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May 25th 2006
From The Economist print edition
Cutting down trees could be the best way to preserve tropical forests
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DEPRESSING reports about how quickly the world's tropical forests are being felled are commonplace. But depressing reports about the state of the trees that are still standing are much rarer. In fact, a new study from the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO), an offshoot of the United Nations, claims to be the first exhaustive survey of tropical-forest management ever undertaken. Its findings, although grim, do contain a kernel of hope.
The ITTO examined "permanent forest estate", meaning land that the governments of its 33 members have formally set aside for forests, and is therefore subject to some form of regulation or protection. The category includes both national parks and timber concessions, in both public and private hands. It covers 814m hectares, and accounts for roughly two-thirds of the world's tropical forests.
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International Tropical Timber Organisation
The concept is important, explains Duncan Poore, one of the authors of the report, because it is not always possible, or desirable, to protect every last grove against encroaching farms or homes. Instead, governments should concentrate on maintaining the forests that are the most commercially and scientifically valuable. Yet the ITTO's researchers found that only 15% of the permanent forest estate has a management plan, and less than 5% of it is sustainably managed. That still amounts to an area the size of Germany, the report notes, and represents a dramatic improvement since 1988, when an earlier and less extensive survey found that only one country in the tropics-Trinidad and Tobago-had any well-run forests at all. But relative to the area of forest that has disappeared over the same period, the well-managed area is negligible.
The crux is bad government. Poor countries do not always have good forestry laws. Even when they do, they rarely have the capacity to enforce them. It is no coincidence that Malaysia, the country with the highest proportion of prudently managed forest in the study, is also one of the richest. Countries with the worst run forests, meanwhile, are war-torn places such as Congo and Cambodia.
More surprising, perhaps, is the difference the report found between forests where logging is allowed, and those that have been earmarked for conservation. Some 7% of "production" forests, it turns out, are in good shape, compared with just 2.4% of "protection" forests. As Dr Poore points out, it is easy to undertake to preserve a forest, but difficult to do so in practice. Timber concessionaires at least have an incentive (and probably the wherewithal) to look after their property, while ill-paid and ill-equipped forestry officials often have neither. Exploiting forests may prove the best way to preserve them.
Copyright ? The Economist Newspaper Limited 2006. All rights
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