Environmental Conservation


The world's forests: problems and potentials

Norman Myersa1 c1

a1 Green College, Oxford University, Oxford OX2 6HG, UK


The accelerating decline of many of the world's forests represents one of the greatest problems and opportunities facing the global community. However little it may be recognized in its full scope, the forests crisis constitutes a profound and often irreversible degradation of both the biosphere and humanity's prospects. If this crisis is not contained and countered, extensive sectors of the world may well lose much, if not most, of their forest cover within the foreseeable future. I have drawn on my 30 years of field research in all three major forest biomes, together with my work with dozens of governments and agencies (FAO, the World Bank, etc.), backed by an in-depth review of the literature, to appraise the forests situation from both natural-science and social-science standpoints. My main finding is that deforestation is due partly to our scientific ignorance of forests' contributions to our welfare, both actually and potentially; partly to our meagre economic understanding of what is at stake; and partly to our lack of institutional capacity to manage forests for everybody's benefit, now and forever. I argue that forests are vital to the sustainable well-being of local communities, national economies and the biosphere. Yet they attract too little attention by governments dealing with the future of forests, also dealing with the future of a world that may eventually find itself with only a fraction as many forests as today.

I urge that we broaden our understanding of what it will take to save remaining forests. Primarily we should recognize that in the main this is no longer a forestry problem alone. While much can still be achieved through traditional forestry practices, also through more protected areas within forests and other ‘defensive’ measures, these activities often do no more than tackle symptoms of deeper problems. In tropical forests, for instance, we must address the source problem of shiftcd-cultivator encroachment. Anything less is akin to building a fence around tropical forests (which would take an awful lot of timber), a fence that would be speedily over-run by multitudes of land-hungry farmers.

There is growing recognition that forests make multiple contributions to the welfare of people throughout forest zones, of people throughout nations concerned, and of people throughout the world. Similarly the forests' survival depends on factors arising throughout the forests themselves, throughout nations concerned, and throughout the world. Fortunately this new recognition has been matched by growing awareness of the rapid decline of the Earth's forests.

Much of the policy programme proposed will be difficult. But it will not be so difficult as living in a world bereft of its forests.

(Received February 09 1996)

(Accepted May 31 1996)


c1 Dr Norman Myers, Upper Meadow, Old Road, Headington, Oxford OX3 8SZ, UK Tel: 144 1865 750387 Fax: 144 1865 741538 e-mail: normanmyers@gn.apc.org