Fifteenth Conference – 1997, Canada

Zimbabwe was honoured to host the 15th Commonwealth forestry Conference in its resort town of Victoria Falls from 12 to 17 May, 1997. Coming some five years after the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the conference provided a valuable forum to review challenges facing the forestry fraternity in the wake of a number of international initiatives on sustainable forest management, the rapid transformations in world economies and the changing global political environment.

A major output from the Conference was a set of recommendations on sustainable forest management addressed to the Commonwealth Heads of Government; the international community, national governments and civil society; and the Standing committee on Commonwealth Forestry.

The Conference resolved that the major challenges to sustainable forest management in the 21st century include:

  • the diminishing forest resource base,
  • inadequate recognition of the forestry sector,
  • limited community participation and
  • the declining support to forestry support services such as research, extension and training.

The need for political commitment and all levels in tackling these challenges featured prominently throughout the conference.

The declining forest resource base

The increasing demands being made on a declining forest resource base worldwide were noted with concern. It was estimated that between 12 – 15 million ha of tropical forests and woodlands are destroyed each year. Major reasons for this high level of deforestation are human population pressure, poverty, lack of alternatives outside agriculture and insecure land tenure systems. These factors, which largely lie outside the forestry sector, have led to over-exploitation of forest resources, land degradation and loss of biodiversity. It was, however, noted that the rate of deforestation is now declining worldwide due to afforestation programmes being implemented through woodlots, farm forestry and agroforestry. It is desirable to find ways of strengthening such programmes through the fusion of indigenous and contemporary knowledge systems at both the household and community levels. It was noted that insecure land tenure systems continue to be a major constraint to the success of such tree cultivation and forest management initiatives. Consequently, it was agreed that the long term solution to this problem is for governments to commit themselves to providing more secure tenure to local communities and individual households. In the short term, there is a need to recognize, empower and perhaps modernize existing traditional institutional arrangements to make them more relevant and effective in tree cultivation and sustainable forest management within current tenurial systems.

The conference also acknowledged the importance of plantations (of both exotic and indigenous species) in reducing pressure on indigenous forests through the provision of both timber and other forest products such as poles and fuelwood. It was, however, noted that the expansion of such forests is often hampered by lack of suitable land and limited investment capital. Consequently, there is a need to enhance the contribution of plantations to the global forest resource base by:

  • Promoting smallholder out grower schemes in partnership with private sector companies to expand the plantation forest area and to bring rural communities into the cash economy; and
  • Creating a conducive environment (e.g. through the use of tax incentives) for increased private sector investment in harvesting and processing the output from existing plantation areas.

The role of certification in promoting sustainable forest management through market forces was also debated. It was noted that such consumer-driven incentives work better for international timber exporters and commercial plantation owners who are able to internalize the benefits from such practices. In its present form, certification does not provide substantial incentives under communal land tenure arrangements where forest goods and services are consumed locally and communally. There is a need to find ways of making forest resource sustaining initiatives such as certification relevant under often insecure tenure systems.

Despite the alarming rate of forest destruction world wide, the conference noted that little has been done to accurately quantify the remaining forest resources, especially in the developing world. Such information is necessary for guiding the development of workable policies and strategies to increase and/or sustain the supply of forests. Consequently, woody vegetation mapping and woody biomass estimation should be undertaken at the national level using techniques such as geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing.

Inadequate recognition of the forestry sector

The conference observed that the contribution of the forestry sector to national economies is often underestimated. This has contributed to the sector’s low political visibility in many developing countries. A major reason for this is that many forest products and services do not  appear in the national accounts since such accounts primarily capture commercial timber transactions. Despite their low contribution to national income (typically substantially less than 3%), forests play a key role in the rural economy by providing a wide range of timber and non timber forest products to the rural poor. Most rural communities depend on forests for their livelihoods and food security. It was further noted that the tendency to define forestry narrowly has also blurred the sector’s linkages with other sectors of national economies. For example, forestry is generally not considered as an integral part of land use systems at the community and household levels. There is therefore a need to identify and highlight these contributions of forestry in order to raise the profile and political visibility of the sector as discussed below.

