On the Identity of Forests

By Dr. Ranil Senanayake

Koslanda, Badulla District
Koslanda, Badulla District

Biodiversity is what gives a forest its identity. In this context, a forest must also be appreciated as a constantly changing, growing entity. 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, all expressions of the growing, maturing forest. The argument as to whether a forest that has been influenced by humans should be considered natural or not, is spurious at best. It is a valueless observation of the historical fact that humanity has, over the generations lived in almost every part of this globe. It cannot serve as a consideration to shape or influence policy, unless its biological and ecological identity is taken as a primary indicator.

Forests, like most other ecosystems on this planet posses vagility and move in space and time. The movement of a forest is slow when measured by time scales relevant to a human generation, but it is fast when measured by time scales relevant to geological processes. Forests have even existed in such places as the Sahara, although they are inhospitable to forests today, these forests have moved to other places over time. Even at more modest time scales forests tend to move with impressive rapidity. The movement of the dry, deciduous forests of Sri Lanka into land that was under intensive cultivation took a few hundred years. The progression of abandoned farmland in the Eastern US to mature woodland took even less.

This brings up the question, 'is there such a thing as a natural forest'? The short answer is yes. A natural forest is the response of the local complex of trees and associated organisms to local geologic and climatic conditions. Disturbance, be it volcanoes, hurricanes or human beings may destroy the forest, but if it manages to re establish itself it is still a natural forest.

The delicate and vexing question is when does a forest stop being natural ? One clear criterion is 'when it begins to contain exotics as a constituent of its vegetation'. Exotics or species that have originated in regions or countries outside the forest in question are usually a product of human activity, sometimes intentional, sometimes not. Another which is more difficult to quantify is when the original patterns of species and ecosystems are changed through human intervention so that the patterns and diversity of the species are changed. Thus a monoculture of rubber in the Amazon basin or a monoculture of oil palm in the Congo may be comprised of trees that were once natural components of the original forest but cannot be classed as natural forests.. These may be tree dominated ecosystems that look like a forest but they are in no way natural. As such systems are a product of human activity they can be differentiated from natural ecosystems and are termed anthropogenic systems.

The identity of a natural forest ecosystem can therefore 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 identity of an anthropogenic forest, while being defined by exotics and deviation from natural patterns, is a complex but essential question; especially in the light of the need to manage for sustainable production and for value adding in agriculture. An anthropogenic forest can range from the modified, natural forests of the Kayapo of Brazil which is comprised of a diverse mix of natural species to the Pinus monocultures of Sri Lanka which is totally comprised of a exotic species from the Caribbean region. However, monoculture plantations from the Pinus in Scotland to Teak in Costa Rica have been developed and funded as forestry. Therefore it is crucial to address the relative values of each type of anthropogenic forest using a scale that has applicability in every instance. Such an exercise can help rationalize investment in the forestry sector which at present often works at odds with national or international policies. It can also help international investment be applied more effectively in the achievement of national and international goals.

The values that can be ascribed to a forest are manifold and range from social, to ecological to economic. These values have been long discussed on national and international fora and are being summarized by the international convention processes and in intergovernmental discussions. Some examples are: The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF) or the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). One of the primary values that have been ascribed to a forest is the value of extractive products such a timber, medicines, resins, fruits, nuts etc. Although timber has been the highest profile product, emerging markets for and values of the other wide array of products is now recognized as an area of tremendous future growth.

Yet, more important in many ways are the forest services in terms of ecosystem output which still needs to be addressed. 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.

Now that the task manager for Biodiversity has provided the CSD with a tool for evaluation, "the richness of forest ecosystems", it should be utilized in the deliberations that follow. 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 biodiversty.

These definitions need to be clarified and harmonized in statements transmitted from the COP to the IPF or the CSD. As forests are biological entities, any criteria or indicator chosen to represent biodiversty 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 biodiversity in these critical ecosystems cannot be contained.


Ranil Senanayake
President Earthkind
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Fax: 94-11-269-2007
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