‘About 1.6 billion people of the world depend on forests for living’

First-ever survey on forest genetic resources by FAO calls for urgent measures to protect the precious resources which provide a range of economic, health and ecological benefits

By Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Published: Friday 06 June 2014

About 60 million indigenous and tribal people across the world are almost wholly dependent on forests for livelihood (Photo by Sayantan Bera)

More than one-fourth of the world’s population relies on forest resources for livelihood. The forest products industry is a major source of economic growth and employment in the world; it is estimated at US $255 billion. About 1 billion people worldwide depend on drugs derived from forest plants for their medicinal needs. All this is possible due to the rich genetic resources of the world’s forests which help them in adaptation and evolutionary processes as well as in improving their productivity. However, the countries are little equipped to conserve the rich forest genetic resources posing a threat to several local species of trees and woody plants which may be of actual or potential economic, environmental, scientific or societal value.

These are the findings of a first-ever survey of the forest genetic resources of the world conducted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Forest tree species have evolved into some of the most genetically diverse organisms in existence. Unlike other organisms, they are generally live long and have developed natural mechanisms such as high rates of outcrossing of genes and often long-distance dispersal of pollen and seed to maintain high levels of genetic variation within species.

This makes forest genetic resources (FGR) precious in terms of economic, environmental, scientific or societal value. Close to 1.6 billion people in the world depend on forest for their livelihood. Out of this, about 60 million indigenous and tribal people are almost wholly dependent on forests for livelihood. Trees and woody plants also contribute in environmental services such as water catchment management, carbon sequestration and storage, nutrient cycling, improvement of soil fertility, erosion management and landscape protection, promotion of agricultural production, animal habitat, and maintenance of ecosystem processes.

FAO’s report—State of the World’s Forest Genetic Resources—released on June 3, however, warns that if urgent conservation measures are not taken, the increasing population pressure may lead to the loss of forest genetic resources. “The forests are being converted to crop and pasture land. Together with overexploitation, selective harvesting and high tree mortality due to extreme climatic events, in combination with regeneration failure, can result in local population extinction and the loss of FGR,” says the report.

Poor data base

Unfortunately, countries of the world seem to have little knowledge of the genetic resources of their forests. The report says that while total number of trees and woody plant species in the world are estimated to be 80,000 to 100,000, country reports submitted to FAO mention only 8,000 species of trees, palms and bamboo. Of these, genetic-level information is available for only 500 to 600 species. “Development of species distribution maps showing locations of all populations is an essential step in conservation. However, not many countries have the resources to include the development of such maps in their conservation strategies,” says the report.

The report highlights that the 8,000 reported forest species are actively used in the world to support agriculture, forestry, environmental sustainability as well as food and nutrition security. However, only one-third of these species are actively managed. About half of the reported species are threatened. “Because of insufficient awareness on the importance of forest genetic resources in improving forest production, enhancing ecosystems and improving adaptation of tree species to changing environmental conditions, national policies and regulatory frameworks for FGR are, in general, partial, ineffective or non-existent.” Most developing countries lack the funding and the institutional and technical capacities required to address FGR issues, says the report.

What countries need to do

Tree breeding programmes have the potential to improve the production of planted forests and trees in a sustainable way and are necessary to meet growing global demand for forest products and services. Through tree improvement programmes, productivity can be increased by 10 to more than 60 per cent, depending on the targeted products (wood, fruit, leaves, resins) and the species.

The report recommends that countries need to substantially improve the availability of, and access to, information on FGR. It says the countries should establish FGR databases to cover available scientific and traditional knowledge on uses, distribution, habitats, biology and genetic variation of species and species populations. It suggests that countries should promote sustainable use and management of FGR and strengthen the role of indigenous and local communities in the sustainable management and conservation of FGR. The report says that countries should Integrate FGR conservation and management into wider policies, programmes and frameworks of action at the national, regional and global levels and establish educational and research capacities on FGR.

Neglected resource
  • FAO estimates that close to 1.6 billion people – more than 25 per cent of the world’s population – rely on forest resources for their livelihood
  • Many of the species identified as priorities, especially for local use, have received little or no research attention, indicating a need to associate funding with priority-setting exercises
  • Of the 8 000 species of trees, shrubs, palms and bamboo cited in country reports, around 2,400 are managed specifically for their products and/or services
  • Of these 42 per cent species are managed for timber, 41 per cent for non-wood forest products and 19 per cent fuelwood
  • 40 per cent value of the forest product industry is generated in developing countries, where forest-based employment provides 49 million jobs

Report: The state of the world’s forest genetic resources

Report: Toward sustainable use of forest resource: connecting forest ecology to village economy

Feature: Access and benefit sharing from the indigenous people's perspective: The TBGRI-Kani 'model'

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