Helping people to save the forests

Posted: 1 August 2000

Author: Jeff McNeely

Author Info: Jeff McNeely is Chief Scientist with the World Conservation Union, Gland, Switzerland.Related link:See the World Rainforest Movement's Bulletin (Issue No. 63, October 2002) on 'Community-based Forest Management'.

The destruction of the world's forests can only be halted if governments and foresters rediscover the historic links between forests and people says Jeff McNeely in this global overview.

Forests are the home to the bulk of the world's biodiversity. They also protect critical watersheds, help purify air and water, and provide the primary source of energy for most rural people in developing countries. Yet the world's forests are in serious trouble. Over 15 million hectares - an area larger than Bangladesh or Greece - are being cleared in the tropics every year. Causes of this loss include logging, land hunger by growing populations of rural people, and simple mismanagement.

peru burningForest fire in Peru© Herbert Girardet/Still PicturesAnd while temperate forests are not shrinking in total area, they are being seriously damaged by industrial pollution in some countries and being heavily logged almost everywhere. The majestic old-growth forests that have inspired artists, writers, and the general public for centuries are fast disappearing, and with this loss people too are losing the many benefits that forests historically have provided.

Why are forests being lost so quickly? What can be done to replace the current reality of degradation and destruction with a sustainable future for forests? Answers will come from looking at the historical relationship between people and forests in different parts of the world.

This shows that forests and people have evolved together over thousands of years, with people planting the trees they prefer, using fire to burn forests to improve hunting conditions, and managing forest fallows to maintain their agricultural fields.

PatternThis pattern repeats itself in many parts of the world. The American anthropologist William Harp has described how the Emberà, a group living in the lowland tropical rainforest of Colombia and Venezuela, live by hunting, fishing, gathering materials from the forest, and planting gardens in clearings made among the trees. For hundreds of years, they have maintained a system of exploitation and dynamic ecological equilibrium that ensures the continuous availability of essential forest resources.

They have done this by using a range of techniques that have parallels in many other parts of the world: self-reliant technology, protection given to important sites, fertility control, appropriate settlement patterns, flexible social rules, egalitarian social structure, religious constraints, and strong tradition of self-interested management of forest resources.

But this idyllic picture has also involved considerable hardship, high infant mortality, sometimes-deadly raids from neighbouring groups, and other challenges. Thus the Emberà, like indigenous peoples throughout the world, are attracted to development that promises to free them from their traditional way of life, even though this may change them from self-sufficient producers to wards of the state.

Some governments have accepted the challenge of bringing traditional forest-dwelling people into the mainstream of national development and are seeking appropriate balances between tradition and development. This balance is not an easy one to find. For example, in Para State of northern Brazil, the 8,000-strong Kayapo have a 3 million hectare reserve established to protect their way of life while allowing them to develop at their own pace. For more than a decade, they have been trading in mahogany to bring in money which has allowed them to join the consumer society. However, the temptations of this arrangement quickly led to the Kayapo "mining" timber from the rainforest, harvesting timber in a predatory way and forcing the government to ban the further sale of mahogany.

Consumer valuesThis case simply underlines the tragedy of a situation where indigenous groups have come into contact with the modern consumer society, absorbing those consumer values. While the Kayapo might hope to switch to a sustainable economy based on forest products, they can do so only by buying into the global trading system and with government backing.

Even the US Forest Service is adopting new approaches to managing the lands under their responsibility, based on the realization that forests indeed have multiple values. For example, a 1994 report by the Wilderness Society showed that tourism and recreation generated ten times the economic benefits of logging in five southeastern states and five times as many jobs. Under a new programme launched in 1990, Forest Service is becoming a pared-down, multi-disciplinary core staff working closely with a variety of interest groups to manage ecosystems for sustained production of a variety of ecological, social, and economic benefits. Forests are to be managed not for specific quantities of commodities or uses, but for a desired future condition that includes both ecological health and direct benefits to society.

Given the chance, people living in and around forests in many parts of the world promote high levels of diversity, seeking a wide variety of goods and services, rather than focusing on a few commercial species. The rural people of Malaysia, Cambodia or Siberia have little say over what happens to the forests where they live, because the timber concessions are given out in capital cities. Institutional mechanisms need to counterbalance the political-economic forces favouring exploitative use of forests.

With such mechanisms in place, the development of diverse non-timber products of benefit to local people would take on new meaning; in the absence of such mechanisms, these efforts may be premature. In many cases it may be preferable to let the marketplace function freely; while the logic of the market is not infallible, it often helps rural people more than the forest programmes created by central governments.

Painted Weevil: used to pollinate oil palms.© Herbert GirardetStill Pictures

Of course, the faith in local communities needs to be balanced with reality, for forests achieve numerous national objectives, including meeting national needs for timber and firewood, retaining options for future economic use, addressing ethical and aesthetic values, and providing global benefits. Thus simply ensuring that local people have access to forest resources may not always lead to socially-optimal levels of biodiversity conservation. Instead, the larger society must mobilize additional resources and approaches to support a socially desirable level of conservation effort, using a wide diversity of approaches.