By Andrew Taber, Social Forestry Team Leader, FAO and Susan Braatz, former Senior Forestry Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
Well-trained foresters are vital to address some of the world’s greatest problems and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, emerging zoonotic diseases, rural poverty and malnutrition all have direct links with the state of the world’s forests and the people that manage and protect them.
Current and future generations must be equipped to secure a sustainable future for the world’s forests. Forest educators, professionals, workers, entrepreneurs, forest communities including Indigenous Peoples, policy makers and researchers must have the knowledge and skills to address forest-related challenges.
The key findings of a major survey undertaken by the Global Forest Education Project are being presented this week at the International Conference on Forest Education. This survey was supported by the Government of Germany and led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Union of Forest Research Organizations and the International Tropical Timber Organization. It revealed serious shortfalls in attracting and educating a new generation for work in forest-related sectors.
The first of its kind, this comprehensive survey gathered information on how well forestry is being taught in primary and secondary schools, technical and vocational programmes, and universities around the world.
The survey found that in most regions, primary and secondary schools are not effectively educating students about forests. Forest-related content in the curricula is limited and, too often, school kids have limited contact with forests or exposure to forest professionals and workers. It is hardly surprising that many school leavers lack basic understandings of what forests give the world, the importance of managing them sustainably, and the diversity of forest careers.
While the picture is mixed at tertiary levels, it also uncovered weaknesses in vocational and university forest-related programmes. Forest professionals reported that graduates are frequently insufficiently prepared for contemporary workplaces.
In many regions, out-dated curricula, poor access to digital tools and learning resources, and insufficient hands-on experience in forests hold graduates back. Notably deficient is coverage of socio-economic factors, including gender and social inclusion considerations, and of traditional forest-related knowledge. University programmes are challenged by the need to provide students with a science-based education on a range of technical subjects; understanding of the social and landscape-wide context for forests; and training in critical thinking and communications.
Significantly, the survey revealed that the forest sector has an image problem: young people often view forestry as a low-status and undesirable career. Too few young people are aware of the diversity of jobs in the forest sector, or of the potential for innovation in forest-based work.
Yet the survey also revealed a wealth of innovative tools, approaches and best practices in forest education from around the globe upon which to build.
The International Conference on Forest Education is bringing together over a thousand stakeholders to explore needs and means to deliver quality forest education at all levels.
The conference will contribute to several Sustainable Development Goals including Goal 4 on Quality Education, 15 for Life on Land, 10 on Reducing Inequality and 17 for Strengthening Partnerships. It will also underline the role of forest education in the UNESCO-led Education for Sustainable Development for 2030 agenda.
In addition to considering formal forest education, the conference will examine needs for practical field training through farm and forest extension programmes and continuing education. These frontline forest resource users need the knowledge and skills to manage forests for a range of social, environmental and economic objectives and with the engagement of local communities.
A Call to Action on Forest Education will be launched at the conference. It urges stakeholders to undertake action to support forest education, training and knowledge. Conference participations and others are being invited to endorse this Call.
A key outcome of this event is the launch of the Joint Initiative on Forest Education of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests. An online course on legal and sustainable supply chains of tropical wood and forest products and the development of Forestra, an online platform for dissemination of information forest education will also be unveiled.
The conference promises to be a defining moment for a global need: a renaissance in forest education. Never before have so many people gathered to focus their attention on this issue. It is time to build a stronger foundation for forest education, training and knowledge. The world’s youth can expect no less if they are to have a sustainable future.
Sheam Satkuru, Director of Operations, ITTO and Alexander Buck, Executive Director, IUFRO contributed to this editorial.