Q&A with David A. Harcharik

The Assistant Director-General of FAO's Forestry Department talks about the importance of forestry in the world today and tomorrow, on the first day of the Thirteenth Session of the Committee on Forestry (COFO), 10 to 13 March

The World Food Summit, held at FAO in November 1996, drew international attention to the issue of global food security. How will efforts to achieve worldwide food security have an impact on forests and the role they play in attaining this goal?

The contribution of forests and trees to food security should not be underestimated. It comes through protecting the natural resource base, such as soil and water, upon which agricultural production systems depend, supplementing food supplies, providing fuel for food preparation and generating income which makes the purchase of food possible. It is significant to note the importance of agroforestry systems and the high degree of dependence on forests, particularly by the poor in low-income food-deficit countries.

However, needs for increased agricultural production and infrastructure development, among other things, will put pressure on forests. FAO estimates that world food production must increase by 1.8 percent per year from now until the year 2010 in order to meet rising demand. Therefore, conversion of forests to agriculture is likely to continue in countries that are unable to intensify production on existing agricultural lands or to import food. This is expected to happen in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, where opportunities for agricultural expansion exist. FAO estimates that an additional 45 to 50 million ha of forest land may be brought into agriculture in developing countries by the year 2010.

New data published in the State of the World's Forests 1997 (referred to as SOFO 1997), show that, despite increased global attention and concern, deforestation is continuing at a high rate.

Globally, deforestation is continuing at a high rate. Between 1990 and 1995 the world lost 56 million ha of its forest cover (including forest plantations) - an area nearly twice the size of Italy. Over this period, forest area in developing countries decreased by 65 million ha, while it increased by nearly 9 million ha in the developed world, largely due to the release of marginal lands from agriculture.

Is deforestation, then, declining in developed countries, but increasing in developing countries?

We often speak of direct causes, indirect causes and underlying causes of deforestation. Patterns suggest that the expansion of subsistence agriculture in Africa and Asia and large economic development programmes involving resettlement, agriculture and infrastructure in Latin America and Asia are key direct causes of forest cover change. Although timber harvesting is generally not a direct cause of deforestation, it is known to be a facilitating factor, or indirect cause, in some areas, particularly through the construction of roads which make previously remote areas accessible to agricultural colonizers.

What are some of the underlying causes of deforestation in these countries?

The underlying causes of deforestation include population explosion, poverty, consumption patterns, government land-use policies and trade policies, among others.

Considering that deforestation continues at a rapid pace worldwide, will there be enough wood to satisfy expected demand in the future?

SOFO 1997 looks ahead to explore this question. Provisional results of the FAO Global Outlook Study on trends to the year 2010 suggest that there should be sufficient wood to meet global demand until that time without significant price increases. Long-term adequacy of supply will depend, however, on sustainable management of forest resources. Shortages in some areas will occur simultaneously with surpluses elsewhere. Major wood deficits are projected for Asia and a tight softwood supply situation is expected in the United States. International trade, which is expected to increase overall, will ease these shortages and even out imbalances in other places. Some developing countries, however, will not be able to import the industrial wood products they need and will have deficits of non-traded goods such as fuelwood. The Global Fibre Supply Study, now under way in FAO, will complement the Global Outlook Study, and together they will provide a clearer picture of the future wood demand and supply situation. The results will be reported in the next SOFO report, to be released in 1999.

How has the unprecedented level of international activity focused on the world's forests since the holding of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) five years ago affected the forestry sector?

The growth over the last few years in the number and types of organizations involved in discussions, decision-making and field activities focused on forests is a reflection of the concerns of civil society and a more pluralistic approach to forestry. Especially noteworthy is the work of an ad hoc Intergovernmental Panel on Forests, which was established by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development for the two-year period 1995-1997. There has also been significant progress in developing national-level criteria and indicators of sustainable forest management. The private sector and non-governmental organizations have participated in many such initiatives, have been forceful players in the international dialogue, and have launched a number of important initiatives of their own. Several of the major efforts are mentioned in SOFO. One significant non-governmental example is the work of the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development, an independent body set up in 1995. The aim of this group, made up of world political and scientific leaders, is to work at the international level to help with conflict resolution, policy reform and strengthening research.

But despite the number of promising developments in terms of international attention on forestry, funding for forestry remains below the level called for at UNCED. Chapter 11 of Agenda 21 estimated that developing countries alone needed US$31 250 million per year between 1993 and 2000, of which $5 670 million would be externally funded. In 1993, for which figures are available, only 27 percent of this goal for Official Development Assistance was met.

With SOFO 1997 data now in hand, how does the future of forestry look?

Clearly, forests throughout the world face difficult challenges as we near the next millennium. Population growth, changes in population distribution, economic pressures, and efforts to alleviate poverty and ensure food security will intensify pressures on forests. This will certainly lead to even closer scrutiny of forests' actual and potential contribution to development, and of the relative benefits of retaining land in forests versus converting it to other uses. Despite these difficulties, the current intensive international discussions and initiatives are expected to complement and support national efforts to further sustainable forest management. And, clearly, there are a number of notable examples where forests are being better managed, where forest cover is increasing, and where the rate of forest loss is slowing and the picture is not all bad. In SOFO you will find the latest information about forest resources, the policy environment, and the institutional framework that defines forestry today, in an effort to give a clearer picture of the issues, trends and prospects for forests tomorrow.

10 March 1997

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