33-Country Survey Indicates Progress Fragile as Individual Nations Lack Economic Incentives, Resources to Enforce Efforts to Prevent Deforestation, Manage Resources
Photo: J. Blaser/ITTO
The most comprehensive analysis of the status of tropical forest management ever conducted has documented a significant increase in the "sustainable management" of tropical forests worldwide since 1988. But the report released today by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) warns that some 95 percent of the forests remain unprotected—and progress will be fleeting unless the international community ensures that nations benefit economically from maintaining their tropical forests.
The ITTO report, which exhaustively probes the state of tropical forestry in 33 countries in Asia, the Pacific, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, shows that the area of sustainably managed tropical forests has expanded from less than one million hectares (2.4 million acres) in 1988 to at least 36 million hectares (87 million acres) in 2005.
"Today we do know that a total area of tropical forest about the size of Germany is in good hands," said Manoel Sobral Filho, Executive Director of ITTO. "It is clear, however, that the security of most tropical forests is still in great jeopardy, which demonstrates a collective failure to understand that forests can generate considerable economic value without being destroyed."
The report finds that the amount of forest land being managed sustainably comprises less than 5 percent of the 814 million hectares surveyed by the report—two-thirds of all natural tropical forests in the world.
The Japan-based ITTO is the world's main international agency charged with promoting the sustainable management, use and trade of tropical forest resources. The report, "Status of Tropical Forest Management 2005," will be released at the 40th Session of the International Tropical Timber Council, which is meeting 29 May-2 June in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico.
"Sustainable management" makes it possible to maintain a forest without degrading its values, while allowing society to benefit from its resources.
"In order to protect our world's last remaining forests, countries must put in place effective forest management plans and monitor and report on their progress," said ITTO's Steven Johnson, one of the report's editors. "This is the most comprehensive survey ever conducted on the success or otherwise of countries to do so."
Tropical forests have been under threat for several decades. Currently, some 12 million hectares of tropical forests are cleared every year to make way for agriculture, pastures and other non-forest uses, with many more hectares degraded by unsustainable/illegal logging and other poor land-use practices.
ITTO's analysis, reflecting four years of work, provides important new information on tropical forest management. It incorporates data submitted by ITTO countries, as well as information collected from a variety of other sources, including independent ITTO missions to member countries, interviews with forestry experts, government officials, industry, and NGOs, as well as assessments made by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Global Forest Watch and other international organizations. The report evaluates forest status country-by-country, as well as by region, and globally.
"A fact is worth five theories – and this latest study from ITTO gives us some valuable facts on subjects that are bedeviled by conflicting theories," said Professor Jeff Sayer, Senior Associate with the conservation organization Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).
The 814 million hectares examined in the ITTO report represent the total area of natural tropical forests that meet the ITTO definition of "permanent forest estate." According to ITTO, lands are considered permanent forest estate if landowners (mainly governments) intend to manage them for sustainable production or as protected areas. Under sustainable production, timber harvesting and other revenue-generating activities (such as collecting fruits, nuts and medicinal plants) are allowed, but must not destroy the forests. Those forests maintained as protected areas are those where landowners will endeavor to maintain the forest's pristine state.
Gaps in Plans vs. Action on the Ground
Unlike any other forestry report, the ITTO document assesses the effectiveness of ambitious plans to bring sustainable management practices to large areas of timber-producing tropical forests, and comments on the extent to which forests that are supposedly managed as protected areas are actually being protected. What the report found was a significant gap between words and deeds.
For example, ITTO's analysis reveals that tropical countries have developed plans for managing 27 percent of the 353 million hectares designated as production forests. In reality, however, only about 25 million hectares, or about 7 percent of those forests, are being managed sustainably, according to the ITTO report.
"It is far easier for forest operators to make a plan than it is for them to implement it, even if they intend to," said Johnson. "Companies can appear to comply with requirements for sustainable management, while continuing to employ poor logging practice and to run the forests into the ground. Keen oversight is needed."
The gaps were apparent in all regions. In Asia and the Pacific, ITTO estimates that only 14.3 million hectares of production forest are being sustainably managed, though on paper some 55 million hectares are covered by management plans. In Africa, the comparable figures are 10 million under management plans versus 4.3 million actually sustainably managed, while in Latin America and the Caribbean, the gap is 31 million versus 6.5 million.