With respect to quantifying the contribution of forests to national economies there is a need to derive realistic economic values of the less tangible goods and services derived from them. These include poverty alleviation, food security, general enhancement of the quality of life at national and household levels, the watershed conservation function, carbon sequestration and contributions to the other more vibrant sectors such as tourism and agriculture. It was, however, recognized that this task depended upon the development of appropriate methodologies for comprehensive economic valuation of forest products and services.

On the international front it was noted that despite the dominance of forestry in environmental matters, the sector has no convention of its own although a number of international conventions that directly impinge on it have been signed and ratified by some Commonwealth countries. These include the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), the Convention on biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention to Combat Desertification. There was no consensus on whether a forestry convention on its own could raise the international profile of forestry given the existence of such related conventions. It was noted that a similar sentiment had been expressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF).

Limited community participation

The conference observed that the intervention of the State in forest conservation, management and control in non-reserved forests has tended to frustrate efforts of local communities who are the custodians of the resource. In fact, many purported instances of community participation have been development rhetoric and have failed to incorporate indigenous knowledge systems and local level institutional arrangements in project formulation and implementation. This has led to high failure rates. It was noted that for such programmes to succeed, governments should commit themselves to devolving greater responsibility to local communities and to providing adequate resources to support and strengthen local initiatives and institutions without fear of losing control. However, the success of such arrangements requires the creation of a common vision among all stakeholders including professional foresters.

With respect to reserved forests, delegates noted that State Forest Services have traditionally adopted protectionist approaches in conserving such forests. However, such approaches are becoming increasingly difficult to enforce as neighbouring communities living at the forest edge are demanding a share of the forest products and services. These communities should be involved more in the management and utilisation of the forests to avoid their illegal exploitation and destruction.

The following examples of successful partnership processes being undertaken in some countries were highlighted.

  • The Canadian Model Forest programme which involves local communities in partnership arrangements in situations of potential conflict between logging interests and other forest users, and
  • The formation of resource management committees in collaborative forest management as vehicles for involving local communities on the forest edge in the conservation, management and sustainable utilisation of gazette forests.

It was however noted that the success of such devolution processes requires human capacity building at various stakeholder levels. The need for gender sensitivity in the whole process was also emphasized throughout the conference.

Declining support to forestry support services

The conference noted with concern the steady decline in financial resources being allocated by national governments to forestry support services such as research, extension and training. This has reduced the scale of social and indigenous forestry research and extension programmes which have limited private sector appeal. Furthermore, the proposed broadening of the definition of forestry  in order to enhance its political and economic visibility requires that forestry expertise goes beyond timber production, processing and marketing to emphasize social, institutional, political and environmental dimensions.

The following solutions were proposed to address the foregoing issues:

  • Public sector research, extension and training institutions should establish and strengthen partnerships with relevant NGOs and the private sector at national and local levels in order to reduce costs.
  • National governments should provide incentives (such as tax rebates) to encourage private sector investment in forestry research and development,
  • Mutually beneficial research and extension networks should be established at regional and international levels in order to share information and experiences on trans-boundary issues.
  • Governments should be strongly lobbied to increase their financial contribution to forestry technology generation, dissemination and training.
  • The training of forestry professionals should be broadened to cover non-traditional areas such as participatory methodologies, and
  • Other relevant professional disciplines should be incorporated into the forestry sector.


The challenges to sustainable forest management in the 21st century presented in this paper are not all new. What is new and perhaps significant is the extent of the agreement on their identification: they were arrived at by consensus from a wide cross section of professionals and practitioners from 34 nations in a participatory manner. Furthermore, the need for political commitment at all levels in tackling these issues featured prominently throughout the conference. It is therefore hoped that concrete steps will have been taken to address some of these challenges by the time of the 16th Commonwealth Forestry Conference to be held in Western Australia in 2001.

Forestry Challenges in the 21st Century: the 15th Commonwealth Forestry Conference perspective

by E.M.Shumba (Secretary General of the Conference) and S. Baker (Executive Secretary of the Conference)

The Commonwealth Forestry Review Vol 77, No 1 (1998), pp. 1-3 (3 pages), Published by Commonwealth Forestry Association