Vibrant forest products industry keeps trees standing

Autore: in Environment

In all parts of the world, a vibrant and economically viable forest products sector capable of competing with agriculture for land resources, will keep forests standing.

Forests will keep on declining where this sector is absent. Prospects are very good for forests outside the tropics, not so good for forests in the tropics. These are key conclusions drawn from review of the most recent scientific reports on global forest resources.

One study  that caught the eye of the world's media claims that a “Great Reversal” is underway as the world's forests have begun to recover after centuries of loss and decline. The study by scientists at Rockefeller University in the USA and the University of Helsinki in Finland highlights that forest area in North America, Europe and Asia is rising and the "density" of forests is increasing in all regions of world. For each hectare of forest, the volume of standing timber and therefore the tonnage of carbon stored and kept out of the atmosphere is higher now than in the past.

Another study gives an insight into the main drivers of the "Great Reversal". It is not, as some may expect, due to any significant global effort to increase the area of forests in conservation reserves. On the contrary, it has more to do with the increased value accorded to forests for commercial timber extraction. In his paper , Peter Ince, a Researcher at the U.S. Forest Service Laboratory in Madison Wisconsin, argues that "the highest global levels of industrial roundwood harvest, in North America and Europe, are consistent with the lowest rates of deforestation globally, supporting the hypothesis that an economically vibrant industrial forest products sector has been key to forest policies and forestry practices that support sustainable timber supply and demand".

However two studies published by the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) show that in tropical regions it is too early to celebrate the "Great Reversal" and severe threats to tropical forests remain. The major threats come from outside the industrial forest products sector - indeed, a large part of the problem is the absence of socio-economic conditions essential for the development of a vibrant and sustainable forest products sector.

ITTO's report  on the "Status of tropical forest management 2011" shows that the area of tropical forest sustainable management increased from 36.4 million hectares in 2005 to 53.3 million hectares in 2010 - a significant achievement but it means that 93% of the 761 million hectares of tropical forest worldwide continues to be managed poorly or not at all. Prospects for any rapid improvement seem slim. The report cautions that "key drivers of that increase [in sustainable forest area] — growing demand for certified timber and funding for climate change initiatives — could have only a marginal impact in the long-term". Looking ahead, the report suggests that "forces favouring forest destruction, such as higher food and fuel prices, could easily overwhelm those that favour forest conservation".

ITTO's Tropical Forest Tenure Assessment  reviews another factor favouring forest destruction. The report highlights continuing serious conflicts over resource ownership in many tropical countries. If forest communities have no confidence that they will reap the benefits of long-term management, they'll be encouraged to liquidise forests for short-term gain.

The ITTO report indicates only slow progress in addressing this fundamental issue: "The continued preference of governments for industrial concessions and indifference towards community claims, the provision of only limited access rights to communities, the tight regulation of resource use, the low capacity of governments to implement proposed programs to demarcate lands, and the limited enforcement of those legal mechanisms that do exist, all sum to a vast project of unfinished business in establishing the institutional foundations for sustainable management and conservation".
The question arises where to go from here? The answer is easy to articulate: focus time, effort and resources on forest governance and land reform in tropical countries to secure long-term investment in sustainable timber harvesting and forest industries; and boost forest value by generating new demand for sustainably managed forest products. Achieving this in practice remains a major challenge for the international forest sector. 

A, Wernick I, Waggoner PE, Ausubel JH, Kauppi PE (2011). A National and International Analysis of Changing Forest Density. PLoS ONE 6(5).
Ince, PJ (2010). Global Sustainable Timber Supply and Demand. Chapter 2 of Sustainable Development in the Forest Products Industry. Porto, Portugal : Universidade Fernando Pessoa, 2010: p. 29-41.
Blaser, J., Sarre, A., Poore, D. & Johnson, S. (2011). Status of Tropical Forest Management 2011. ITTO Technical Series No 38. International Tropical Timber Organization, Yokohama, Japan.
Hatcher, J. and Bailey, L. (2011). Tropical Forest Tenure Assessment. ITTO Technical Series No 37. International Tropical Timber Organization, Yokohama, Japan.