Throughout history, the world’s forests have contributed to the prosperity of nations. Indeed, many individuals have also profited — some handsomely — by cutting down trees and selling forest products.
Yet to this day, some policy makers, land owners and businesspeople simply cannot see the forest for the trees. To their way of thinking, a forest is an obstacle to prosperity — something that needs to be moved out of their way by cutting, slashing, bulldozing or burning.
During the past 5,000 years, about 1.8 billion hectares of forests have been lost. But more than half of that amount disappeared in just the last 150 years — nearly all as a result of human activity. Few areas of the world’s forests have been spared.
First it was the forests of Europe, then North America, and more recently the lush jungles of the tropics.
While forest mismanagement has been a chronic problem worldwide, here in Asia and the Pacific the results are clear for all to see.
This week, amid the natural beauty of New Zealand’s Rotorua, more than 200 leading forestry experts and senior policy makers from across Asia and the Pacific are meeting to discuss ways to better manage the region’s forests to enhance prosperity.
This biannual gathering of the Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission, facilitated by the Food and Agriculture (FAO) of the United Nations, focused on building awareness of the contributions that forests make to our societies and how, working together, we could enhance those contributions for the wellbeing of all.
Forests cover an estimated 740 million hectares in this region, or 26 percent of the total land surface.
However, on a per capita basis, Asia and the Pacific is the least-forested region of the world, with only 0.2 hectares of forest per person. As a renewable resource, this can be corrected with time, determination and resources.
Indeed, signs of recognition and corrective action are emerging.
Indonesia’s push to expand and clarify rights of local communities through village forest concessions and permits and to recognize customary rights of forest-dependent people, are important steps in this direction.
Across the Asia-Pacific region, timber has helped improve the lives of nearly everyone. As a raw material it remains essential in shaping both developed and emerging economies — from the construction of homes and offices to supporting communication, transportation and energy infrastructures and the building of fishing boats that bring home the catch of the day. At its most basic level, forests provide a traditional source of food and fuelwood for millions of people.
The importance of forests in supplying clean and reliable water supplies, holding precious topsoil in place, providing habitat for most of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, and locking up vast amounts of carbon that would otherwise increase greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere is now far better known. The enormous cultural values of forests and their contributions as a backdrop to tourism and to spiritual wellbeing are also now much more widely understood.
But economists have generally failed, in monetary terms, to connect the dots between the value-added contribution of forests and prosperity. Measures of prosperity have mainly been based on crude indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP), thus marginalizing forestry because such measures fail to consider the social, environmental, cultural and spiritual contributions to society.
Even in sectors where the economic value of forests is more clearly recognized, we could become much more efficient in enhancing that prosperity in more sustainable ways. Instead of harvesting and selling low-value, unprocessed forest commodities — all too common in many countries — we should increase the amount and quality of the products and services we produce.
A positive example is the multi-billion dollar wooden furniture industries developed in China and Vietnam during the past decade, which encompass enormous value-added components and have created tens of thousands of new jobs in these dynamic economies.
Significantly greater efforts can also be made to ensure more just and equitable distribution of benefits among those who manage and care for forests.
Small producers and small forest enterprises — many operating in the informal sector and run by women — are especially disadvantaged by complex rules and regulations that favour large enterprises and make it difficult to tap into critical financial markets and research and developmental support.
Forest ownership and access rights must be clarified and strengthened, with greater long-term tenure security granted to small holders and local communities.
Forest governance has to be improved, made more transparent, and streamlined. Large-scale illegal logging is a classic example of how poor governance negatively affects prosperity, when income that should be accruing to governments and society is siphoned away by illegal operators.
Finally, far greater innovation needs to be applied in the forestry sector to produce more value-added products and services. Only by applying the latest advancements from science and innovation will the forestry sector be able to realize its full potential to contribute to prosperity.
The countries of this region are slowly but surely regaining an appreciation for a holistic approach to forestry. And that’s a good thing, because sound management of our forests is essential to the future prosperity of us all.
The writer is senior forestry officer with the Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
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