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Trees outside forests, a key factor in integrated urban and rural management

Food for thought

Photo 1. Dune Stabilization and crop protection (© Braatz/FAO)


Rural people around the world are of one mind when it comes to the durability, availability and use of the goods and services provided by tree resources, whether inside or outside the forest. These men and women make no distinction between field trees and forest resources, perceiving the clear and close link between the two, and their interaction. Policy-makers and planners, however, tend to view these resources as different entities. It seems clear that Trees outside forests have not yet succeeded in arousing real interest at the top. So there is a need to describe and comprehend the dynamics of trees and shrubs on rural and urban land, and their interaction with forest dynamics. This should lead to a better understanding of off-forest tree management and towards integrated and sustainable management of natural resources and of forest, farm, pastoral and urban land.

Definition, importance and scope of the concept

There is no direct definition of `trees outside forests' (a neologism coined in 1995). The concept is defined by FAO by default in terms of the forest, as follows: trees growing outside the forest and not belonging to the category of forests, forest lands, or other wooded land. According to this definition, Trees outside forests are located on "other land", such as agricultural land, built-up areas such as settlements and infrastructure, and bare land (dunes, former mining areas, etc.). Ambiguities can easily arise, because the boundary between what is and is not forest can be quite blurred, and also because there is more than one definition of the word `forest'.

Many parameters affect the definition of forests, such as the characterization of tree formations, (height, crown cover), classification criteria (land cover and land use), and the scope of the definition, which may refer to the field of biology, or law, or some other determinant. These determinants may overlap, contradict one another, or vary from one situation to the next. No single classification of the forest can satisfy every point of view. The challenge is truly daunting when we try to come up with a universal definition for Trees outside forests. The term `trees outside forests' covers a vast variety of formations and species growing in various combinations set in a wealth of rural and urban settings.

Overcoming these obstacles is not a bland issue. Even less so when the point is to assess all wood and non-wood resources, framing the management of these resources in the context of natural resource management, especially since Trees outside forests are clearly crucial to resource sustainability, and vectors of the integrated, multisectorial approach upon which ecosystem conservation demands.

Functions and significance for development

Trees throughout the world meet many challenges and offer a wealth of potential uses. This is even more obvious for trees growing outside forests, because social involvement in the implicit challenges is greater, as these trees confer more advantages and meet a wider demand -one of their main distinguishing features. The social, economic and ecological functions of the resource are all equally decisive in ensuring the quality of people's lives, providing support for national economies and protecting the environment.

Though widely accused of resource overexploitation, local populations, well-versed in the vast potential of off-forest trees, protect these resources, whether they have actually planted them or not. Trees outside forests are known to serve as a major source of food and feed, contribute to a balanced diet, and provide the ingredients for various remedies. In some parts of the world a significant amount of timber and service wood comes from this sector. Agroforestry systems and orchards are also well-known sources of fuelwood and timber. We are also well-aware of the many ways in which Trees outside forests are used in construction and crafts, and their useful role in providing shade and marking the boundaries of fields and other areas, not to mention the cultural and religious aspects. There is mounting evidence of their impact on soil and water conservation, and their essential role in anti-desertification, climate control, and maintaining biological diversity and ecosystem balance. And yet, Trees outside forests remain a sort of overlooked and hidden treasure. We are still unable to accurately assess either the resource itself or the contribution of its products to household incomes. And the same is true at national levels, except for certain specific, internationally traded products.

The challenge we face is to review the full panoply of wood and non-wood resources in terms of strategies that seek to boost peasant incomes, enhance food security and reduce poverty. There is no question that the integration of trees outside forests into the economic accounts and into development and conservation policies will have substantial environmental impact.

Dynamics and trends

It is easy to grasp the contribution of Trees outside forests in terms of their usage and the services they provide, but this contribution is poorly reflected in international statistics and databases. Without such hard and fast data, it is difficult to assess the dynamics of Trees outside forests, even in the light of the frequent link with forest and population dynamics. Local studies reveal processes of the advancing or retreating tree cover, but they do not show whether or not tree resources on farmlands are acting to offset the shrinking forest.

The expansion of the agricultural frontier made considerable inroads into plant formations in tropical areas in the developing countries. Land clearing there is often followed by a phase in which trees supply wood and non-wood products as an intrinsic part of the newly implemented production systems. Agricultural development in the industrialized countries, with its stages of mechanization, irrigation, ever-larger plots and farms and land consolidation has been responsible for the eviction of most trees from the rural landscape. And in an additional and reverse trend, in the conversion of forest to farmland, rural landscapes actually gain more trees. At the same time, developing country urban areas, with their unplanned, spontaneous growth and the accompanying phenomenon of impoverishment, have witnessed the return of agricultural activities within the towns themselves. And in the industrialized countries, hedgerows, fruit-tree meadows, riparian buffers and urban trees have all made a comeback in the last thirty years thanks to conservation and rehabilitation efforts.

