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Peter H. Raven


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Forest Products

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orests are a principal global economic as well as ecological resource. This creates major challenges for the world as it tries to find ways of using them sustainably -- to benefit their inhabitants and the wider community while maintaining their many ecological functions.

Forests have arguably played a bigger role in the development of human societies than any other resource, bar water and cultivable land [1]. The prime direct or marketable product of most forests today is wood for use as timber, fuelwood, pulp and paper, providing some 3.4 billion cubic meters of timber-equivalent a year globally. After a 60 percent increase between 1960 and 1990, global wood consumption fluctuated but rose no further during the 1990s, largely due to the more efficient use of timber and paper recycling. [Add]

There is no sharp divide in total wood consumption between poor and rich nations, largely because poor nations have a large demand for wood as fuel. The world's leading per-capita consumers of timber (all using more than three times the global average) include nations at all levels of economic development: Liberia and Zambia; Malaysia and Costa Rica; Sweden and the United States of America. By continent, Africa is the second largest per-capita consumer of wood, after North America [2].


[timber production]


[timber and paperboard]

But the way wood is used varies dramatically with levels of economic development. Worldwide, half of consumption is for fuel, but in developing countries this figure rises to 80 percent. For almost 3 billion people, wood is the main energy source for heating and cooking. While the collection of wood for fuel is generally a less important cause of deforestation than forest clearance for farming, it is a prime cause of the loss of African tropical forests, particularly in the hinterland of cities, which still rely on wood for their energy requirements. Many countries, particularly in Asia, face a growing domestic shortage of wood for this basic purpose, notably Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan [3]. [Add]

Among industrialized nations, the predominant use of wood is as "industrial roundwood", a category that encompasses building material, paper and packaging. Each citizen of the United States uses 15 times as much wood for this purpose as an average citizen of a developing country. Over half the timber harvested for industrial use goes to North America, Europe and Japan, a figure that rises to 70 percent for paper. Global paper use has grown sixfold since 1950, using a fifth of all the wood harvested [4].

With the exception of China and Brazil -- two very large wood-producing nations -- most industrial roundwood production takes place in the developed world. Industrialized nations both produce and consume more than twice as much industrial roundwood as developing countries [5].

The focus of industrial roundwood production is moving towards harvesting from plantations. Between 1980 and 1995, the extent of plantations doubled to 180 million hectares, an area the size of Mexico [6]. They offer the potential for high yields of fast-growing species on small areas of land, off-setting the cost of planting, and offering a viable source of timber where accessible natural forests are in increasingly short supply [7]. Previously a feature largely of industrialized countries, plantations are now being cultivated in developing countries, with most of them planning to double their plantations by 2010 [8]. [Add]

Plantations take some of the stress off natural forests, but only for as long as natural forests are not logged to make way for them. There is increasing evidence that they do not confer the same ecological benefits. For example, they do not provide the same protection against soil erosion and flooding [9] and they are more vulnerable to fires. They are normally monocultures with a seriously impoverished biological diversity, and offer virtually none of the non-timber forest products of the kind that sustain many local economies and cultures. [Add]

Non-timber forest products include fruits and nuts, rattan, medicinal plants and bushmeat. Many people living in or near tropical rainforests rely for half or more of their protein on wild animals caught in the forest. The subsistence meat harvest in the Brazilian Amazon is put at up to 160 000 tons a year, or up to 20 million animals. A study in the rainforests of southern Cameroon found more than 500 plant species and 280 animal species in use and often on sale in local markets [10].

Because many non-timber forest products are used within the forests or traded informally, their value to national and community economies is frequently underestimated by governments when considering the economic potential of natural forests relative to other land uses. One exception was the formation of "extractive reserves" in the Brazilian Amazon in the late 1980s, dedicated to Brazil nut harvesting, rubber tapping and other non-destructive uses of the forest.

But just as timber can be overharvested, so can these non-timber resources, especially when local products gain access to large urban markets. The African bushmeat industry, which has become an international business, may exceed a million tons a year. Such levels of exploitation are unsustainable and can damage the forest ecology, since the same animals often disperse seeds [11]. [Add]

In an effort to promote more sustainable management of natural forests, environmental groups and foresters around the world have banded together to certify and label for customers timber and other products that come from well-managed forests. The largest of these consortiums is the Forest Stewardship Council, which by 1999 had issued certificates approving over 15 million hectares of forest worldwide. Many major retail groups in Europe and North America have pledged to purchase timber products only from such supplies.

Governments are also increasingly attempting to realize value from their forests by charging access fees to ecotourists, hunters, or scientists seeking plant-based pharmaceuticals. [Add]

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