The Case for International Forest Regulation: The Benefits and Challenges of the Multifunctional Concept of Forests

Faculty of Law, Georg-August-University Göttingen, Göttingen, Germany


Forests, just like the oceans and mountains, have always shaped the face of the earth. On a global scale, forest ecosystems are highly diverse, each highly able to adapt to the geographical conditions surrounding them. Forests can be classified according to a variety of criteria. They vary with regard to the biomes they exist in, ranging from boreal to temperate, tropical to subtropical forests, and with a number of sub-categories in between. They vary with regard to physiognomy, distinguishing for example between old growth forests and second growth forests, or with regard to leaf-longevity, such as evergreen or deciduous, or furthermore with respect to the dominant tree species.

Forests are at the core of the interdependence between a variety of natural processes, such as climate regulation and water catchment. Forests are among the most complex environmental systems covering a variety of ecosystem services for the benefit of other ecosystems, species and human well-being worldwide, which make forests one of the most important and valuable ecosystems on earth.

Forests are of course subject to natural change. However, natural conditions change slowly, thereby allowing time for ecosystems to adapt. Anthropogenic interference with forests is a much more crucial factor for forest change.

Forests have played a major role in human history. Humans have utilized forests for different reasons and to different degrees. The clearance of forest areas—deforestation—is the most widely used method of forest utilization. The area and condition of the world’s forests has declined more rapidly throughout recent human history. The rate and type of decline is due to a set of different causes which produce different outcomes in different types of forests. The assessed degradation of many forest ecosystems is the result of complex interactions among social, policy and institutional, technological, cultural, demographic, ecological, economic, climatic, and biophysical factors. These causes may have direct or indirect effects, local, regional or even global implications. They may be causing one another, may be interactive or occur independently.

This chapter makes the case for the need of international forest regulation in general. The following elaborations are firstly concerned with the way forests have been perceived throughout history and how this perception of forests has influenced forest utilization patterns over the years. Secondly, based upon the historical context, the significance of forests in general, and for human well-being in particular, is presented. Thirdly, the analysis addresses the concepts of “deforestation” and “forest degradation” as threats not only to forests as such but also to human well-being.

2.1 International Forest Utilization in History: The Correlation Between Utilization and Conservation

Throughout the history of their development, humans have constantly relied on “[f]orests, woodlands, and scattered trees [that] have provided humans with shelter, building materials, fuel, food, and medicines […].”1 Over time “[p]atterns of forest use have evolved continuously, with different forest goods and services being regarded more or less highly by different societies in different eras.”2 With the increase of research in forests, there is also a rise in awareness of the multiple functions of forests and the patterns of interrelations between these functions.

Today, “[a]verage forest cover on all continents except Antarctica exceeds 20 %.”3 However, forests are not distributed evenly across the globe.4 “[V]ast territories are either completely bereft of forests or have negligible forest cover.”5 In this respect, “Russia, Brazil, Canada, the United States, China, and Australia […] contain about 56 % of the world’s forests.”6 These differences depend on a variety of climatic, ecological, physical and biological conditions. However, the differences are also shaped by human interferences with forests.

The beginning of human interference with and use of forests is estimated not later than the Neolithic age, the new stone age.7 While the forest grew thicker and thicker after the ice age, hunting became more complicated and new forms of food-gathering were needed.8 It is assumed that humankind had known and used specific crops for a long time. However, with the spreading of trees and shrub, the appearance of these crops declined. By creating small clearances, the preservation of this food source could be secured, and as such an early form of agriculture began to develop. Even though this new form of food-gathering quickly turned out to be more effective to provide food for more people, not all populations switched over to agriculture. Some populations rather continued to hunt and gather, particularly given that some areas provided for particularly favourable hunting conditions with regard to space and prey, thereby making hunting, fishing and gathering more beneficial. Moreover, geographical conditions, like soil quality, and climatic conditions did not allow for an equal distribution of agriculture.9 Still, agriculture was undeniably on the rise.

