The rate of deforestation and forest degradation continues to be rapid in tropical developing countries. The principal consequences, and causes for concern are:
A CIFOR/Government of Indonesia dialogue on Science, Forests and Sustainability in 1994 concluded that forest research requires a radical revision to meet the needs of the 21st century. Compared to the conventional focus on timber production in national forests, it must reach upwards, to consider the global externalities; it must reach downwards, to work at grass roots with local people and NGOs on indigenous knowledge systems and the subsistence uses of non-timber forest products; and it must reach sideways, to examine the intersectoral impacts that frequently dwarf and overwhelm policies and practices devised within the sector, and incorporate the insights of many other disciplines, particularly the social sciences, which for so long have been marginal to forest research.
For natural forests, we require:
On currently cleared and/or degraded areas, we need:
The adverse consequences of assorted public policies (and of rapid economic and social change) distort the locations of forest margins. We therefore require analysis of:
Unless there are dramatic breakthroughs in both the technical (biophysical sciences) and policy (social sciences) arena, destruction and degradation of tropical forests will continue, with enormous social and economic losses, and not only within the forestry sector as conventionally defined. Sustainable, equitable Forest Ecosystem Management does provide an alternative if only the appropriate mix of social and bio-physical research can provide the policies and processes to achieve it.
As natural forests disappear, and as social recognition of the non-consumptive and amenity values of forests increases, the predominant contribution of forestry is changing from a commodity focus (timber) to environmental management for a much wider range of social benefits and social beneficiaries. Simultaneously, as prices increase for timber and other products from natural forests, and as plantation technology and tree-husbandry techniques improve and become more widespread, the source of the forest products is gradually switching from natural to cultivated sources of supply, as the latter becomes more competitive. Indeed rapid expansion of high-yielding plantations in the tropics can provide an alternative, commercially attractive resource that will indirectly contribute to the reduction in harvesting pressure in natural forests. Timber and non-timber products from natural forests are likely to come increasingly from sources which have been certified as sustainably and/or equitably managed.
It is widely believed that both the sustainability and the equity/social justice goals are more likely to be satisfied under new institutional arrangements that devolve decision-making about forest use and management, to local communities and households whose well-being is directly affected. Many such experiments are currently being implemented in community forestry, Joint Forest Management and Integrated Conservation and Development Projects, but there is still much to learn.
In this process, it will also be necessary to develop some methodologies for our tool-kit such as techniques for rapid but reliable assessment of biodiversity; criteria and indicator for sustainable/equitable forest management; techniques for the comprehensive economic valuation of forests (including all the externalities) and long-term growth and yield models of tropical forest systems, for diverse products.