50 km) require a further 12-36 man-days/ha. Clear-cutting cannot be done or the timber harvested without a minimum of roads in the area. These roads may have been built previously for proper management of the forest, but experience shows that it is very often only when harvesting starts that the obvious need for roads is seen. For manual road construction, about 30 man-days/ha are required, or with more mechanized methods, about six man-days.

The man-days required per ha given above are naturally very rough average figures. The soil and terrain, as well as trees and stand characteristics and the level of mechanization, all influence the employment potentials.

To summarize, the man-day requirements for clear-cutting tropical forests may be:






Terrain transport



Truck transport (50 km)



Road construction



For clear-felling and transport average:

60 man-days/ha

When clear-felling is carried out and the commercial wood is taken away, there is still a lot of waste to be disposed of in order to prepare the site for the new plantation. This clearing and site preparation may take 20-40 man-days/ha and the planting proper some 5-15 man-days/ha. To this must be added the cost of man-days for the planting stock - nursery and transport - depending on species and conditions, but 20-40 man-days appears to cover the most common cases.

The planted forest cannot manage itself without help, and often weeding and cleaning are needed for the first 3-4 years (twice a year) as well as tending and replacements. Roughly 20-40 man-days are needed for these activities, which means when summarizing the man-days for establishing a plantation:



Site preparation



Nursery and transport






Tending and weeding



Total for plantation requirements:

100 man days/ha

It is evident that the management of indigenous forest, when it has to rely on natural regeneration, is a poor provider of employment. Plantation forestry offers considerably more opportunities, especially if combined with farming (as in the Taungya system).

A SAWMILL IN PAHANG, MALAYSIA local timber, local uses, local labour

A certain level of mechanization is necessary in most aspects of forestry. One of the main reasons for heavy mechanization in industrialized countries has been the consistent rise in labour costs compared to the more moderate rise in the cost of machinery. This has to some extent been explained by the economy of scale in the production units for mechanized equipment in industrialized countries, and the widening of the gap between labour wages and the cost of machinery. In developing countries, on the other hand, the trend has been just the opposite with a sharp rise in the cost of machinery, mostly imported, and a slower increase in labour costs. The level of mechanization, for purely economical reasons, should therefore be lower in developing countries as long as these conditions exist. Taking into consideration the real value of the economy in cost-benefit estimates, the generally recognized market prices of labour and land may need to be adjusted since they do not always reflect the real value in forestry development.

FOREST WORKER IN THAILAND he needs work and forestry needs him

If full employment can be achieved, the market wage rate is valid, but if (in theory) no other employment but forestry work can be offered, the so-called shadow wage rate would be zero. Similarly for land - if no other alternative to forestry exists, the shadow price of land would be zero. This is, naturally a very simplified explanation of the application of shadow prices, and much more could be said, but it is very important that in the cost-benefit evaluation of forestry projects the same basis is used as in other activities, and that forestry is ranked properly in comparison to projects from other sectors. As many forestry projects are labour-intensive, it is essential that fair consideration be given to a proper evaluation of social matters.

The idea that a "vicious circle" exists in developing countries is fairly widespread. As an example, a poor man may be physically weak and his working capacity is therefore low, meaning that he remains poor, does not have enough to eat. becomes weaker, and so on. These conditions may affect the entire country, or the poorest and most overpopulated parts of it. As the population grows, further pressure is exerted by squatters, who, in their desperate need for land, take over forest reserves. The capacity of the soil to hold water is thereby reduced, erosion occurs and crops are poor. Further forest land is therefore destroyed, and the vicious circle continues.

This circle is not, however, unbreakable. A cumulative upward process can be started with better planning methods, such as the use of planning models. The availability of forest resources and unemployed labor - taking into account the competing claims for agricultural land-- makes it necessary to work with fairly complicated planning models. Nowadays, these can be computerized and used for more general approaches in individual districts or areas. Such a model has been worked out and is being used for studies of long-term development of Swedish forests. The model uses a four man-year period, but for smaller areas with a less complicated programme the time can be reduced to a two-man/two-week job per district; which could give sufficient time for the model to provide important prospects of future development.

Using the above model, the geographical district or area which constitutes the frame of land to be studied can be broken down into existing land classes; the production of wood into production classes; and consumption into consumption classes (the latter with variables for population growth, average size of families and so on). The model could be designed to run over a 50-year period and can easily incorporate more classes. For instance, in India, wood can substitute the dung now being used for fuel, and the dung used instead as fertilizer where it may give increased agricultural production per land unit. The model can also vary the level of mechanization in forest operations from completely manual to fairly sophisticated management methods, and the employment opportunities can thus be studied.

BUILDINGS FOR FOREST WORKERS IN MALAYSIA where work standards and living standards meet

The labour force needed for management and harvesting of the forests during the conditions and output planned in coming years can be adjusted to fit the forecast number of unemployed. The next generation will need employment, and by then enough forests might have been planted to satisfy both the demand for wood as well as employment requirements.

The Swedish model has done this, but instead of lowering the level of mechanization as would be the case for some developing countries, a continuing increase in mechanization has been forecast for Sweden.

As a result of the study, a picture of land distribution may be given and readily used for analysis.

The main advantage of a computerized model of this type is that it is possible to run a large number of alternatives representing different strategies and approaches. It is also possible to run sensitivity analyses to illustrate the degree of uncertainty. This makes it possible to disclose existing gaps in knowledge which can be filled by means of field studies, etc.