With the continuing spread of farming—especially in Central Europe—the dependence of people on forests grew likewise. The tendency for settlement in an area lead to fortified and bigger housing, for which wood was required as building material. Furthermore, the increased amount of cultivated food was processed more frequently by the use of fire for cooking, baking and roasting. Wood was also needed to build tools for increased multiple uses. Agriculture however, was not only characterized by growing crops, but also by breeding and raising animals. These animals pastured predominantly in forests, and consequently shaping the forests’ appearance dramatically.10 Wood was the essential raw material for the development of the agricultural landscape of Europe.11

The need for wood has also been a determining factor with regard to the rise and fall of kingdoms, cities and economies. The big kingdoms of the near East and the Mediterranean turned to the abundant forests of, for example, Africa, to maintain a source of wood.12 While exploiting the forests of the west and the north, and after clearing their own forests, these civilizations had to face land degradation, due to poor agricultural techniques and uncontrolled grazing.13

Beyond their socio-economic character as a source for subsistence, forests also played a role in a broader cultural context. As a subject of tales and myths they developed a rather dark side,14 the “eerie forests”.15 They were imagined as the home of outlaws, unknown wild animals and creatures, as well as evil spirits. On the other hand, forests also developed as a kind of playground. Compared to the open forests that provided supply for everybody, the hunting rights of European royals marked a different kind of forest claim.

Growing globalization and mercantilism pushed increased forest utilization from the sixteenth century onwards. Large amounts of wood were needed to build ships. In many places this led to a dramatic decline in forest cover. As a consequence, “[t]he great sea-powers, England, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands, found themselves increasingly dependent on timber from Norway, Sweden, and Russia.”16

The next level of forest uses is marked by the shift from mercantilism to industrialization in the west. The utilization of forests for wood became the primary source of the new commercial energy.17 Even though coal was on the rise as a new source of energy, and metals were used in the building industry, wood remained as a major raw material used in industrial processes, such as smelting iron or fuelling the newly invented machines running on steam.18 This required further, even larger, clearances of forested areas.

Many of these areas turned into agricultural land.19 In other areas, forest cover was able to increase again. In some regions, such as Northern Europe, the deforestation was limited naturally by the rough geographical conditions, such as shorter growing seasons and rocky soil.20

Given the heavy reliance on wood, the need for regrowth of forest areas, a productive management of forests and a recognition of the benefits of trade in wood and other forest products became widely accepted.21

Nevertheless, the rather radical methods of forest use and the early methods of agriculture had an influence on both the structure and composition of the regrown forests.22 Research has shown that the natural state of forests, as they existed before human interference, cannot be restored. What remains is a “second hand naturalness”,23 , 24 and the awareness that the benefits of industrialization based on the reckless exploitation of forests comes at a prize: the loss of forest functions and services.

It was recognized that the continuous use of wood and other forest products required consideration and implementation of management techniques and spurred the need for more knowledge with regard to wood production. This basic interest in a more productive management generated the development of an awareness and increased knowledge about forests as a whole—aside from the wood producing aspect. The establishment of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) in 1892, the comprehensive investigation in the ecological, economic and social aspects of forests took its course.25

As a result of the increasing forestry knowledge, by the end of the twentieth century, forest areas in Europe, Northern America and Canada were stable or even increasing.26 This trend was further supported by factors independent from forest utilization, such as the unsuitability of the remaining forest land for farming, the improvement of agricultural techniques, and the import of food and wood.27

While these elaborations are strongly focussed on a European perspective, it must be noted that the development of forest areas in Asia proceeded differently. Taking into account the population growth in China, for example, on the one hand, and the forest cover on the other, there is a clear correlation between population growth and the loss of forest cover.28 Nevertheless, an important factor driving forest utilization in Asia as well as Africa was the colonial exploitation of wood.29 Particularly in Southern Asian countries, forests have been felled for the external desire for tropical timber and the plantation of palm oil and rubber,30 while particularly sub-Saharan countries’ forests were cleared for the production of industrial crops for external markets, such as cotton, cocoa, coffee and tobacco.31