We need to grasp the facts underlying the dynamics of tree expansion, offering support where the trend is underway, and encouragement for similar processes. Cross-data on forest and tree dynamics in agricultural and urban areas, backstopped by the relevant, in-depth research, would give us a more accurate assessment of off-forest tree resource trends worldwide. This would allow us to confirm locally observed trends of tree expansion or retreat, and reckon them into the integrated land use management equation.

Policy and legislation

The prerogatives of forestry institutions generally extend to all forest resources, including low and dense forest as well as sparsely treed areas. Trees outside forests may be governed by forest law or agricultural law, or both, or neither. Forest law defines forest land, but rarely the tree. There is often an observed gap between the legal status of land and the forest cover on it, as there is no systematic concordance between the two. Forest law may apply to any area suitable for forest, and thus give the forestry administration jurisdiction over much of a territory, even agricultural lands. Some laws have taken rural production systems into account, giving local people the right to manage and make use of trees. Some countries enjoy the distinction of having transferred legal rights over trees to users, a possible incentive for users to plant trees. National legislations, however, do not pay enough attention to issues of private investment in tree resources, even those located outside the forest.

Trees outside forests stands and systems may lie in the public as in the private domain. From the standpoint of law or land ownership, the status of the land where a tree is growing is often the prime determinant of rights over that tree. Whether the tree was planted or not is the next consideration. Who owns a tree has to do with whether the tree grows wild or was planted, whether it is used for subsistence or commercial purposes, and whether it is privately or communally owned. In the industrialized countries, land ownership often also infers the ownership of any resources found on, under and above that land, which orients resource access. In the developing countries, the appropriation of trees frequently precedes and leads to the appropriation of land, as witness the land strategies of today's agricultural pioneers.

Customary rules of land cover and resource use are in force in many countries. These highly diverse rules may mesh with legal provisions, or, there may be some conflict. Customary land tenure systems are fairly flexible in adapting to change. They look at how resources relate to the way society pictures them. A number of customary principles recur over and over in different areas, such as one's lineage, how long one has lived on the land, and various other criteria such as sex, age, social class and ethnic group.

Land insecurity is generally seen as a factor in resource degradation and private appropriation as a means of remedying this, but experience has shown that private ownership is no guarantee of good management. The privatization of land is one way of ensuring land security, but neither the only nor the best way. Legal provisions should favour the assumption of community responsibility for trees growing outside forests. This amounts to permitting reasonable resource use as opposed to an approach of banning resource access.

Local usage and appropriation

There is a close and constant link between off-forest trees and the people who live among them. Woodland and farmland form a single unit, worked successively, in the form of shifting cultivation, crop rotation with fallow periods, transhumance, or still other agrosilvopastoral practices. Forest and farmland are interactively managed, and their dynamics are inter-linked. The characteristics of tree management in agricultural and pastoral societies are somewhat different, however, and recourse to the various practices is observed to depend on the people involved.

At times of crisis, not solely economic but also social or family crises, sources of income shrink, social inequalities deepen, and production strategies need to be modified. A shortage of labour in many family farm households impacts upon the intensification of production systems. The less labour-intensive option of tree cultivation may well become attractive at such times.

All such management practices, with their prime focus on durable production systems, are based on a body of local or indigenous technical knowledge which has evolved over time in response to the vagaries of ecological, economic and political circumstances. Too little attention has been paid to the interaction of people and their natural surroundings. There is great need for an in-depth analysis detailing not just usages and practices, but also how men and women perceive their environment. This is a highly meaningful relationship, as we can infer from linguistic and cultural clues revealing local ecological knowledge and skills. Implicit in the analysis of human knowledge is the significance societies attach to their natural resources, of which Trees outside forests are one essential component.

Towards integrated management

A review of the evolving relationship between human societies and tree resources clearly reveals the close correlation between poverty and overexploitation. This being so, people need to regain their rightful place at the centre of issues concerning ecosystem sustainability. At the same time, the resources and benefits conferred must be more equally shared and distributed. A number of reports have brought out the unsuitability of technological packages. These involved not only cost overruns but also problems of cultural internalization and environmental degradation. The sectoral interventions of certain modern agronomical decisions have contributed to the destruction of existing links between trees, modes of production and the local people because they ignored the technical, social and economic rationales of these people. Even where such decisions have generated essential earnings for national economies, they have wreaked havoc with traditional management styles.

