New project will collect vital knowledge about tree genetic resources to support conservation

A recent workshop in Nairobi, Kenya saw representatives from 43 African nations participate in an ambitious project to document the status of the world’s forest genetic resources; a vital step in conserving and sustainably managing forests.

“Forest genetic resources are unique and irreplaceable; from plants that provide timber and essential nourishment when crops fail to those that may be used in future medicines,” explains Oudara Souvannavong, Senior Forestry Officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and coordinator of the project.

“It is urgent that we document the status of these resources,” says Souvannavong. “This knowledge is essential if we are to conserve and sustainably manage forests across the globe.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is coordinating the project in collaboration with Bioversity International, the World Agroforestry Centre and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

This is the first time such a study has been undertaken for forest genetic resources, while many livestock and crop genetic resources are already well documented.

The Nairobi workshop is the first in a series of workshops in the region designed to guide African country-driven reports that when combined with reports from other continents will comprise the State of the World’s Forest Genetic Resources.

“Without this knowledge, the trees that millions of people rely on may be threatened,” said Dr Ramni Jamnadass, Global Project Leader, Tree Genetic Resources and Domestication at the World Agroforestry Centre.

“In Africa, we expect to cover more than 3,000 species,” she adds. “This includes trees inside and outside forests that people depend on for food, timber, fodder, fertilizer and other uses.”

Dr Jamnadass further explains how conserving genetic diversity is safeguarding against future risk.

“In East Africa, we have learnt how deforestation and the over-exploitation of forests are threatening the genetic diversity of anti-malarial tree species. For this reason, we are holding samples of most of the species with antimalarial qualities in our genebank and growing these trees in nurseries. Our genebank holds close to 200 species in total, of which at least 30 are known to have anti-malarial properties.”

“It is critical that we gather as comprehensive data as possible about genetic diversity before this information is lost forever.”

At the last conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010, the importance of conserving and sustainably using forest biodiversity was highlighted, especially in relation to maintaining the resilience of forest ecosystems in the setting of human-induced climate change and other global challenges.

Forest tree species are generally long lived and extremely genetically diverse. One species can naturally occur in a broad range of ecological conditions. In addition, forest species have evolved under several periods of climatic change; their high genetic variability provides the capability to adapt to emerging climatic conditions.

“Forest genetic resources have provided the potential for adaptation in the past, and will continue to provide this vital role as we address the challenge of mitigating or adapting to further climate changes,” says Souvannavong.

It will take two years for the final State of the World’s Forest Genetic Resources to be prepared, and it will include information on status and trends – and identify needs, gaps and priorities – as the basis for developing a framework for action at national, regional, eco-regional and global levels.

“Conservation of forest genetic resources must be integrated into broader national and local development programmes, such as national forest programmes, rural development plans and poverty reduction strategies, which promote cooperation among sectors,” Souvannavong adds.