Forestry, as a science, transformed the perception of forests from mere providers of hunting grounds and wood supply to a complex ecosystem, providing for an extensive and diversified variety of services.32 Today, forests are regarded as providers for fibre, fuel, food, and timber. Forests also offer essential services for the development of pharmaceuticals, and for watershed protection, climate regulation, and biodiversity conservation. This is in addition to the use of forests for social activities such as recreation, and the practice of religious acts. Forests are symbols of peace, and natural beauty, for freedom and wilderness. Eventually, forests are enduring symbols of national history and culture.33

Hence, there is a strong correlation between the changes in society and the utilization of forests, and the conservation of forests for unhindered and sustained utilization. The perception of forests has shifted from a notion as merely a source for livelihood in the pre-agrarian societies, to the notion of forests as spaces for agriculture, to the notion of forests as providers for the raw materials needed for industrialization, and finally to the notion of forests as a provider for ecosystem services.34 Accordingly, it is clear that conflicts will arise when the same forests are utilized to meet divergent needs.35

Despite the increased knowledge about forests, the societal perception of forests remains predominately use-oriented. As such, intrinsically motivated approaches are rather exceptional.

Eventually, the way forest will be used in the future will be shaped by the way forests are perceived. Shaping the concept of forests as a whole will thus, play an important role in (forest) sciences as well as society.

2.2 Forest Dimensions: Ecological, Economic and Socio-Political Perspectives and Priorities

The diversification of perceptions of forests, and recognizing the vast amount of services however, brings about questions of hierarchy and allocation.36 Is there a paramount function that needs to be sustained before others, or do all functions have equivalent value that requires equivalent conservation? Who decides which function is more or less eligible for conservation and preservation? Are the functions eligible for concepts such as ownership and whom do they belong to?

Trying to approach a comprehensive concept of forests requires deciphering the various dimensions of forests themselves. It is possible to approximate a comprehensive concept of forests from very different angles: ecologically, economically and socio-politically.37

2.2.1 Forest Functions and Services

The assessment of forest services and functions is an extensive task. A major step in assessing ecosystems such as forests was introduced by the so-called Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA).38 Given the critical condition of the natural environment, the Millennium Assembly report, entitled “We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century”,39 points out four priorities: public education, repositioning of environmental issues in policy-making, create and enforce incentive environmental regulation, and—as the foundation for these three priorities—create sound scientific information.40

To achieve this goal, the MA was created. The MA shall make a comprehensive global evaluation of the condition of the five major ecosystems: forests, freshwater systems, grasslands, coastal areas and agro-ecosystems. It shall examine the causes and extends of damages. Among others, the MA draws upon the World Resources Institute, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme for this evaluation. Its goal is to “[…] provide the parties to various international ecosystem conventions with access to the data they need to evaluate progress towards meeting convention goals. National governments will gain access to information needed to meet reporting requirements under international conventions. The Assessment will strengthen capacity for integrated ecosystem management policies and provide developing nations with better access to global data sets. The private sector will benefit by being able to make more informed forecasts. And it will provide civil society organizations with the information they need to hold corporations and governments accountable for meeting their environmental obligations.”41

The MA indicates that “some national classifications account for as many as 100 different kinds of forest services.”42 The provisioning, regulating, supporting and cultural ecosystem services forests provide vary in terms of the geographical conditions as well as the utilization and management of forests. These services and functions are interconnected in various ways, “ranging from synergistic to tolerant, conflicting, and mutually exclusive.”43 This leads to the “multiservice paradigm of forest management”.44

The MA divides forest ecosystem services into five major segments: providing resources, providing ecological protection services, providing biospheric regulation services, providing social services and providing amenities.45 These major classes of services can be split into smaller segments of functions:

  • Resource services: production of fuel-wood, industrial wood and non-wood products;

  • Ecological services: water protection, soil protection and health protection;

  • Biospheric services: biodiversity conservation and climate regulation;

  • Social services: Ecotourism and recreation;