The influence of the economy of scale has contributed to the rapid development in industrialized countries of large complexes for pulp, paper, sawnwood, particle board and so on. Efficient planning lies behind these industries, based to a great extent upon automation because of rising labour costs and good possibilities for long-term financing. In many industrialized countries, the labour supply in the forest industry is scarce. A large sulphate pulp mill producing 300000 tons per year and using about 1500000 m³ of wood per year may not require more than 300-500 men to run the whole mill. In the past, wood for pulping was mostly taken from softwood forests in the temperate zones, but during the last few decades more and more short-fibre hardwood has been used (such as birch, beech, poplar). Increasing quantities are now coming from plantations in tropical countries (eucalyptus, pine). To date, wood from tropical moist forests has been avoided for pulp and paper processing, but new methods are opening up the way for the use of mixed tropical hardwood.

If mixed tropical hardwood is harvested by clear-cutting, a good percentage (25-30 percent) would be suitable for veneer plywood and sawnwood rather than pulpwood. As a very rough estimate of man-day requirements for clear-cutting, as mentioned above (60 man-days/ha) and a very approximate average of 200 m³ per hectare in the stands of a mixed tropical forest, logging and supply of raw material to a large pulp mill require 225 forestry working days/year:


A VILLAGE TREE NURSERY IN THAILAND good place for children

Working and living with forestry



GETTING A WINCH-LORRY UNSTUCK the winch is the indispensable fifth wheel


1. Areas of creek origin which have been invaded and are in deteriorated condition. These have been marked for reforestation; if they are inhabited, the forest village system will be applied. 2. Remaining forest areas, the condition of which must be maintained. 3. Invaded forests in deteriorated condition, areas of which have been allotted to local inhabitants at 15 rai per family (1 rai= 0.16 ha).

When harvesting is carried out with a selective logging system, the forest operations may need even more labour, perhaps an estimate of 3000 man-years may not be too unrealistic. This means that 300-500 workers in the modern pulp mill need about 6-10 times as many men to supply them with raw material if it is taken from a tropical mixed hardwood forest.

Ideal solution?

It therefore appears to be an ideal solution, in areas of unemployment, to harvest the lesser known species and smaller dimensions for pulpwood and wood chips, although this solution is not yet seen to be commercially profitable. Investment in a wood chips terminal is very modest if a good port is nearby, compared with the cost of building a pulp mill.

Of course, other types of forest industries such as sawmills and plywood mills are more labour-intensive in relation to the money invested than a modern pulp mill. The missing link is a processing technique which could eliminate the influences of economy of scale and bring us smaller and cheaper mills which would need more labour to run them. More efforts need to be made to overcome this problem. Indeed, FAO's Forestry Department is now undertaking a series of studies that are designed to solve the problem.

With the present lack of raw material and the rising demand for pulp and paper, the difficulties of marketing could also be overcome.

The concentration of industries in one place has some advantages. For forest industries, a complex consisting of a pulp mill, sawmill and a particleboard plant can be ideal from the economic and technical points of view, and the complex need not reach the size of a community where many social disadvantages occur.

The men who do the work

It is unfortunate that so far not much consideration has been given to the men who do the work in forestry. industrialized countries were the first to have made this mistake, but they are now starting to be aware-of the importance of the forestry worker. Urbanization and advanced mechanization have already reached their limits in some industrialized countries, but this trend is now reversing - not because multiprocessing machines in forestry cannot be further developed but because of the difficulty in getting workers to stay in isolated places for long periods. The problems of transporting them to and from these remote areas may in the long run be solved by less traditional methods such as the use of helicopters.

In the past, forest workers lived in forest villages which have now been abandoned in favour of modern apartments and houses in larger central communities, and the workers travel by bus and automobile. In remote areas of industrialized countries, the old logging camps have come into favour once again, modernized to provide such comforts as five-course menus, colour TV and good housing.

A normal home life

Material benefits apart, however, it has been noted that workers are not content unless they can lead a normal family life, with at least a minimum of social services available.

In the United States and Canada, the advantages of the small village and the larger communities have been combined by the use of mobile homes. instability of employment has perhaps led to the increased use of trailers, which can be conveniently driven to a place near to an industry and moved elsewhere if and when necessary. Water and electric power are connected to the trailers on the spot. Therefore, if the industry closes down, the worker is not trapped with property he cannot sell. He simply moves his home to another area where there are better possibilities of employment. The organization of trailer parks in developing countries could be a solution, provided that essential social services such as schools, medical facilites and markets are available and able to join the trailer group when movement to other areas becomes necessary.

At present, about 70 percent of the population in developing countries live in rural areas. The year 2000 will probably see only 50 percent in the countryside and the rest in urbanized areas. The industrialized countries, having to some extent passed through this phase, are suffering the consequences. But why should it be necessary for developing countries to repeat these mistakes?

In some developing countries, the population in forest areas still consists of hill tribes and rural inhabitants not yet exposed to market economics. Shifting cultivation and illegal squatting on land officially classified for forest use have until now been the only alternative to moving to the towns to find work. In some countries, the forestry authorities have paid serious attention to the problem and are doing something about it (Figures 1 and 2), but in others punishments decreed by forest laws for violation of the rules are useless unless a serious alternative is offered to the people. One alternative is to organize forest villages, provide employment in forest work on a continuing basis for the local population, build schools and markets and provide social services in general, thereby trying to reduce the process of urbanization - and providing the country continuously with wood.


Former creek areas (top right), which were in deteriorated condition, are being reforested Plantation and nursery workers live in forest village created in their area. The area of invaded forest (left), which was also in deteriorated condition, has been sectioned into agricultural plots and allotted to the inhabitants. The necessary social services (schools, markets, sanitary facilities) have been provided.

Forestry villages with 1000-1500 inhabitants would be large enough to provide settlement and basic services, such as primary schools and health centres.

The mistakes made by industrialized countries must not be repeated. It is possible in developing countries to create meaningful work and encourage the people to settle close to forest areas where continuing employment can be offered. All it needs - let's face it - is the will to start.

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