With regard to forests designated as protected areas, a relatively small percentage is covered by management plans. Of the 461 million hectares of forests that are supposed to be protected, ITTO members have developed plans for 18 million hectares or 3.9 percent, and have implemented them on about 11 million hectares or 2.4 percent. Most of the forests under active protection lie in the Asia/Pacific (5.1 million hectares) and the Latin America/Caribbean regions (4.3 million hectares). In Africa, ITTO found only 1.7 million hectares of tropical forest with viable protection plans.
Tropical Forests More Secure Today Compared to Previous Decades
Nonetheless, ITTO said that despite these deficiencies, the overall trend globally is encouraging, and the legal security of forests has greatly improved since a more limited 1988 ITTO survey of 18 member countries.
"In 1988, when we looked at how much natural forest was being managed on an operational scale for the sustainable production of timber, the answer was 'almost none,'" said Professor Duncan Poore, who played a leading role in both surveys. "While there were some positive aspects of management in Asia, in Latin America and in the Caribbean, only 75,000 hectares were being managed sustainably—all of them in Trinidad and Tobago. In Africa, there were none."
But this is changing. "Sustainable forest management for timber production is now increasingly prevalent in several nations with large areas of tropical forest," said Poore. Countries that have made particularly notable improvements include Malaysia, which now has at least 4.8 million hectares of sustainably managed production forests, Bolivia (2.2 million hectares), Peru (560,000 hectares), Brazil (1.4 million hectares), the Republic of Congo (1.3 million hectares), Gabon (1.5 million hectares), and Ghana (270,000 hectares).
Independent certification of forest management, which did not even exist in 1988, has also emerged as a powerful trend. According to ITTO, there are now 10.5 million hectares of tropical forests where sustainable production practices are certified by independent forestry organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
But some countries have suffered serious losses of tropical forest or have been unable to make significant progress pursuing better management. Countries such as Côte d'Ivoire, the Philippines, and Nigeria (in which significant areas were once forested) now have relatively little natural forest—and major environmental problems. A lack of effective governance is clearly a concern in some countries. Progress towards sustainable forest management has been minimal or non-existent in Liberia, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and other countries that have endured recent major armed conflicts. Political and economic instability combined with inadequate enforcement of forest laws have also led to the spread of illegal logging and other forest-related crimes in many parts of the tropics.
Wanted: Forests that are Worth More Alive than Dead
ITTO advocates the designation of more permanent forest estate and the formulation and implementation of sustainable management plans across a much larger portion of the existing estate. The report documents numerous challenges to both goals.
ITTO found that resources for enforcement and management are woefully and chronically inadequate - trained staff, vehicles and equipment are all in short supply, while systems for monitoring and reporting forest management are often limited or lacking. Illegal logging and transport of timber are pressing issues, sometimes exacerbated by warfare, drug smuggling and other criminal activities, making forest management a potentially hazardous activity.
Another major impediment to sustainable forest management is that it has not always been economically rewarding.
"This is why large areas of rainforest are being turned into soybean fields or oil palm plantations," said Sobral. "Illegal logging, inexpensive plantation wood and trade barriers are undermining efforts to create legitimate markets that support producers who want to manage natural forests responsibly."
Governments and industry should make it their first priority to create a system of economic incentives, he said.
"This would include a global market where prices for timber from natural tropical forests are strong and globally important forest services such as water production, biodiversity conservation and carbon storage are paid for."
"It is now widely accepted that well-managed forests used for timber production support levels of biodiversity comparable to those found in undisturbed forests," said Sayer. "The rapid expansion of well-managed natural production forests documented in this publication is therefore good news for people and good news for biodiversity."
ITTO concludes that instituting sustainable management in a substantial portion of the world's tropical forests demands a global approach to funding its costs. With the many pressures documented in the report, ITTO believes that only concerted action will save tropical forests from further degradation. But ITTO officials say the positive trends they report can serve as a focal point for action.
"With this report we now know what we didn't before, which is that sustainable management is happening and there is a standard for observing and measuring it," said Sobral. "Enough progress has been made to give us hope, but we are still near the bottom of the curve and nobody can afford to be complacent. Tropical forests and tropical-forest-dependent communities remain in peril."
The report is available at: http://www.itto.or.jp/sfm/.
ITTO is an intergovernmental organization founded under the auspices of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. It promotes the conservation and sustainable management, use and trade of tropical forest resources. Its 59 member countries represent about 80 percent of the world's tropical forests and more than 90 percent of the global tropical timber trade. For further information on ITTO, visit: http://www.itto.or.jp