These breakdowns can also be traced to the radical changes in agricultural economies, and the new needs of urban agglomerations for wood and non-wood forest products, which have driven up the economic value of Trees outside forests. Runaway population and urban growth have created a situation where a sufficiently large number of various kinds of tree formations need to be conserved in rural and urban areas to meet the inherent economic challenges. The next step is to identify the practices of the various actors and the stakes involved, so as to avoid the intensification of stakeholder conflict, strategy run-ins, and a deteriorating rural/urban relationship.

Support and promotion strategies

The policy objectives of effective support and promotion strategies can no longer be disassociated from economic and social constraints. Stakeholders need to take a joint look at the range of possible solutions. Support measures must respect the chosen options within suitable and realistic institutional frameworks.

The major international initiatives and conventions in force now express a clear willingness to give local populations a role in local resource management, though there is rarely any explicit mention of Trees outside forests. Sustainable development demands the assumption of stakeholder responsibility. The guidelines for promoting Trees outside forests are comparable throughout the world: enhanced awareness, assumption of responsibility, discussion and participation. To these we must add legislative review, accessible support measures tailored to needs and capabilities, and the negotiation of economic mechanisms. Non-sectoral, non-contradictory legislation that addresses land rights and rights to trees should be clearly framed to favour enhanced land security. Tax systems can also help promote non-forest tree resources through economic instruments such as taxes, fees, quotas, carbon trading, subsidies, premiums, eco-certification and labelling, involving agreements and contracts with rural populations. A major effort should be undertaken to develop innovative research and development, and to launch campaigns to popularize appropriate techniques, technologies and training programmes accessible to all stakeholders.

In the final analysis, if we are to inspire an authentic and dynamic process of non-forest tree management, the appeal must be to the motivation of economic actors, farmers and livestock owners, local authorities and associations.

Trees outside forests and production systems

Three examples have been selected to illustrate the diversity of off-forest tree systems and the relevant problems. Each has to do with issues already discussed in the previous chapters. These concern the actual definition of Trees outside forests, their ecological and economic function, and their role in integrated land use management.

The first example, agroforestry in Indonesia, describes an ecosystem with a strong human presence whose forestry status (these are residual forests and trees planted by peasants) and agricultural status (Trees outside forests used in agriculture) have not yet been defined. The affinities of these formations with forestry are the de facto result of technical options chosen by farmers, and not an end in them. This example gets back to the very definition of Trees outside forests, and is bound to enrich the review of these complex systems.

The second concerns coffee plantations under sub-optimal planting conditions in Central America and Mexico, where coffee is often grown in association with shade trees. These systems offer a series of agronomical, ecological and economic benefits that are central to concerns for sustainable local land systems.

The third example covers the often under-valued urban and rural linear tree systems. Although widely valued in urban areas, the same cannot be said of rural settings, where rows of trees all too often vanish from the landscape, and the victims of agricultural intensification or land consolidation. The management and indeed the conservation of linear systems are the remit of an integrated land management policy which should give prime consideration to the social context in which these systems are found.

The challenges and objectives of assessment

A critical review of inventory or assessment projects and of the literature was carried out to examine the major assessment challenges. This bought out a range of contrasting situations, in terms of the geographical and human context and the scale of the work involved.

The review of the literature brought out the absence of a global assessment of Trees outside forests and their products. The available data are found in sectoral projects whose geographical coverage is often quite limited, and which may employ a variety of methods quite unlike those used in forest resource assessments. The other crucial point concerns the difficulty of appraising the quality of the available figures.

The priority assessment challenge is to ascertain the status and dynamics of all tree resources both inside and outside the forest. Classifying the challenges of assessing off-forest trees by territorial scale highlights the sheer size of the resource and the need to assess it in light of the clear link with such current major concerns as food security, the need for forest products, sustainable management, carbon sequestration and the conservation of biological diversity. Another assessment problem is to select realistic objectives that can satisfy all sectors and actors concerned. This always crucial stage in forest resource assessment is even more crucial for Trees outside forests, which are complex for their spatial distribution, highly diversified in terms of use and function, and highly sensitive to interaction with people. While these characteristics indicate what a rich and complex resource this is, they also show how very hard it is to establish a qualitative and quantitative reading on it.

Assessment methods and tools

An essential first step in assessing Trees outside forests is to address their peculiarities. A review of existing or needed tools and methods is the first requirement. A classification which can lead to authentic integrated land management at the country level is essential, and the next step is to make a clear distinction between aspects of land cover and aspects of land use, a frequent stumbling-block in such exercises.

