Chapter 3: Towards Sound Forest Management

In Chapter 1 we described some of the problems of people living on tropical forest lands: disease, malnutrition, and physical insecurity. Chapter 2 examined the relevance of tropical forests for mankind as a genetic reservoir and as a climatic regulator and reviewed the main types of forest conversion and their importance. We shall now consider whether sound forest management is feasible.


‘Runway’ and ‘Treadmill’ Deforestation

There is often a fine balance between the costs and benefits of forest development. The forest is a form of economic capital, passed on from generation to generation. Traditional forest development seeks to use that capital, and to transform it for other productive uses. Forests become pastures and farmland; timber fuels industrial ovens and makes saw-mills turn. Yet no action is taken for the reproduction, let alone the expansion, of this form of capital.

Some countries have engaged in runway deforestation: they have tried to achieve take-offinto modern industrial society by turning natural forest capital into agricultural and industrial wealth. In Ivory Coast, timber has been the largest foreign exchange earner, and the country has been the largest African timber exporter. At the same time, for every cubic metre of wood extracted by the Ivorian timber industry, 4.5 cubic metres have been destroyed by agricultural clearance. Of 12 million hectares of closed forest only some 2 million now remain. The timber industry is now declining in importance as reserves of more valuable timber species are  exhausted. Ivory Coast is not without its share of forest development problems: the dry season often brings damaging fires in the cashcrop plantations of the forest zone, and recent droughts have dried up reservoirs and led to cuts in electricity supply.

In many developing countries, the forest has been exploited and degraded to fulfil the needs of immediate consumption. These countries are engaged in a process of treadmill deforestation: forest capital is being eaten up just to prevent economies from slipping backwards. In countries as varied as Nepal, Uganda, Ghana and Zaire, forest capital is liquidated and yet per capita incomes continue to fall.

Only political will can ensure that people stay with the land they have, benefiting from a nation’s financial and administrative resources to make the land productive productive this year, productive the next, and still productive into the future, a truly sustainable natural resource base.

Deforestation is a humanitarian problem which traditional forest clearing has done much to create  and little to solve. To meet people’s needs in tropical forest lands, we must learn to put aside questions of short-term economic profitability and accept that, in the end, ensuring a sustainable natural resource  base  is  an objective in itself and a condition for sustain able development.

Realistically, it must be accepted that deforestation and ecological degradation will continue in the tropics. In order to reduce the pace of deforestation, to make the forest conversion less harmful to the long-term prospects of human civilization in the tropical environment, efforts should be made to ensure that conversion is the vehicle of sustainable development; and, at the same time, ensure that forest areas of particular socio-economic or ecological value are preserved. 


Environmental Management for Major Forest Development Projects

Deforestation is caused less by forestry operations than by roads, dams, ranching and resettlement programmes and other work carried out by government departments and transnational corporations that have no direct responsibil­ity for forest conservation or forestry production. Many of these programmes are financed by capital at near-market rates lent by the major  international development banks. In the forestry sector, the World  Bank, for example, makes commitments of less than $100 million per year globally. Yet in a single country the Bank may commit more than this on one major development project alone.

We have said that, in forestry, one cannot always be sure of achieving the best results by pursuing the highest rate of return. Yet the international development  banks must obtain much of their finance on commercial markets. On the whole, however, these banks are in a position to borrow and lend at slightly less than market rates of interest; the world Bank, in particular, is sometimes in a position to make a judicious mixture of hard  loans from the IBRD and soft loans from IDA. It is critically important that these banks and their clients use all opportunities available to incorporate into  projects elements of environmental management and social development for the populations affected by the project. Even relatively small components of this type can make much difference to a projects impact on the long-term potential of the area, long after loans are repaid and equipment amortized.

Part of the wealth generated by a major project must be returned immediately to the area to enable careful management of the disturbed forest site. In appraising the Polonoroeste Project in Brazil, the World Bank remarked that severe problems of environmental degradation, social inequality and lawlessness were likely to arise during implementation, but felt that without its participation the area’s prospects would be grimmer still. This is not an image of their work that development finance institutions like to promote, but it is very real nevertheless. It should be recognized that preventing environmental damage is one of the most important roles of the international development finance community today.

The experience – and it is valuable experience – that these development institutions have accumulated has often been an experience of failure: of the severe environmental damage done by otherwise successful projects and of projects which have failed through inadequate attention to environmental and social side­ effects. This experience needs to be shared, frankly and without complacency, with developing countries who have a right to learn from past mistakes.


Total Protection of Exceptional Sites

Total protection of tropical forest is only justifiable when this does not involve substantial privation for local populations. But there are still many areas where total protection is justified. Such ecological protection, which will bear no short-term economic returns, provides two important humanitarian benefits: it protects resources for the populations of the future; and it provides an opportun­ity to cater for the needs of indigenous groups living in harmony with the forest. The Biosphere Reserve concept of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme is one of several schemes which explicitly cater for the needs of indigenous groups, regarding them as part of the pro­tected ecological system and not as hostile to it. But adequate environmental management, financial and poli­tical support, and constant monitoring are essential.


Focal Programmes for Areas of High Stress

A number of areas of tropical forest land are affected by accelerated environmental degradation as a result of excessive deforestation. These areas include countries where per capita income has fallen over a period of more than 20 years, as in Ghana, Uganda and Nepal (World Bank, 1984). The West African case is of particular importance, since there is a growing suspicion that deforestation in the forest zone may interact with desertification in the arid and semi-arid zones to amplify climatic disturbance.

