Can using forests sustainably help protect them?


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CIFOR believes it can. But we admit the hypothesis remains unproven.

Douglas Southgate from Ohio State University, on the other hand, thinks sustainable harvesting of forest products, ecotourism, and genetic prospecting can only marginally contribute to forest conservation. Southgate says that policy makers should focus instead on promoting agricultural intensification and giving poor people sufficient skills so that moving to the agricultural frontier is no longer their most attractive alternative. His forthcoming book ’Tropical Forest Conservation: An Economic Assessment of the Alternatives in Latin America’ (Oxford University Press) makes these arguments forcefully. Right or wrong, the book definitely deserves to be read.

The chapter on non-timber forest products (NTFPs) centers on the case of Tagua seeds, a product used for button production in Western Ecuador, but also makes frequent reference to the exploitation of acai palm hearts, rubber, and aguaje in Brazil and Peru. It argues that these activities provide low incomes from the people who harvest them. Most of the products have thin markets and prices fluctuate greatly. Typically, NTFP harvesters lack sufficient property rights to restrict access by other groups to the forests where they work. Some NTFPs have been over-exploited. Others have been completely or partially displaced by artificial substitutes.

Southgate’s discussion of sustainable timber production draws on four recent IMAZON studies in Para, Brazil, as well as case studies of the Palcazu Central Selva Resource Management Project in Peru and community (ejidal) forest management in Quintana Roo, Mexico. Based on these studies and theoretical arguments, he concludes that as long as the price of standing timber remains low logging companies will not invest in silvicultural practices or in keeping farmers out of areas that have already been logged. Policy distortions, while significant, are not the main reason for the low price of standing timber in Latin America. The most important reason for low prices is the abundant supply of timber from unmanaged natural forests. He points out that soon after the Palcazu project ended in Peru producers there reverted to their previous unsustainable logging practices and cleared additional forest areas for agriculture. Despite substantial foreign assistance and support from policy makers, well-organized communities, and relatively favorable ecological conditions in Quintana Roo, timber exploitation there has still not achieved sustainable yields.

The book reviews various studies of the value of genetic resources to pharmaceutical companies. In most locations, this value appears to be less than US$15 per hectare. Besides, forest owners and mangers still do not receive even this small amount of money. They lack enforceable property rights over their genetic resources and it will be very costly to establish such property rights.

Studies from Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador show that under certain circumstances nature-based tourism can greatly benefit national economies. In most cases, however, local communities have little capacity to provide the goods and services tourists demand and have gained little from eco-tourism. Even in Costa Rica and the Galapagos, where ecotourism has been unusually successful, tourism has still not generated sufficient revenues for national park services to cover the costs of maintaining the parks they manage.

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Further reading

If you would like to comment on this message or find out how to order > a copy of this book, please write to: Douglas Southgate at