Woodmen, spare those genes!

Woodmen, spare those genes!


urge greater management, conservation
and use of forest genetic resources

women walking in forests

Forests contain a vast array of products and materials that benefit humanity. They provide timber, paper, and fuelwood, the main source of energy for more than half the world's people. Many agricultural crops originated in forests, where their wild relatives still evolve. Meanwhile forest trees, plants and animals provide a huge variety of foods and have been the source of many medicines, including quinine and the cancer-fighting drugs derived from the rosy periwinkle.

Forest-based enterprises provide important sources of income, especially for women in developing countries: they employ more than 30 million people in India alone. Rural people, for example, make tanning products from bark, wicker furniture and baskets from rattan, and cooking oil, soap and varnish from oil seeds. Forest cover provides protection against wind erosion and desertification in arid areas, and trees and shrubs help maintain soil structure and fertility all over the world. Forests help regulate the climate, weather and atmosphere and mitigate the greenhouse effect.

High rate of loss

But, despite their value, the Earth's forests are being destroyed at an ever-increasing rate. Every year more than 15.4 million hectares of tropical forests - estimated to contain at least 50 per cent (some experts suggest 90 per cent) of all living species - are destroyed. Air pollution damages temperate forests in Europe and North America. When forests are destroyed, many plants and animals that depend on them are lost too.

The first step towards extinction of a species is erosion of the genetic diversity that provides it with a wide enough range of genes to help it adapt and survive. The implications of genetic erosion for humans are also serious. Unless we have a continuous supply of new genetic material from the forest, we cannot develop or protect important varieties of plants and trees.

Conserving forest genetic resources is the best way to guarantee their availability for present and future generations, but conservation has little purpose unless the resources are used. People use them for food, medicines, fuel, fodder and building materials. Scientists and breeders use them to increase a tree's resistance to a new disease, to improve the quality of its products, or to make it more suitable for agroforestry. Thus we must not just protect the forested areas that remain, but ensure that they continue to meet present and future needs.

This is, above all, a development issue. In the past, efforts have often been directed at gathering biological, demographic and genetic information without reference to the role forest resources play in the lives of local communities. Such an approach is not sustainable. Success in conserving forests will ultimately depend on action in the environments and communities where these resources exist, are being used and, often, are threatened. Any policy or action that fails to involve the people who actually use the resources, and depend on the forest for their living, in deciding and implementing conservation programmes is unlikely to succeed. Any conservation policy that fails to consider their needs and rights is less likely to receive their participation. Once involved, rural communities can play a major role in management, production and protection activities, while their knowledge of local species and conditions is essential in designing effective conservation strategies.

Forest genetic resources can be conserved on site (in situ) and off site (ex situ). Both approaches have advantages and drawbacks, so a combination is usually necessary.

In situ conservation involves maintaining trees and plants in their original habitats or in traditional farming systems where they can continue to adapt and evolve. It includes species held in nature reserves, national parks and other protected areas, and can take place on farms and in managed forests. Its drawback is that the materials may not be easily accessible for study, use and distribution - and remain vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, pests and diseases.

Collaborative research

The International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) has been involved in work on in situ conservation in Latin America and Asia over the last two years. In Brazil, a research partnership with the national genetic resources programme and the University of São Paulo is working to develop methods for locating diversity in Atlantic forests and to identify parameters for the in situ conservation of tropical forest genetic resources. In Thailand, Malaysia and India, the impact of forest disturbance by economic activities is being investigated in cooperation with the Center for International Forestry Research. Research on the genetic effects of selective logging and forest fragmentation is being undertaken in Indonesia, Costa Rica and Cameroon.

Ex situ conservation is an important complement to this, especially for forest tree species threatened by loss of habitat. It includes field genebanks - collections of trees growing outside their natural habitats - seed genebanks, and in vitro (literally 'in glass') genebanks for tissues or cells. These collections are generally easily accessible, well documented and protected from natural disasters, but their material does not continue to evolve as it does in situ. Inadequate seed handling and storage methods limit the conservation of many tree species: IPGRI is working with the Forest Seed Centre of the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) to develop effective handling techniques and improve basic scientific knowledge on how tropical tree seed behaves in storage.

Biophysical and socio-economic research must be integrated in conservation strategies. We need methods to allow us to understand forest ecosystems and their biological diversity better; broader knowledge of the differences between and within tree species; and greater understanding of local and indigenous uses of forest resources. There is a lack of scientific and technical knowledge on the status of species over their natural ranges, on the distribution of intraspecific diversity, and on reproductive biology and ecology. Studies are needed to identify target species and populations, to determine the minimum population sizes needed to maintain evolutionary flexibility, and to assess the effects of various forestry practices on genetic diversity. Socio-economic studies can teach us whether resources are being used sustainably and can help define incentives for conservation.

Forests stretch across territories, nations and continents - so activities and policies in one area can have a direct impact on many others. The value of one country's forest genetic resources reaches far beyond its borders, and their loss may affect us all. Such interdependence adds a global dimension to the challenges of conservation and management.

A growing network

Many institutions and governments have launched initiatives to slow the depletion of the world's forests. Forest genetic resources networks - operating on a regional or a species basis - bring together partners with different interests and backgrounds, allowing them to share experience and knowledge, and facilitating the transfer of technology. Twenty-two countries are members of the European Forestry Genetic Resources Network, whose programme is coordinated by IPGRI, and a further eight are expected to join soon. The Network coordinates and promotes both in situ and ex situ conservation, facilitates the exchange of reproductive material and information, and seeks to increase public awareness.

Forest genetic resources can make substantial contributions to social and economic development by helping to alleviate poverty and unemployment, by sustaining agriculture and industry, and by supporting rural and national economies. This will require increased research and new programmes to conserve and manage them, and to ensure their sustainable use. IPGRI supports such activities by strengthening national capabilities, particularly in developing countries. Through the conservation and wise use of genetic resources, we can meet growing demands for products and benefits, while reducing the pressure on natural forests.

Abdou-Salam Ouedraogo is Senior Scientist, Forest Genetic Resources, and Ruth D. Raymond is Public Awareness Officer at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute.

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