Sustainable Forest Management

There is international consensus that climate change is the most significant environmental threat to life on earth. At nearly every stage of the life cycle, from the moment a tree is planted in the ground to the use of a timber component in a building, wood contributes to the solution of global warming. However, this is only truly correct if the tree is harvested using sustainable forest management practices.

Sustainable forest management is a set of practices built upon technical and scientific principles that set out how a forest can be managed to harvest timber whilst balancing the three pillars of social, economic and environmental objectives.

Forest resources and forest lands should be sustainably managed to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual needs of present and future generations.

Where do the current policies of sustainable forest management come from?
1987 – The Brundtland Definition

The first effort to define modern sustainability came in the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Prime Minister Brundtland of Norway. This report defined sustainable development as: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

1992 – UN Earth Summit

The Brundtland definition was expanded on and applied in-depth to forests at the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit. In fact, even now, the forest sector remains the only major international commodity sector where there is a worldwide international agreement on the key elements of sustainable production. The forest sector has led the way to translate “sustainability” from an idea on paper into a fundamental determinant of action on the ground.

At the 1992 Earth Summit, the international community agreed a “Non-Legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of all Types of Forests” which states that:

Forest resources and forest lands should be sustainably managed to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual needs of present and future generations. These needs are for forest products and services, such as wood and wood products, water, food, fodder, medicine, fuel, shelter, employment, recreation, habitats for wildlife, landscape diversity, carbon sinks and reservoirs, and for other forest products. Appropriate measures should be taken to protect forests against harmful effects of pollution, including air-borne pollution, fires, pests and diseases, in order to maintain their full multiple value”.

There are several implications of this broad definition of sustainability when applied to forest management:

1. Sustainable forestry is more than “sustained yield”

While sustainability encompasses the concept of “sustained yield”, which refers to the continuing ability of forests to supply timber, the services that a forest provides go much further than this. Sustainability implies the long-term maintenance of all forest functions including ecological and landscape conservation, soil protection, recreation, aesthetic values, as well as the production of timber and other forest products.

2. Trade-offs must be made

It is important to realise that the management of a forest for a single product will affect the forest’s ability to provide other services or products, so a trade-off must be made. For example, managing the forest for high levels of timber production may affect the value of the forest as a habitat for wild animals.

3. Context affects the meaning of sustainable forestry

Sustainable forestry is also a moving target. It is about satisfying people’s needs. Just as these vary from place to place and through time, so the definition of sustainable forestry varies. For example, in developed countries, many people now attach greater significance to forests as areas for recreation. By contrast, in many developing countries, there is a much greater reliance on forests as a source of food, of employment and for economic development. So you can expect standards of “sustainable forestry” to vary between developed and developing countries.

How do you adapt the meaning to the context?

In practice, implementing sustainable forestry requires three stages. The first is at an international level, governments, through a variety of United Nations processes, have established a series of international principles for sustainable forest management. Examples of these processes include:

  • The Pan European or Helsinki Process – covering all European forests
  • The International Tropical Timber Organisation covering all the major tropical wood producing countries
  • The Montreal Process, covering all forests in boreal and temperate zones outside Europe (including North America, Russia, Australasia, Chile)

The second stage involves interpretation and adaptation of the international sustainability principles into national forest policy, laws and regulations. This requires consultation with a wide range of interests to establish consensus on the contents of sustainable forestry standards.

The third stage is the most challenging, and involves ensuring the sustainable forestry standards are actually implemented on the ground. In practice this can only be effectively achieved on a large scale in those countries with robust frameworks for forest governance, including rule of law, clear and unambiguous land tenure systems, democratic and accountable political institutions, well trained and resourced forestry personnel and law enforcement agencies, and comprehensive and transparent systems for regular forest monitoring.