Sustainable management of tropical forests has a long way to go
Less than 10% of permanent tropical forests are under a sustainable management plan, according to a study by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) an intergovernmental organization based in Yokohama, Japan, whose 33 timber-producing members account for around 85% of the world's tropical forests.
Between 2005 and 2010, the amount of land in the tropics designated as "permanently forested" — which must legally remain forested rather than be converted to agriculture or other land uses — and under sustainable management grew from around 36 million hectares to around 53 million hectares, an increase of nearly 50%. But this still represents only 7% of the 761 million hectares of the permanent forest estate in ITTO member countries and only 3% of tropical forests globally.
Duncan Poore, a former director-general of the World Conservation Union and a co-author of the ITTO report, says the figures point to a step in the right direction. "In the mid-1980s, probably less than a million hectares of tropical forest were being managed sustainably," says Poore, who helped the ITTO put together its first forest-status compilation in 1987.
Since the ITTO's last report in 2005, though, countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Nigeria have stumbled with their forestry targets because of war or lack of resources. But other countries, such as Brazil, Gabon and Malaysia, have made real progress towards sustainable forest management, according to the report.
Changing the conservation paradigm
The report moves beyond timber production to discuss ways of reducing deforestation through financial mechanisms such as UN REDD programme (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) — the idea of paying poor countries to preserve their forests rather than cut them down. It also warns that rising food and fuel prices could easily favour the conversion of land for agriculture and other uses over forest conservation.
“We have to treat these figures with caution, despite that they are the best available.”
Doug Boucher, head of the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says on a whole this shows that the ITTO is moving away from the "old-fashioned mindset" that timber production in permanent forest estates under a sustainable management plan at a profit could rescue tropical forests.
"Little by little the ITTO are starting to realize that it's just not working and they have to adapt to the new realities of the twenty-first century," says Boucher.
In Ivory Coast, for example, the permanent forest estate is recorded as 4.2 million hectares, but only 1.95 million of those are still forested. "The permanent forest estate is not a permanent solution and it is not real," says Boucher. "If something is legally a permanent forest but in reality it is not, how can you trust the data on the permanent forest estate as being anything real?"
The main achievement of the report is that it is "enormously comprehensive", says Poore. "It is much better than in 2005, and it provides a baseline for measuring future improvement."
But although the 2011 data might be superior, having more and better data can be a problem from an analytical point of view, especially when comparing with the previous data, says Boucher. "Some changes may be real or simply appear because of better data. And if the previous data is not trustworthy, you can't say anything."
This is especially true in quantifying the permanent forest estate, he says. "A table shows a substantial decrease in protected area overall, and the ITTO argues that this is due to greater clarity in the data, rather than any change in the legal status of such areas. That may be true, but you can't tell from what they show," says Boucher. "And if they are going to dismiss a trend when it's negative, you have to ask why they don't dismiss some of the trends that seem positive."
"For Malaysia, the report reads like fiction," adds Sam Lawson, director of Earthsight, a London-based non-governmental organization that investigates environmental wrongdoings. Whereas the report suggests that Malaysia has made progress towards sustainable management, "[it] makes no mention of the fact that recent independent remote-sensing analysis suggests that the deforestation rate in Sarawak (Malaysia's largest state) is the worst in the world," he says. "I suspect that the coverage of other countries is equally inaccurate and misleading."
Poore agrees that despite improvements since the ITTO's last report in 2005, there are still some limitations to the data. "We have to treat these figures with caution, despite the fact that they are the best available," he says.
But, Poore adds, the development of REDD activities could be just the solution to close the gap on the numbers debate. "One of things that REDD does involve is monitoring, so one hopes that those countries that are engaged in the REDD process may be able to improve the quality of the information they provide."