Sustainable Forests: No more of missing the wood for the trees

Sustainable Forest

Forests hold great value – ecologically, economically, socially and even culturally. It’s a resource that billions of people rely on. For estimates, about 1.6 billion people depend on forests – through the use biomass fuels, for livelihoods, and even dwelling – as it is home to about 60 million indigenous peoples and other forest-based communities. Economically, it contributes USD 468 billion to the global economy. Ecologically, Forests protect against harsh weather events, soil erosion, and provide habitats for diverse plants and animals. Culturally, patches of pristine forests called ‘sacred groves’ hold great significance for communities that live close to the forest.

So it’s in our own interest to protect our forests – and the good news is that they can be managed sustainably, in a way that conserves the forest ecosystems to benefit both present and future generations. So this concept of sustainable forestry and the consequent sustainable forest management emerged as a response to our own better understanding of forest ecology, and also changing attitudes of communities. Contrary to the practice of clearing native forests, a sustainable forest is regulated and carefully managed, and is also backed up by concrete policy. In a sustainable forest, trees are felled, but replaced by seedlings that eventually grow into mature trees, thus the forest contains trees of differing ages and species. And yet it’s a great deal more than that – it must retain the balance between environmental, commercial and recreational viability. Also, sustainable forests can survive only if they make a profit and provide employment for the local people. Such a new avenue that has been carved out by sustainable forests is in the leisure industry, attracting tourists such as walkers and hikers.

Sustainable forest management demands the use of certain techniques to ensure sustainability. These include (i) selective logging, in which only mature trees are felled, (ii) provision time for young trees to mature, (iii) planting of trees to extend forest land, and (iv) creation of protected forests. The definition of ‘sustainable forest’ as a forest that provides ‘sustainable yield’ of a limited number of wood products now encompasses an added dimension of protecting forest values, water supply, soils and cultural sites. Sustainable forest management, then, is forestry’s contribution to sustainable development.

Despite increasing pressure worldwide for improvement in the quality of forest management, good practices are yet to take root in many parts of the world, especially countries in the tropics and subtropics. This is because these countries lack appropriate forest policies, legislations, institutional frameworks and incentives to promote sustainable forest management. It is also due to the lack of funding and technical capacity. To aid these countries, the Food and Agricultural Organisation provides policy advice and supports capacity building through field projects, workshops, seminars and hands-on training. It also helps countries identify their forest resources, define elements of sustainable forest management and monitors their progress. FAO also helps in testing and promoting innovative, multi-purpose forest management approaches and techniques, working at international levels and through partnerships.

Let’s take a look at some of the other initiatives that have taken shape in sustainable forestry. One of them is the Global Assessment of Bamboo and Rattan for Green Development. This initiative aims to open up the potential of bamboo and rattan for rural communities, creating jobs and regenerating degraded lands and forests. This is expected to promote the effective use of bamboo and rattan in national green economy plans and development agendas. It can create a better world with increased livelihoods, income and environmental security on a huge scale within the bamboo and rattan resource countries. Over the years, they have trained many thousands of practitioners in a range of bamboo and rattan technologies, to establish bamboo businesses as well.

Another example is the Asia Plantation Capital, which acts as a ‘plantation operator’ and has over 8 million trees under its management, spread across 4 continents. Institutional investors can invest in forestry assets (timber) over a period of decades. Timber, like most commodities, is a resource in increasing demand and diminishing supply. Native forestry stocks have been reduced and are increasingly protected so only sustainably managed forestry assets can meet the strong demand for timber-related products. This demand-supply gap gives forestry plantation managers pricing power long into the future and has helped forestry become a widely accepted instrument for investors. Forest ecosystems have come to be seen as the most important component of the biosphere and forestry has emerged as an important field – having made inroads into science, applied art and technology.

A key development in sustainable forestry in the availability of certifications – which is an independent third-party assessment of an individual forest managers’ performance against the sustainability requirements established through an objective, transparent and inclusive standards development process.

Voluntary third party forest certification had its beginnings in the 1990s as a response to market concerns about forest management and illegal logging, particularly in developing countries. To this end, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI Inc.) was set up as an independent, nonprofit organization that is solely responsible for maintaining, overseeing and improving the internationally recognized Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) program. More than a standard, supporting research is a central tenet of the SFI program. It furthers the conservation value of forests and lands certified to the SFI standards. The SFI community’s forests are a living laboratory. It demonstrates that responsible forest management can maximize the environmental, economic and social values that are so crucial to us all.