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Where does the future lie for forestry?

Written by Neil Bird


This year’s World Forestry Day is special, as 2011 is also the International Year of Forests.

It’s a good moment to stand back and re-consider the contribution that forests make to human development.  There has been remarkable international consensus over the past 20 years that all people and all nations should follow the one goal of sustainable forest management.  Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in international development circles and the discussions over the future of tropical forests.  But is this consensus misplaced?

Three myths have taken hold about the nature of tropical forests: 

  • That these sylvan expanses are a sustainable resource upon which social and economic development can be built. 
  • That these renewable natural resources can provide a viable economic route for many of the world’s poor to escape the desperation of poverty. 
  • And that forests – and in particular tropical forests in the poorer countries of the world – should be preserved as a reservoir of irreplaceable biodiversity. 

The latest manifestation of this global consensus is the huge attention now being given to reducing deforestation within the climate change policy arena, with the creation of yet another international acronym: REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation).

So, why are all these seemingly laudable aims misplaced?  Because they are mistaken about the very nature of tropical forests.

Many international commentators on tropical forests do not understand the biological constraints of natural tropical forests because they have rarely ventured into these forests and have not played any active role in their management. Forestry is a sector where the voice of the forestry practitioner is rarely heard. 

The major forest product within many countries – one that still generates demand – is timber.  However, timber production from natural forests is a notoriously low output system.  Timber harvests over several decades often amount to as little as 10 m3 of solid wood per hectare.  And that is before timber processing reduces the amount even further. Paul Collier in his recent text The Plundered Planet makes the analogy of nature as a factory. Well, if tropical forests were a factory it would be out of business in months: without investment or sound management any production process soon grinds to a halt.

There needs to be a push-back on the dogma that all deforestation is a ‘bad thing’, particularly in tropical countries.  Policy-makers need to be aware that deforestation is a perfectly reasonable development goal. Society will undoubtedly benefit if the capital released from cutting down trees is re-invested as socially owned assets. That of course is the challenge. Very often the returns are heavily skewed to private consumption and any broader benefits are fleeting, as ODI research has shown in the past.

This brings us to the misguided basis of the current interest in REDD. The basic fallacy is to suggest that because deforestation may account for up to 17% of current global carbon emissions, addressing deforestation should be a significant part of the emission reduction response. The global community has been done a disservice by those who claim that reducing deforestation represents a likely ‘low cost’ strategy.  It is unlikely to be so and it raises a high risk of serious social conflict.

Of course there is the question of protecting the biodiversity that tropical forests contain, but this goal does not require all forests to remain standing. Much better to have a well-designed protected area system that is well resourced and managed than to have a blanket ban on land-use change.

So what does the future hold? On World Forestry Day what needs to be re-invigorated in the policy debate? Forest plantations. The future of forestry does not lie in the romance associated with the retention of large swathes of natural tropical forests, but in the investment that is needed in planting trees. Tree planting works at various scales, from the teak plantations made by small-holders in West Africa for transmission poles (to secure the energy distribution networks upon which future development rests) to the large industrial plantation schemes needed to supply our needs for paper. World Forestry Day represents an opportunity for those interested in the future of forests to ‘get real’. The future lies in plantations, particularly in the tropics.