Necessary steps to preserve the world's ecosystem

Our Forests Our Future

July 2, 1999

The message of this book is alarming. The forests of the world are being destroyed rapidly and, if we do not take action quickly to reverse this trend, then we risk the collapse of the ecosystem that makes our planet habitable.

This is not the opinion of a group of radical environmental activists, but of the world's foremost scientific experts on forestry and policy matters, who formed the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development. This group of people, from 24 countries from both the developed and the developing world, called on a large number of experts and institutions from around the world. The commission also held public hearings attended by many regional experts in Jakarta; Winnipeg; San José, Costa Rica; and St Petersburg. With all this accumulated expertise the world would be wise to listen to the conclusions that are brought together here in a clear format.

The book is illustrated with informative graphs and photographs and many pages have the most critical data summarised in a large number of boxes, which should help both politicians and teachers to extract the most important points easily.

There are two aspects of this book that I particularly like. First, that it covers both the temperate and tropical forests of the world and shows that the problems are not confined to the South. All forest is under threat and so this is a call for worldwide action. Second, forestry and forest loss is put into context with other environmental problems such as population growth, famine, urban development, agriculture and climate change.

However, the principal message of this book is that forests are grossly undervalued and thought of only in terms of their value as a commodity. The greatest value of forests is for the ecosystem services they provide to sustain our planetary environment. As the report states: "It is already abundantly clear that ecosystem services provide an important portion of the total contribution to human welfare on this planet. We must begin to give the natural capital stock that produces these services adequate weight in the decision-making process, otherwise current and continued human welfare may drastically suffer."

This report is not just an alarmist document because, after it has so clearly demonstrated that forests are in crisis, it deals with the solutions, with chapters on managing forest sustainably and on sustaining forests and development at the same time. In these latter chapters it is also shown that there are some signs of hope for the future of forests because of the large number of initiatives already under way.

However, the report clearly states that the world is not doing all that we know must be done and that there is only hope if "we exercise the will and exert the effort to take the radical steps". The report concludes with ten resolutions accompanied by the major actions recommended to address each one. The five key recommendations are as follows:

• The global nature of the forest crisis requires decisive international leadership and action

• Governments must ensure that the public interest prevails over private interests

• Prices and policies that truly reflect all benefits provided by forests are needed to change wasteful production and consumption patterns

• Protection of the remaining primary forest requires that future demand for wood products must be met through plantation and secondary forests

• Community involvement in decision-making is essential for sustainable forest management.

The world's forests provide common and indivisible environmental services for the whole world and so their future is an international issue. If we want a habitable planet in future this book should be placed in the hands of all influential people who can bring about the radical change for which it calls. I hope that its message will also be incorporated into the curriculum of many classrooms.

Ghillean Prance is director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Our Forests Our Future

Editor - Emil Salim and Ola Ullsten
ISBN - 0 521 66021 1 and 66956 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £52.50 and £19.95
Pages - 205

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