Sustainable management of tropical forests


Richard Fischer, Thünen Institute of International Forestry and Forest Economics

Is the economic exploitation of natural forests in the tropics acceptable, even in the last "jungles"? Is it not rather an urgent need to save what can be saved? Do we not sacrifice irreplaceable ecological values through the use of tropical timber aiming at short-term financial interests?

Here the concept of "sustainability" gains relevance. This approach was coined by Carl von Carlowitz, a German forester, 300 years ago. In Germany, many forests were then overused and degraded. Carlowitz recognized that through regulated and systematic management the preservation of remaining forests is compatible with long-term and continuous use.

Global principles for sustainable management were codified in Rio in 2012 (© UNO)

The concept of "Sustainable Forest Management" has meanwhile been established as a guiding principle worldwide and has even been defined at ministerial conferences. Essentially, sustainable forest management always integrates economic, social and ecological values. The principle is today used in a variety of governmental, non-profit and private-sector-oriented management concepts in different tropical forests - and contributes to value creation and forest conservation.

Complete abstinence from timber utilization would not be realistic in view of the global demand for raw materials and the economic situation in the tropics. It is  also often incompatible with the needs of poorer populations. However, the utilization needs to be combined with the conservation of sufficiently large areas of natural forests.  

At the same time, overexploitation and illegal logging are a reality in many tropical countries. The mere struggle of the people living in and from forests for their daily needs often does not consider forest ecology. Forest conservation, tropical forest protection and sustainable use thus increasingly depend on political stability, good governance, and a functioning legislative and democratic participation of the people.

These factors are summarized as "good governance" and are - in addition to the development of sustainable management concepts - a research focus at the Thünen Institute. Ultimately, the conservation of primary forests can only succeed through an integrated landscape approach, which considers the needs of the local population, the demand for raw materials worldwide and conservation goals altogether.