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Celebrating forest and tree diversity on the International Day of Forests

Forest scenery of Gede Pangrango, Indonesia in the morning. Credit: CIFOR/R.Martin

Bioversity International researcher Judy Loo and FAO's Albert Nikiema discuss forest genetic resources and the preparation of the first ever State of the World Report on Forest Genetic Resources.

On the International Day of Forests let's take the opportunity to remind ourselves of the beauty of forests and trees, and the importance of their genetic resources, without which trees cannot adapt or survive.

We interviewed Bioversity International researcher Judy Loo and Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN's (FAO) Albert Nikiema, who are at the forefront of preparations on the first ever State of the World Report on Forest Genetic Resources to be published in 2014. They told us about their plans for this day and what we can all do to fully recognize its importance.

Judy Loo leads Bioversity's Forest Genetic Resources research theme. Albert Nikiema has over 25 years of professional experience in development and research, with focus on tree seeds supply and tree domestication. He joined FAO in 2011 as a Forest Officer for Forest Genetic Resources.

What does the International Day of Forests mean to you? 

Judy Loo (JL): It is a day to celebrate the great importance of the world’s forests. It is also a day to recognize the fragile beauty of the forests of the world; fragile because every day forest cover is diminishing and already threatened tree species become more threatened. The importance of the day lies in its value in raising awareness and prompting action for more sustainable use of these resources that are essential to well-being of humanity.

Albert Nikiema (AN): Today is a great opportunity for the whole world to learn more about the importance of forests, their contribution to sustainable development and to raise awareness of the current threats to forests. We must never forget that natural forests are home to and the refuge for most plant biodiversity and that losing forest area can mean an irreversible loss of unique genetic resources necessary for future production of food, wood, and medicine.

What can everyone do on the International Day of Forests and what should we keep in mind for the coming year?

JL:  We can all decide to increase our own awareness of forest issues wherever we live by learning about the species that people depend on in our own countries and how those species are managed or mis-managed. Learning will prompt some of us to act over the coming year, for example, to encourage local management agencies to improve their practices or to plant native, perhaps threatened, tree species on farms, lawns, parks or other spaces.

AN: Make sure you learn something new about forests, or teach someone what you know about the importance of forests, and most importantly, take action to help limit the threats to forests.

Why are forest genetic resources important?

JL: Trees are like any other useful plant; each species encompasses vast amounts of genetic diversity. The potential exists to breed tree species for higher productivity and quality, just as people selected and bred domesticated food crops whose wild progenitors we wouldn't even recognize.

AN: Many people, including stakeholders in the forestry sector, tend to ignore the role of genetic resources and the need to integrate forest genetic concerns in their forest management practices.

One reason is that genes are not visible when looking at a plant, and that the link between these invisible resources contained in plants or in any other living organism is not always easy to understand without the help of experts or geneticists. However, any development activities affecting forests should adequately address the genetic resources dimension to avoid irreversible loss of important resources for present or future production of goods and services.Forest in France. Via Flickr/Thijs

What can someone who is neither a researcher nor an activist do to save valuable forest genetic resources?

AN: The wisdom of caring for nature is not confined only to scientists or to nature activists.

Indigenous and local people have been conserving and sustainably managing forest genetic resources for centuries. It is thanks to our ancestors' wisdom in working with nature that we are today enjoying a wealth of domesticated wood, food and ornamental plants, which used to grow wild in the forest. Saving forest genetic resources is therefore a must for people who care for the common good and services that trees and forest provide to humankind. Without any particular knowledge on the genetic resources, the first thing people can do is to prevent the loss of rare or unique forest or the habitats of tree species.

JL:  Learning is a valuable first step for everyone because when we are aware, we act.

At a very practical level, the most important factors determining genetic diversity are population sizes of tree species and the connectivity between them. A population of a tree species is an interbreeding group of trees. A small group of interbreeding trees loses genetic diversity from generation to generation, unless interbreeding groups are connected by pollen or seed movement.

What is The State of the World's Forest Genetic Resources (SoW-FGR) report and what sparked the beginning of the project?

AN: The SoW-FGR is the first ever report which compiles information from different countries on the status of the conservation, use and management of forest genetic resources all over the world. The report will be released in 2014.

JL: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) has a Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture which periodically reports on the global status of genetic resources of plants and livestock that are important for food. In 2007, the Commission requested that work be initiated to develop the SoW-FGR global report.

Why is this document important today and what difference can it make in the future?

JL: The report highlights what is known and perhaps more importantly what we don’t know about forest genetic resources. It will serve as a basis for monitoring forest genetic resources and for implementing a Global Plan of Action for their management. The Global Plan of Action identifies priorities for action at national, regional and global levels and as it is implemented in coming years, it will lead to increased awareness and management to conserve and sustainably use forest genetic resources.

AN: Current challenges resulting from the conversion of natural forest into other land uses and from the effects of climate changes, call for urgent actions. Decision-makers at international, regional, national and local levels need reliable information to justify the required investment.

What is Bioversity’s/FAO’s role in the preparation of the SoW-FGR?

JL: Bioversity has been a partner in the process, helping to developing background thematic studies to supplement information collected through country reports, providing expertise in the development of templates for collecting country-level information and at numerous regional workshops, facilitating the involvement of regional forest genetics networks (EUFORGEN, APFORGEN, LAFORGEN, and SAFORGEN), and assisting with summarizing information from country reports and writing the SoW-FGR report.

AN: At the 11th session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture it became evident that it was time to prepare the SoW-FGR. In collaboration with partners such as Bioversity International, The World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) and others, FAO provided technical support to the countries for preparing their reports and coordinated various thematic studies related to forest genetic resources.

How did countries participate in the making of the SoW-FGR document?

AN: The preparation of the SoW-FGR report was a country-driven process. The country reports are therefore the main sources of information. To write their reports, counties were encouraged to use a participatory approach and to involve important stakeholders such as government institutions, NGOs, local communities, and indigenous people. Guidelines prepared by FAO were provided to all countries to serve as a common reference for data collection.

JL: The country reports contain a great deal of information about tree species and their genetic resources in all parts of the world. In some cases the preparation of the reports led to countries identifying a need for national programmes to address the issues that became apparent during the compilation of information, so the effect of developing these country reports has had a beneficial impact already, beyond the value of contributing to the global report.

How will it be distributed and who will have access to it? 

JL:  It will be printed in multiple languages and will be available online. We hope that anyone who wishes to use it will have access to it.

AN:To add to that, a limited number of hard copies will also be dispatched through FAO document distribution channels.


Learn more about why tree genetic diversity matters.

Photo 1: Forest scenery of Gede Pangrango, Indonesia in the morning. Credit: CIFOR/R.Martin

Photo 2: Forest in France. Via Flickr.