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Sustainable Forest Management

I believe that every right implies a responsibility,
Every opportunity an obligation,
Every possesion a duty -
John D. Rockfeller Jr.


Definition of Sustainability

The Brundtland Commission's report - "Our Common Future" is regarded as the basis for any debate on the subject of sustainability. The Brundtland Report states that a sustainable development is

".. development which fulfils the needs of the present generation without jeopardising the possibilities of future generations to fulfil their needs."

UNCED 1992

The UN Conference on Environmental Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro agreed a general consensus on the following issues:

  • The overall aim of the development of any society should be sustainable development.
  • Sustainable developments encompasses environmental, economic, and social dimensions.
  • Sustainable development demands not only a governmental effort, but also an effort from all levels of society, form the global to the local perspective.
  • International co-operation is a prerequisite for sustainable development.

Helsinki 1993

UNCED was followed up by the 1993 Helsinki conference. Here, a number of European countries adopted the following statement:

"Sustainable forestry is the management and use of forests and forested areas in a way and at a pace which allows the preservation of their biological diversity, productivity, regeneration ability, vitality, as well as their capability of fulfilling relevant ecological, economic, and social functions at local, national, and global levels now and in the future, in a way which does not damage other eco-systems."

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The Sustainability Triangle

In the definitions of both UNCED and the Helsinki conference, three issues are highlighted as the cornerstones of sustainability. Thus, in order to be sustainable, development must be economically profitable, biologically proper, and socially acceptable. These three considerations can be described as the "sustainability triangle" as shown in figure 1.

Figure 1. The sustainability triangle.

The sustainability triangle is sometimes also referred to as "the three legged stool of sustainability".

Sustainable forest management is sometimes wrongly understood as management without human interference. This is to ignore the economic and social considerations (employment, use of forest products, etc.) which generally arise from managed forests.

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The dynamics of sustainability

No ecosystem could possibly be managed in a way where exactly equal priority is given to economic, biological and social considerations. Since nature is a complex of dynamic processes, sustainable management of any ecosystem implies that emphasis on the three priorities varies over time. However, as long as the management of the system does not go beyond the bounds of the sustainability triangle, the management and development of the system can be characterised as sustainable.

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Defining the limits of the system

Defining the content and extent of the system to be described, often proves to be one of the more cumbersome parts of the process of examining its sustainability.

When evaluating the sustainability of forestry investments, the system can be applied at several levels:


                    The combined portfolio of investments.

                    The combined portfolio of forest investments.

                    The combined investments in individual countries.

                    The combined forest investments in individual countries.

                    The individual forest investment.


How the limits of the system are defined depends, for instance, on:

1.              Who is preparing the evaluation?

2.              What are the resources available for the evaluation?

3.              The presence of any natural boundaries of the system.

The fact that the various levels described above overlap and impact on each other further complicates the process of defining the system's limits. Therefore, the evaluation of the sustainability of any system should also comprise considerations regarding the effects on neighbouring systems.

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Integration versus functional distribution

In order to further illustrate the various perceptions of the limits of a system, two basic approaches to evaluating sustainability can be identified. These are the integrated approach and the functional distribution approach.

In Europe the integrated approach to forest management prevails. European forestry, therefore, is focused on the sustainability of any part of the forest, meaning that none of the cornerstones of sustainability can be ignored anywhere in a forest in order to optimise e.g. the economic return of the management.

Contrary to this, the functional distribution approach implies that areas in the forest are targeted for production, biodiversity or social welfare, and that each of these areas is subsequently managed in order to optimise the specified output. This leads to a physical distinction of production areas and non-production areas. The functional distribution approach particularly prevails in countries with a large forest area per capita, leading to a less pressing need for integrating humans and nature.


The clearing of virgin pine forest and the subsequent establishment of high yielding plantation forestry of loblolly pine in monoculture is widely accepted in USA. On a national level, the virgin pine forest is not endangered as an ecosystem, and virgin forest is preserved among watersheds etc. The often-used argument for this approach is, that increased production from these high yielding pine plantations relieves the pressure on other forest areas to produce wood, enabling the strict protection of other, more environmentally sensitive or valuable forests, which are often in public ownership. Another argument is, the more concentrated the production is, the less transport facilities have to be constructed and inexpensive production particularly benefits the weakest groups of society.

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Legislation and certification

The concept of sustainability is being implemented through national forest and nature-related legislation as well as through education and information activities directed at the public. In Ireland, the concept of good and multifunctional forestry has been introduced through the Code of Best Practice.

Furthermore, the ongoing development of both governmental and NGO-certification is a result of efforts to introduce and develop sustainability considerations in commercial forestry. Thus, the overall objective of certification is to document sustainability and responsible stewardship of wood production in countries where national forest legislation is insufficient to provide the necessary guarantees as well as to ensure that certified producers have a marketing advantage over their non-certified competitors.

Only a marginal proportion of the world's population, however, has the ability and the will to pay more for certified wood than for non-certified. At least in part, this is a consequence of the fact that only a limited section of the world population is living under conditions covering life's basic necessities.

Even in the Western world surveys show that although 50% of the population is concerned about environmental issues, a mere 10% are willing to pay more for commodities produced under environmental friendly or sustainable conditions. Assuming that the western populations total 750 million out of a world population of 6 billion this, inevitably, leads to the conclusion that no more than 1.5% of the world's population are both willing and able to pay a premium for certified products. However, this group represents the most wealthy part of the world's population and, therefore, also the main consumers.

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Sustainability issues: A round-up

A substantial number of forest investment projects currently being marketed start out with a declaration of the project's sustainability. However, rarely is it specified how the project would impact on the sustainability triangle's cornerstones - economic considerations, biological preservation and social acceptance. The issue is often further complicated by the fact that, in general, the promoter of the project is rarely equipped to evaluate the project's sustainability. Moreover, the term "sustainability" has become a popular phrase, frequently used in contexts where positive associations need to be emphasised.

The term sustainability is also applied to the individual cornerstones of the sustainability triangle. Yet, even though a project is claimed to be environmentally sustainable, this does not necessarily mean that the project as such can rightly be characterised as "sustainable".


FSC certification of the Swedish timber industries' forests. This certification is likely to be both environmentally and economically sustainable for timber industries. It might even be possible to argue that the certification is based on a number of social considerations. On the other hand, what about the social considerations as they relate to smaller, non-certified forest owners who are not part of the timber industries' vertically integrated production lines, and thus face substantial hardship in marketing their timber? The example shows the difficulty of adopting a holistic approach to sustainability. When some are labelled as "good," the rest easily become "bad".

As a concept sustainability is not always easily understood. Nevertheless, it represents a crucial issue as the world increasingly realises its obligations to incorporate sustainability in our actions.

We, in WOODLAND , take the view that the economic and social issues are very important and are not ashamed to highlight the contribution which forestry has made, and will continue to make, to rural development. We hope that these aspects will receive an emphasis in coming years and that the current trend of talking about anything except the economic benefits of forestry will be seen to be an aberration. Only profitable forests can, over time, be sustainable.

Our thanks to our colleagues in IWC in Denmark for permission to draw on their material for this section. The views are our own.


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