  • Amenities services: spiritual, cultural and historical.46

2.2.2 Provision of Fibre, Fuel, and Non-wood Forest Products

It is suggested that “forests supply about 5000 different commercial products.”47 Wood is currently the most economically important forest product.48 It is mainly used as a source for fuel-wood and construction material. Annually, an amount exceeding 3.3 billion m3 of wood is harvested from forests, 1.8 billion m3 of which are used as fuel-wood or for the production of charcoal.49

However, forests produce more than just wood. They also provide for a large number of Non-wood Forest Products (NWFPs),50 some of which are traded on an international market. These NWFPs include food, such as nuts, berries, fruits, mushrooms, honey, game, but also so-called “cash crops”, like coffee, palm oil and rubber. NWFPs thus do not only provide food and health for the local people, but also play a crucial role in the economic subsistence of the same local people. Furthermore, NWFPs form many cultural and religious customs for indigenous groups and local communities. These producing ecosystem services entail an outstanding economic value.51

2.2.3 Soil and Water Protection

Fresh water and fertile soil are the keystones for food production worldwide. Forests play a key role in protecting these key components. It is estimated that “[m]ore than three quarters of the world’s accessible freshwater comes from forested catchments.”52 Non-forested areas are exposed to climate impacts. Direct solar irradiation causing desiccated grounds, exposure to high amounts of rain causing floods due to runoff, or exposure to strong winds, carrying away fertile soil. Forests increase precipitation while decreasing evaporation from soils. They regulate the surface and belowground runoff and thereby, protecting landscapes against soil erosion and landslides, prevent and mitigate the consequences of floods, maintain water quality, protect river banks against destruction (so-called abrasion), and prevent siltation of reservoirs.53 Therefore, forests are able to play a crucial part in the relevant environment and ecosystem, particularly in regions exposed to intense seasonal changes, mountains and dry areas.54

2.2.4 Protection of Fragile Ecosystems: Forests in Mountains, Drylands, and Small Islands

With a view to the protection of ecological health, the functions fulfilled by forests in mountains, in drylands and on small islands deserve to be particularly highlighted. Montane forests and so-called “cloud forests” possess an increased ability to capture water from the atmosphere. These forests play a crucial role for the hydrological cycle and the protection of biodiversity in mountain regions.

In drylands, forests are not only relied on for “fuel-wood, small roundwood (poles for building houses and fences), non-wood forest products (foods, medicinal products, bush-meat, fodder, and so on), and diverse regulating and cultural services”, but also hold immense importance for ecosystem protection by providing “soil conservation, shade, and shelter against wind.”55

Small island forests are crucial for life on these islands. Even though the forest cover is limited, insignificant even, compared to the global forest cover and forest cover in other regions, the biodiversity rate in small island forests is comparatively high.56 Small island forests, respectively mangroves in general, provide watershed protection and maintain water supply. Additionally, they play a crucial role in the protection of the marine environment especially by providing for feeding, breeding, and nursery backgrounds for numerous commercial fish and shellfish. And finally, small island forests and mangroves protect the coast from land erosion from strong winds, high rainfall, and storm surges of cyclones and hurricanes, by representing sediment traps for upland runoff sediments.

2.2.5 Conservation of Biodiversity

With regard to biodiversity, forests play a double role. Forests are a worldwide biodiversity warehouse, storing the lion’s share of terrestrial species.57 While, at the same time, forests represent a component of global biodiversity themselves. Forests serve the conservation of biological diversity. In turn, biodiversity serves the functioning of forest ecosystems as such. They depend on each other. The MA assigns biodiversity a cornerstone function (or underpinning function) with regard to forests.58 Forest biodiversity provides the basis for most of the other forest services, giving the forest its cornerstone function. Thus, forest biodiversity contains both an existence value, which highlights its extraordinary importance with regard to global biodiversity as a whole, and a utilitarian value, as a source of biological resources.

2.2.6 Carbon Sequestration, Climate Change Mitigation

Forests hold the potential to improve climate conditions on the local as well as on the global level.59 It is supposed that “[f]orests contain about 50 % of the world’s terrestrial organic carbon stocks, and [that] forest biomass constitutes about 80 % of terrestrial biomass.”60 Thus, forests have a crucial role to play in mitigating climate change, in their capacity as so-called sinks.

