What is sustainable forestry?

The international forest sector has played a leading role to develop and refine the concept of sustainable development in relation to the conservation and use of the world’s natural resources. A global consensus on the elements of sustainable forest management was reached at the first UN “Earth Summit” held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. This is in contrast to other material supplying sectors – such as metals, plastic and concrete - in which claims of “sustainability” are not linked to any internationally agreed definition.

At the 1992 Earth Summit, the international community agreed a “Non-Legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of all Types of Forests” which states that:

Forest resources and forest lands should be sustainably managed to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual needs of present and future generations. These needs are for forest products and services, such as wood and wood products, water, food, fodder, medicine, fuel, shelter, employment, recreation, habitats for wildlife, landscape diversity, carbon sinks and reservoirs, and for other forest products. Appropriate measures should be taken to protect forests against harmful effects of pollution, including air-borne pollution, fires, pests and diseases, in order to maintain their full multiple value”.

  • How is the UN’s sustainable forestry definition being put into practice?

    Two aspects of the UN Earth Summit definition of sustainable forest management (SFM) should be highlighted:

    • SFM is a dynamic concept: strong emphasis is placed on the “needs of present and future generations” which will vary over both time and space. The “needs” of rich western societies from forests (which might include recreational pursuits like mountain-biking or bird watching) are different from the “needs” of poor communities in the developing world (which might include supply of food and fuel).
    • SFM involves trade-offs: it is rarely, if ever, possible to satisfy all the demands placed on forests within a single forest management unit. For example, efforts to maximise commercial timber harvesting within a particular area will require compromises with respect to forest conservation and vice versa. This issue is typically addressed through forest demarcation and planning regimes operating at landscape level whereby some forest areas are set aside for biodiversity, soil or watershed protection, while others are set aside for recreation or sustainable extraction of timber, fuel and other forest products.

    To accommodate these issues, the 1992 Earth Summit stimulated an on-going global political process led by United Nations institutions to:

    1. develop and adapt the broad global SFM principles into a series of regionally appropriate criteria and indicators (C&I). Relevant processes include the Pan European process, the Montreal Process (covering temperate and boreal forests outside Europe including those in the United States), and the ITTO process (covering tropical forests).
    2. refine SFM criteria and indicators (C&I) for application at national level through various consensus-building consultative processes.
    3. develop systems to monitor and measure conformance to the SFM C&I.

    United States’ engagement in this process and progress to implement SFM in line with the internationally recognised Montreal C&I is reported in National Reports on Sustainable Forests issued in 2003 and updated in 2010.

    Alongside the UN processes, a number of private sector forest certification systems - such as the PEFC and FSC - have been developed. These further adapt the SFM C&I to better reflect the views of the specific interests engaged in the development of the certification system and for purposes of independent inspection at forest management unit level.