Loosing the forest for the trees - the tragedy of modern forestry.

Forests-Beyond The Wood IV.




BY Dr.Ranil Senanayake

What is known by science reveals the forest as an ecosystem of tremendous complexity. The trees, while providing the essential framework of a forest constitutes only a fraction of the total biodiversity. It contains a huge array of organisms, that continually change in form and function. Thus biodiversity is what gives a forest its identity. It should also be borne in mind that, from the small bushes of an area after a fire to the tall growth fifty years later, the species and architecture goes through many changes, and all these ecosystems are expressions of the growing, maturing forest.

The international response to the loss of natural forest ecosystems can be seen in the massive global investment in forestry. However, a great majority of these revegetation programs around the world do not seem to provide an environment that is hospitable for sustaining local forest biodiversity. A situation brought about by neglect of the ecological and biodiverse reality of a forest in project planning. There is no excuse to be found in the argument that there was no information. Forest Ecology has a long and distinguished history in the scientific literature. The result of this neglect was that institutional forestry activity was centered around the growing of even aged monocultures of fast growing trees with no requirement to attend to the rehabilitation of forests.

Forestry or 'the art and science of growling and managing forests' has a long and varied history and a multitude of responses, reflecting the environment, the social context and economic pressures that led to each type of response. Many of the early models of forestry in both European and non-European societies demonstrated a sensitivity to the natural systems. The dominance of monoculture plantations managed as clear cutting systems of silviculture are recent phenomena and may be a consequence of the economic order that arose after the industrial revolution . These narrow goals coupled with the history of European foresters, who arose as the protectors of the king's or noblemen's forests from the pheasants meant that forestry excluded social and biodiversity concerns.

Given this history the development of modern forestry, has tended to foster a professional style of educated, objective, benign forester-aristocrats, who see their role as a protector of forests from fire, insects and the greed or short sightedness of the public and politics This, attitude coupled with the automatic assumption of superiority in all matters European during the colonial period, saw the responses to forestry by other traditions being ignored. Modern, scientific forestry focusing on the fast production of wood and wood fibe became the norm.

In many non-European societies throughout the world the protection or growing of forests often took on different social or religious meanings. The example of Sacred Groves or Deorais exist in many traditions. In India, these forests are usually located at the origins of fresh water springs. They are associated with spirits, often a mother-goddess, deity. Their belief system, in the swift and immediate retribution meted out by the deity if the forest is disturbed, has served to protect these forests even today. The forest in turn provides the social functions by having a place of religious focus and community activity, as well as economic functions such as providing medicines or famine food or the ecological functions of stabilizing water and protecting genetic diversity. A study of various forest formations in north-east India suggest that sacred groves may be the last refuge for remnant populations of certain species .

A similar concept of sacred grove was seen in the Trobriand Islanders. This tradition was seen as the only force protecting the kaboma or sacred groves that were the only areas of uncut forest remaining on the Islands. To cut the rainforest species of trees that compose such sacred groves was believed to be dangerous because the angered sprits would bring human illness or crop failure. The highly evolved traditional responses to forest management as seen in the forest agriculture of Papua New Guinea, where the taller structure of the forest was recognized as a feature to be retained, while the smaller growth was cleared for agriculture

Forestry has to be developed within the local context. Both social and biodiversity needs have to figure prominently in its design, otherwise we will only perpetuate the tyranny of the 'Monoculture As Forestry Implementation Authorities'

As stated before, the identity of a natural forest ecosystem can be established. It has a certain state of complexity, biodiversity, soil quality, stability, ecological identity etc. The most mature or least disturbed providing the measure of best state. The species and patterns of ecosystems within a given natural forest will and does change over time, but all such changes involve species that were original to the area, in patterns that follow the natural seral succession of that forest. Here, seral succession refers to the patterns of change that occur if a patch of forest is cleared and left to natural regeneration processes. Often a progression from grassland, to scrubland to early forest to mature forest is seen.

The report on Biodiversity by the UNEP to the CSD has highlighted the massive problem inherent in the current discussions on forests. by pointing out that "Forests can only be sustained if you sustain the richness of forest ecosystems." this demonstrates the need to have forests as an issue managed by a multi-agency consortium rather that placing it under a single institution. It is a fact that none of the so called 'forestry' practices has been able to sustain the richness of natural forest ecosystems, yet there are innumerable claims that 'sustainable forestry' is being practiced.

The discussions on the sustainable management of forests still lack clear definitions creating a sense of confusion in the identification of goals. For instance, the inability to distinguish between plantations and forests have allowed processes that have led to a massive reduction of forest biodiversity. A clear definition of ‘a Forest’ needs to be clarified and harmonized in statements transmitted from the CBD to the IPF or the CSD. As forests are biological entities, any criteria or indicator chosen to represent biodiversity status must be rooted in biological variables. The current practices of assessing physical cover alone will not adequately indicate forest quality and trends. In this context, socio-cultural values should also be incorporated into the setting of criteria and indicators. Further, for every acre of forest that stands today, hundreds of acres of forest have been lost in the surrounding countryside. Yet there has been no mention of the need for rehabilitation and recovery of the biodiversity status of such degraded lands. If these fundamental issues are not addressed, the loss of forests and biodiversity in these critical ecosystems cannot be contained.

To be continued…

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