However, carbon sequestration is a very intricate process and highly unstable. Carbon storage is not static. Once taken up in forest biomass, carbon may be lost to the atmosphere again, for example by deforestation or forest fires, turning forests into a source of carbon. Additionally, the amount of carbon taken up is subject to various conditions too, such as the tree species of a forest and the climatic conditions.

Carbon sequestration in forests is influenced by many factors of land use and land cover change, including deforestation, afforestation with different forest species, harvest methods and cycles, the forest management practices in general, or climatic variations, and disturbances.61 In other words, “[t]he rate of carbon sequestration depends upon age, site quality, species composition, and the style of forest management.”62

2.2.7 Sociocultural Values and Services

Forests also provide for cultural, spiritual, and recreational aspects. They play a particularly important spiritual role for forest dependent indigenous peoples. However, even in secularized societies, forests are often perceived as spiritual places. Even though in fact humans have to a large degree shaped forests in their appearance, forests are still commonly perceived as “natural”.63

With a view to recreational services, it is important to note that “[n]ature-based tourism has increased more rapidly than the general tourism market, evolving from a niche market to a mainstream element of global tourism, with annual growth rates estimated to be in the range of 10–30 %.”64 In addition to that, and taking a more local perspective, a recreational service provided by forests can also be seen in the “improvement of urban and peri-urban living conditions”.65

2.2.8 Economic Value of Forest Services and Functions

Taking into account these services and functions, the economic value of these services cannot be disregarded. There is a clear market for certain forest products, such as timber, which in turn determines a specific market value for those forest products.66 However, other forest services and functions do not have a determined market value. Even though it is disputed how to calculate the monetary value of certain ecosystem services and functions exactly, it is accepted that these services have a monetary value to begin with.67 It is of course extremely difficult to provide useful estimations with regard to the value of a certain ecosystem service in general where a market for it does not exist. This generates a variety of problems to estimate, for example, a market value for flood prevention services or the protection of biodiversity provided for by forests, to name just two examples. Nevertheless, it is possible to arrive at more exact value estimations with regard to small-scale scenarios, such as the Masoala National Park, Madagascar.68 A research project dedicated to identifying a market value for the Masoala Nation Park estimated the value of the national park for the provision of medicines to be US$1,577,800, and the value of erosion control to be US$380,000. Ultimately, whilst estimates of the market value of services provided by larger forests may not be possible, it can be asserted that “[s]uch environmental services would be prohibitively expensive if not impossible to replicate or replace with current technology.”69

Additionally, the forest sector offers employment, thus opening up another set of economic gains connected to forests.

2.2.9 Complexity and Priorities

The existence of different attempts at a categorization of forest services and functions already hints to the complexity of categorizing forests as a whole. If it is presumed that forests are to be deemed worthy of protection because of their role as service providers, it follows that the scope of services and functions provided will simultaneously constitute problems with a view to the scope of regulation.

These problems are further aggravated given that not all of the services and functions provided for by forests are valued and utilized equally by all stakeholders, and the relevance attributed to a given function is largely a matter of local proximity and perspective, respectively interest. Thus, a very different significance might be attributed to one and the same function depending on whether it is perceived from an economic, socio-political or ecological point of view, or from a local or global perspective. As forests vary across the globe and in time, not all forests provide equally for the same quantity and quality of services and functions, and a single forest does not provide its services and functions steadily. Moreover, not all of the services provided by a forest can be provided by the same forest at the same time. Hence, a tropical forest provides for a larger amount of biological diversity, while an economically managed temperate forest might provide for more industrial wood production. On the other hand, a forest turned into a nature preserve is no longer available for wood extraction on an industrial scale. Accordingly, the question for the scope of forest regulation consequently becomes a question of priorities.

With various stakeholders involved, however, it is rather difficult to agree on a common set of priorities. Attempts at determining hierarchy levels can quickly become a matter of “cui bono”.

In this regard the dichotomy of “public vs

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