The tools and methods of off-forest tree assessment are neither specific nor new, what is more original is the way they are combined and implemented. The fundamental thing in this process is to combine two approaches: biophysical analysis and socioeconomic analysis. Large-scale aerial photographs are good for describing the spatial distribution of tree formations outside forests. Satellite data are a little harder to use for mapping this resource, which tends to be spread over a wide area. They are currently used to stratify a region on the basis of ecological and land use criteria. As for ground measurements, sampling arrangements designed for forests are not really suitable for the territorial distribution of off-forest trees. Less traditional sampling plans which would theoretically be better suited to this resource should be tested on the various categories of trees outside forests, especially systems covering fairly large areas.

Lastly, more essential to planners and managers than resource estimates at any given moment would be the ability to assess patterns of change over time, and then to identify suitable methods to produce the needed data. It would also be important to review, or rather to broaden, the current sectoral approaches in favour of a truly integrated systems approach.


The conclusions refer back to the concepts reiterated throughout this paper, and addressed to policy-makers, planner and managers. These primarily involve the concept of Trees outside forests, their assessment, and the institutional measures needed to promote these resources and gain recognition of their value to society.


Trees outside forests comprise a widespread and multi-purpose resource, frequently domesticated, cultivated and tended, and offering a gamut of environmental services and products. That society has appropriated this resource is plain to see in the many local practices, laws and customs governing their use, as in their symbolic and cultural representations. This is as true of countries with scant forest resources as of those more richly endowed.

Tree resource conservation and even expansion is a strategic issue in less-forested countries, where Trees outside forests - growing in rural or urban areas, in orchards, gardens, savannah or agroforestry parklands, as shade trees or permanent crops - constitute a genuine and essential source of the wood and non-wood products crucial for people's day-to-day needs. While their contribution to local economies is significant, their contribution to the conservation of biodiversity is inestimable.

Trees outside forests have a similar social impact in countries with abundant forest resources, though it may not seem so, and the economic necessity for this resource may, at first sight, appear less urgent, but the environmental need is clearly just as crucial. There may be no present concern over their disappearance, but the degradation of off-forest tree systems is often irreversible and there is a clear risk of ecosystem deterioration.

Well-forested or not, all countries face the same constraints regarding the management of Trees outside forests. Despite land insecurity and unfavourable economic guidelines, rural and urban communities attempt to maintain and preserve these tree systems, calling on skills and practices handed down from one generation to the next. As for the institutions, many working under difficult material and financial circumstances, there is a need to take a fresh look at certain legal contradictions, confront the drastic rules of the international market-place, and try to reconcile local strategies with policies of more general interest.

Generally speaking, the integrated development and sustainable forest and non-forest land management sectors have not paid enough attention to non-forest tree resources, whether rural or urban. Nonetheless, if we look at the environmental and development record, the topic gradually and increasingly appears on the agenda of scientific, economic and policy debates. The apparent climate degradation that took place in the 1970s provoked a rush of aid to countries hit by drought and desertification. This was followed in the 1980s by a wealth of agroforestry research that acknowledged the major role of trees in rural development and soil fertility. Environment, sustainable development and biological diversity were high on the agenda of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). During the 1980s and 1990s, interest mounted in non-wood forest products. Trees, especially trees growing outside forests, began to be viewed in terms of their contribution to social well-being and to the environment. Policy-makers and planners gradually evolved and converged in their thinking to acknowledge the promise of this resource, in all its myriad forms, as a key to multisector, sustainable development.

And yet, while the wide-ranging uses and services of these resources are increasingly well-known, hard numerical data and information are still lacking worldwide. Deforestation has been mapped and quantified, but we know very little about the fate of land formerly under forest, and the parallel changes in tree cover in fields and towns. What we do know about Trees outside forests comes mostly from local studies, so that our knowledge is quite diffuse, and much of it remains untapped, lodged in the local lore of rural societies.

What is needed, then, is an overall grasp of the socioeconomic and environmental implications of these resources at every level, a better understanding of what influences their expansion or regression, identification of the institutional underpinnings, a closer look at the relevant practices and underlying knowledge, and a thorough review of resource assessment experiences in the sector.

Following this line of reasoning, the first part of the paper attempts to highlight the importance of Trees outside forests, constraints to overcome and forces to enhance to ensure their sustainable development, plus the assessment mechanisms needed to track their evolution. The context of Trees outside forests and their contribution to development, dynamics, and management are summarily defined in an attempt to pinpoint the main factors to consider in designing promotion strategies. This part of the paper ends with a preliminary review of the various resource assessment tools and methods.

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