EDITORIAL: People and Forests are the Wealth of Nations

For 10,000 years or so, agriculture and society have developed at the expense of forest resources. We have learned to systematically exploit the phenomenal ability of trees, grasses, legumes, and other vegetative types to convert sunlight, rain, and soil resources to plant food and biomass. Nutrients required by plants for growth are recycled to and from the soil and atmosphere, metabolized and stored in biomass, and used by plants when needed. As green and woody biomass mature and decompose, the biological system is furnished with organic matter, valued by agriculturalists around the world as the foundation for soil fertility and structure. A sustainable biological system balances mineralization and loss of soil organic carbon from land clearing and cultivation with management that creates new vegetal cover, our carbon sinks.

Unfortunately, according to the United States Office of Technology Assessment, the world loses more than 11 million hectares of tropical forest to land clearing every year. That figure represents a land area approximately equal in size to the state of Pennsylvania in the United States, as well as the nations of Honduras, or Benin, or Bulgaria. Overall, there are 32 nations which have a land area smaller than the area of tropical forests eliminated annually. By the year 2040, demand for fuelwood will be 30% greater than present consumption levels, while demand for paper, veneer, and sawn timber will double. If every person on earth would plant and maintain two trees per year for the next 40 years, a total of 400 billion trees, the global sink for present and future carbon emissions present in our atmosphere would be adequate. Those numbers suggest a simple solution to our forest resource problem. Just plant trees.

If only reality would accommodate that formula. In truth, our global, forest-based biological system is complex and precarious, as are the living conditions for billions of people whose survival, livelihood, and wealth depend upon the forest. Consensus is needed to develop our forest-based society in an equitable, sustainable way. Yet, the spectrum of divergent opinion expressed at the recent Rio environmental conference reminds us that consensus on ecological issues does not come easily. Most leaders and practitioners support the maintenance of our temperate and tropical forest base. However, we disagree on how to create the best of worlds, an Earth flush with trees, grasses, and crops, where widespread hunger, poverty, and chronic poor health are history lessons, not reality. What to do?

One approach is to regard both people and forests as the wealth of nations and recognize that we need not sacrifice peoples' well-being for trees nor vice-versa. The contributing authors to this Ag-Sieve illustrate ways by which forest-dependent people can meet some of their economic and health needs, and still leave trees standing. Their approach is to develop "new crops", natural products from the forest and range that are highly valued in local, regional, or international markets. These products are generally not new to forest resource users. However, the notion of sustainable use of forest resources as a marketing problem is novel to many of us. We must continue to conduct economic, social, and biological research on new crops. Meanwhile, more investment in information exchange and education, particularly literacy and record keeping, will add value to the wealth of human resources in forested lands.