In singling out SubSahara n Africa as an area in urgent need of increased assistance, the World Bank coined the term accelerated development’. It is difficult for many people to understand what an acceleration of develop­ment  can  entail  in  an  area where per capita GNP fell overall throughout the 1970s or why an increase in development assistance is necessarily an appropriate response (Eicher, 1982). It is unfortunate that greater emphasis was not placed on the role of environmental management in a focal programme of this kind .

It is widely recognized that changes in economic incentives and structures of land tenure may do more to help areas of high stress than the injection of  large amounts of assistance. Yet in tropical forest areas such as West Africa, the eastern Himalayan watersheds and the Pacific Andean coast where natural disasters such as fire, flood and drought are known to be exacerbated   by deforestation, generous financial support is required for environmental management. With care, this is a field where assistance can make a major contribution with comparatively little likelihood of exacerbating structural problems in the local economy. Furthermore, such programmes can provide great benefits at relatively low cost.


Ensuring Careful Forest Clearance

Clearance and fire – for slash-and-burn agriculture – are two essential tools of people living in tropical forest and savanna. They have been used since time immemorial; their scientific justification for agricultural and pastoral yield improvement is well-documented; they are frequently ingrained in social tradition and custom. They may change, but they need not harm the environment.

Improperly used, or used by a growing population experiencing an increasingly acute conflict over use and control of land, fire and clearance are powerful and dangerous tools indeed. Preemptive clearance of forest can undermine the basis for a rational and equitable allocation of land uses. Fire can be used directly as an offensive weapon in the ejection  and  expropriation of local cultivators. The uses of tradition may become the misuses of a changing present. There are an increasing number of cases where migrating or expanding groups come into conflict with other social groups over use and occupation of tropical lands.

Fire and heavy machinery used by international corporations to clear tropical forest and convert them into ranching areas inflict the worst damage. Many national governments have sought to impose laws on fire clearance. These laws have frequently been seen as an attempt to alienate land from its natural occupants, and the legal approach has proved largely ineffectual in many cases. Governments themselves are often responsible for damage in forest clearance, as when manual clearance techniques are replaced by heavy machinery which com­ pacts and erodes the soil. National governments continue to have a responsibility to find ways of  helping  rural people to exercise proper care in clearance. There is a considerable fund of scientific and technical knowledge available for controlling their use. It has been more diffi­cult for governments to control the clearing activities of international corporations.

There are great disparities between the land areas avail­ able for rural households in different tropical forest lands. In South East Africa, 2-4 hectares has become a  typical plot for one household to cultivate and manage. In much of Latin America, 50-200 hectares is the norm on pioneer colonization fronts: when they fail, these smallholdings are often replaced by huge ranches. One of the main targets of research on tropical husbandry should be to dis­ cover the best methods of  sustainable  exploitation  that can be employed on farms of standard size under different conditions. If it can be demonstrated that a fifty-hectare plot of forest in Latin America can be managed through a mixture of gathering and gardening techniques to provide a livelihood for one household, it may be possible to turn the tide on unsustainable, extensive forms of land-use.

At present, much of the latent conflict over land-use is dissipated by further forest clearance: there is still enough to go round. Reports of violence and forcible expropriation, particularly in Central America but also in areas such as Uganda and Assam, are not necessarily signs of lawless­ ness and a breakdown of social structures; they are in many cases signs of a simple, physical lack of land. The search for production systems which use less land and use it sustainably can make a major contribution to defusing such conflicts.


Forest Management and National Planning

This report has referred to the experience of many different people and places throughout the tropics. The problems of forest development must be solved at the local level, by people who understand them in detail, as they affect each community.

Mistakes in national planning have a profound influence on the lives of many forest people. Credit facili­ties are a typical example. Poor, landless peasants in many countries depend on sources of credit for any chance of improving their lot. Yet credit institutions put conditions on credit which often deprive it of all use fulness. They require proof of title to land as loan security – but many peasants have never had a legal title and have no means of acquiring it. They grant credit for stocking cattle on small­ holdings vulnerable to leaching and erosion. They restrict the choice of agricultural crops, lending for rice production when cassava gives higher and more regular yields. They give preference to loans for mature forest clearance, encouraging wasteful deforestation.

The pressure originally outside tropical forest areas should be assessed and controlled. It is caused by inter­ national demand for cheap meat and hardwood and also by national boundaries and peasant immigration. This process of migration reflects population  pressure  not  in the forest itself  but in other areas. It is therefore essential to include forest development in the overall development process.

These and many other cases of mistaken planning decisions are reported in all parts of the  tropics. They often stem from two basic weaknesses in land-use plan­ning. The closed forest is treated as a free and permanent/renewable source of raw materials: forest plans in national planning concentrate on trade in timber, and ignore the fact that the forest provides a habitat to many people. And deforested or degraded areas are treated as if the forest has no role to play in socio-economic development, when these areas above all need forestry management and care. To bring natural resource management into planning is to match national decisions to the needs of people, for these natural resources are the base on which the poor of forest lands must live.



  1. IDA finance is of course normally extended to lowincome  coun­tries only.
  2. Cf. Arnaud and Sournia (1980). This subject is still imperfectly understood, but it is widely felt that it would be most unwise to await detailed scientific confirmation before envisaging remedial action.
  3. A striking case has been documented in the region of Santarem in Para State, Brazil, by Bonkers (1982).
  4. Combinations of manual and mechanical clearance techniques may often be the most economic. Government projects are often also responsible for waste of considerable valuable timber (cf. Ross & Donovan 1984).
  5. Research is currently being conducted by Dr J. Clay on behalf of UNESCO on this subject