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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - July 2005   

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Title  Forests: a transcontinental inventory

Set up by the EU in 1991 as part of the preparations for the Rio Convention, the European Tropical Forest Research Network was charged with protecting and improving our knowledge of the tropical forests. Today – with the necessary links in place between research organisations, scientists and the structures and individuals active in the field – the ETFRN is seen as a remarkable success.

Papua New Guinea © CE
Papua New Guinea
© CE
Consisting of 14 EU Member States plus Norway and Switzerland, the European Tropical Forest Research Network (ETFRN) covers research fields on all five continents – from Amazonia to Africa and the forests of Indonesia – and on a multiplicity of themes, including forests and climate warming, biodiversity, water resources, and timber and non-timber forest products. It has received Commission funding of around €200 000 a year since its foundation and today boasts a directory of more than 560 research laboratories and institutions working on the tropical or Mediterranean forests, a list of over 1 000 contacts – including researchers, students, NGO members, decision-makers – and an internet site with 600 links which clocks up more than 11 000 visits a month.

Virtues of the virtual
Ethiopia (reforestation) © CE/A.Martinez Alonso
Ethiopia (reforestation)
© CE/A.Martinez Alonso
"The network is concerned with fundamental as well as applied research and covers a vast field of disciplines, from pedology to botany, zoology, forestry, economics and anthropology. Thirteen years after start up, we are receiving very positive feedback and I believe that this type of initiative has proved its effectiveness,” says Willemine Brinkman who coordinates the ETFRN network from the headquarters of Tropenbos Foundation, a Dutch NGO devoted to preserving the tropical forests.

With the help of the internet, the ETFRN provides a bridge between Europe and the developing countries. The question-and-answer service responds to the most diverse requests, from an African student seeking a European supervisor for his thesis to the Indian NGO seeking information on teak production and commerce, for example. The website also has a jobs section that is particularly popular. Then there is the ETFRN newsletter, with a print run of 5 000, two-thirds of which are distributed to research organisations, forestry services, universities, libraries, NGOs and governmental bodies, with the remaining third going to the developing countries. Meanwhile, the workshops, whether ‘traditional’ or virtual, provide the opportunity for international and multidisciplinary debates. Support for local networks in the partner countries or continents is another of the ETFRN’s strong points.

"A network of this kind plays a very important role in the democratisation of knowledge and information,” believes Vitor Afonso Hoeflich, an agricultural engineer and researcher at Brazil’s National Agricultural Research Institute (Embrapa). “We have excellent human resources, but they are underemployed due to a lack of operational means. The opportunities for co-operation opened up by the ETFRN are a good way of optimising them.” 

Biodiversity workshop
Pakistan © CE/O.Lehner
© CE/O.Lehner
One of the ETFRN’s notable successes was the 2002 electronic workshop on evaluating the biodiversity. About 270 participants of 55 nationalities, around 100 of them from the developing countries, discussed the subject on-line over a two-week period. Entitled PAMEB (Participatory Assessment, Monitoring and Evaluation of Biodiversity), it was managed by Anna Lawrence, head of the human ecology programme at Oxford University’s Global Change Institute. The question at the heart of the debates was how local actors – rural communities, non-scientists, representatives of the local authorities, voluntary workers – can help define the problem of diversity. Can their contribution be useful to the scientific approach at the same time as helping the populations concerned to manage this biodiversity?

"We wanted to hear of other experiences and opinions on the subject, make adjustments to our own action and compare it with other initiatives,” stresses Frans Pareyn, director of Plantas do Nordeste, an NGO based in Recife. Over the past decade, this organisation has devoted itself to the study and intelligent exploitation of the vegetation of Nordeste, Brazil’s poorest region, in partnership with local universities and Kew Royal Botanical Gardens in the United Kingdom. “This type of discussion makes it possible to tackle global subjects such as biodiversity evaluation, the genetic patrimony, the use of local and traditional know-how, or the sharing of benefits,” he continues.   

Value of the ‘white forest’
Madagascar © CE/G.Barton
© CE/G.Barton
Frans Pareyn was thus able to present the concrete results of the long partnership with botanists from Kew Gardens, one of the results of which is the creation of a plant information centre in Recife. This is designed to encourage the dissemination of botanical information on the local vegetation – trees, medicinal plants, fodder or bee forage plants as well as plant fibre that can be used to make craft items – and make it available to the populations. A database of over 8 000 scientific and popular names of the region’s plants is now also available on the internet.

Other actions aimed specifically at inhabitants are seeking to highlight the value of the caatinga or ‘white forest’. This is vegetation consisting of thorny bushes and cacti that are adapted to the semi-arid climate found in much of Brazil’s Nordeste region. Long neglected due to interest in the more luxuriant species of the tropical rain forests, as found in nearby Amazonia, the caatinga shows a surprising biodiversity. Researchers have identified more than 300 species of endemic plants, many of which are threatened with extinction. “There are discussions at present on the possibility of creating an ecological park,” explains Pareyn. “This would combine a protection and research role with ecotourism, demonstrations and the attractions of a botanical garden.”

Kew Gardens has launched an ambitious operation to disseminate the herbariums devoted to the Nordeste plants either in its own collections or in those of other European research centres. These herbariums have been built up over the centuries by scientists and explorers who brought back specimens to describe and classify them. The collections themselves will remain undisturbed but a selection of images, with accompanying notes, is being collated. Before the end of the year, Brazilian researchers should thus be able to consult half of the Kew collections from their desks. 

‘Living pharmacies’
Another notable achievement of the Plantas du Nordeste programme, jointly realised by Kew Gardens, the Brazilian National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and a number of Brazilian NGOs and universities, is the creation of gardens of medicinal plants. These are designed to meet the needs of rural communities who are too poor to purchase medicines. A chemist from the Federal University of Ceara (Brazil), Professor Francisco José de Abreu Matos, has identified 600 species used locally for their medicinal properties, subsequently testing their pharmacological benefits and side effects. This research has led to the circulation of books and fact sheets describing the uses of some 50 medicinal plants. Genuine ‘living pharmacies’ have been created in several pilot villages where inhabitants can learn how to tend these plants and produce herbal teas, lotions and pills for local consumption. Initiatives of this kind are excellent examples of the kind of intercontinental co-operation that exists thanks to the ETFRN network. 

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Features 1 2 3 4
  Maize adapted to the Tropics
  Combating ‘bean stress’
  Forests: a transcontinental inventory
  Chemistry cleans river waters


The ETFRN is one of the thematic forums under the auspices of the European Initiative for Agricultural Research for Development (EIARD).This is currently supporting the creation of a wider network on agricultural research for development (ARD). Its aim is to coordinate national research programmes in ...

  • European Tropical Forest Research Network (ETFRN)

  • Willemine Brinkman

    Features 1 2 3 4

    The ETFRN is one of the thematic forums under the auspices of the European Initiative for Agricultural Research for Development (EIARD).This is currently supporting the creation of a wider network on agricultural research for development (ARD). Its aim is to coordinate national research programmes in the framework of ERA-NET programmes supported by the EU.