Controversial statements and lively debates - rebels with a cause

by Dr Casper Crous

After the honeymoon phase of the congress yesterday, it was back to business today, where key discussions and talks were often marked with some controversial statements and lively debates. Perhaps controversial might not be the right expression, as it was all in good spirit, but being a world conference, with obvious disparities between forest research capacity and development, some subjects might just be a bit delicate. Nonetheless, it is clear that there is great urgency in solving the current shortfalls in forest research and management globally, and people were not afraid to take out the red ink when grading the current paradigms thereof.

The IUFRO President's discussion was first-up. This is a panel discussion, featuring key forest research policy-makers, scientists, and business stakeholders. This was a 2-hour long discussion, and it might have been too short. However, some highly thought-provoking arguments were put forward as to how we, the global stakeholders in forests and forest products, can ensure sustainability in the industry. Firstly, if we want to provide wood material sustainably, then there has to be a stronger emphasis of forest management as integral to success. Although this might sound like Professor Obvious, not all nations are on par when it comes to management aspects such as forest health and good harvesting practices. Not all nations have access to scientist or extension officers which could help manage and regulate their forest commodities. Many under-developed or economically poor nations are producing wood products, and as demand for such products are increasing, consistent management practices becomes vital (see comments of Mike's talk yesterday RE plant material trade). Indeed, global poverty requires huge, multifaceted, solutions. We cannot therefore readily extrapolate models of sustainable forest management from one nation to the next. To cross this bridge, we urgently need more reliable data globally.

Secondly, the idea of forest sustainability being a simple idea - e.g. quick and dirty research studies or management recommendations based on meta-analyses, is naive. To fully comprehend sustainability science, beyond the fad or buzz, is to firstly accept it is a naturally complex endeavour. How is it that we forget about just how complex spatio-temporal trophic interactions can be? This is why policy makers and governments should support sustainable forest management studies with a long-term mindset.

Thirdly, the panelists agreed that for sustainable forest management to be realized globally, there needs to be a greater emphasis on educating people on the value of forests for providing income, e.g. through tourism and recreation. For example, studies in northern Brazil show that because little to no recreation areas exist in the local native forests, the local people mainly support the mining companies in the area for income, which is unfortunate as this short-term solution to income usually equates to more forest destruction and losses in ecosystem services.

And in fashion of controversy-today, Professor Mike Wingfield rightly pointed to the fact that to obtain more qualified foresters in South Africa, and perhaps in most African countries, is not that straight-forward. For example, forestry as a career choice is not yet appreciated due to the lack of financial incentives as opposed to some other jobs on the market - too low salaries. And this had to be said, as it is realistic to finding future solutions.

Talking about controversial, the keynote plenary, Professor David Newbery from Bern University in Switzerland, probably took the award. Although what he said was more than a thought-stimulus than a malignant argument, some people would have felt uncomfortable as he suggested that too many applied forest ecological studies are based on assumptions and vague proxies. There were many forest ecologists present. In all fairness, he made a very strong case, and the few questions afterwards suggested that it might be hard to argue differently, especially of the cuff. Basically his message was this - we need to reconsider ecology in forest management studies, as the studied species most often are long-lived (for example the Ancient Bristlecone Pines which can live to be more than 6000 years old), and forest management recommendations based on short-term ecological studies might therefore be misleading. Basing farm-scale management on regional data would be similar. This would also be more expensive in the long run, as your management would probably not have the desired effect, needing re-analysis. He gave good pointers for a way forward to better such studies: understand local forest ecosystem structure and dynamics better - complex interactions need more elegantly designed studies; understand the role of environmental stochasticity (natural perturbations); be more cautious in analysis; and state the study shortfalls or application limitations - this improves your science.

Well, there is at least one mind that will struggle to switch off tonight.