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Measuring tree growth as part of FAO planning for integrated forest industries. Michoacán, Mexico, 1950s.

Documenting supply and demand

The founding of FAO helped bring forest product trade out of the shadows.

Commerce in forest products is as old as civilization. The tomb of Egypt’s King Menes (3200-3000 BCE) contained a tablet made of African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon). Archaeological excavation in Rome has revealed oak from northeastern France. Agarwood, used in incense and perfumes, is known to have been traded extensively in the Near East, China, India and Japan.

Over the centuries, technological improvements in harvesting, milling and transport networks spurred an ever-greater flow of forest products from their leafy origins to cities and towns continents away. In the West and Far East, demand for books and newspapers by a newly literate public drove increased production and trade of pulp, the raw material of paper.

And yet, through it all, there was no overall picture of how states were producing and using forest products. Which and how many forest products were being traded, or who the suppliers and consumers were, would only be known locally – if recorded at all.

As part of the global overhaul of agriculture in the aftermath of the Second World War, a world assessment, complete with underlying data, became imperative. The newly created United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Timber Committee sought to ensure the equitable distribution of sawnwood to rebuild a war-ravaged continent. In 1946, FAO’s Forest Product Statistics unit was born.

FAO’s work on forest product statistics

Over more than three-quarters of a century, the work of FAO’s Forest Product Statistics unit has made the Organization the recognized authority for data fundamental to what we now call the global bioeconomy: our increasing economic dependence on biological and renewable resources for livelihoods, energy and consumable items. We provide the numbers that governments and industry need to manage forests and to identify markets and opportunities for new forest products. From its inception, the dedicated unit’s assignment was to:

  • assess the global rates at which forest products were being produced and their potential productive capacities, and the rates at which they were being used or wasted; and
  • publish periodic statements on production, stocks and consumption of forest products and their global trade.

The inaugural Yearbook of Forest Products Statistics (now simply FAO Yearbook of Forest Products) saw the day 75 years ago, in 1948. This series remains the most trusted resource on the subject for the general public, policymakers, academics, researchers and industry. And while FAO’s specialized unit has become the world’s warehouse for global forest product data, the value of collecting forest product statistics has grown. Our statistics are now invaluable for informing sustainable forestry practices; understanding trends in the forest industry and in global trade of forest products; shaping investment decisions; and designing data-driven and evidence-based environmental policy.

Global cooperation for coherent data

Producing the FAO Yearbook of Forest Products requires intense collaboration. Each spring, four partner organizations – FAO, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the Statistical Office of the European Union (Eurostat) and the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) – send Member Nations the Joint Forest Sector Questionnaire. (FAO’s Forest Product Statistics unit is currently developing a network of official country correspondents to further improve communication and streamline data submission.) Staff spend the subsequent six months compiling responses, validating data and modelling data where absent. In the autumn, the data are released online; the Yearbook is published the following spring. Pairing data on production and trade offers an insight into the economic weight of a given country’s forest product sector; it also signals the sustainability of that sector.

A companion to the FAO Yearbook of Forest Products is Pulp and Paper Capacities, also published annually. Since 1968, the unit has collected detailed statistics on pulp and paper capacity and production. While the Yearbook has the previous year’s data, Pulp and Paper Capacities is forward-looking – a forecast of where the market might find itself in the coming years.

The Yearbook Then and Now

yearbook 1947 cover

Published in 1948 with data from 1945 to 1946

  • 75 countries and territories
  • Languages – English and French
  • Paper surveys mailed; responses could take months
  • Hard copy data booklets mailed on request
  • Number of forest products featured – 22
Forest products 2020 book

Published in 2022 with data from 2016 to 2020

  • 205 countries and territories
  • Languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish
  • Digital questionnaire sent by email
  • Online data downloaded every 2 minutes
  • Number of forest products featured – 59
Press the pause button at top left to examine values for any year. Press the play button to watch values change over time.
Data source: FAO. 2023. Forestry production and trade. In: FAOSTAT. Rome. Cited 30 June 2023. https://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/FO

Forest product data: experience, partnerships and change

With decades of experience behind it, FAO’s Forest Product Statistics unit continues to update and refine the process of data collection and analysis. Every year, the unit validates and updates 200 000 data points. Cross-institutional bodies such as the Inter-Secretariat Working Group on Forest Sector Statistics and the Working Party on Forest Economics and Statistics, as well as country correspondents, coordinate and support this endeavour.

With the globalization of information and advances in technology, dissemination of these free data is even more powerful. What was printed in booklets and mailed around the world is now available in a web-based application linked to parallel FAO agriculture data. This investment in accessibility affords industry, researchers, policymakers and the wider citizenry a comprehensive overview of how the world is producing and consuming the forest products that sustain communities and countries.

Enabling better data collection

Collecting, maintaining and reporting forest product data is a significant investment for countries to undertake. Some have an extensive record of it; others are still developing their capacity.

FAO’s Forest Product Statistics unit provides training and technical assistance to national statistical organizations and designated agencies. Capacity building is conducted through workshops and conferences, where knowledge, innovation experiences and examples of good practices are shared by both FAO experts and experts from nations with advanced forest product statistical systems.

An integral part of communicating the importance of collecting and reporting forest product data, these workshops are highly valued by correspondents and partners. Surveyed participants in one online workshop co-hosted by FAO and ITTO in October 2021 said the experience illuminated the link between their own country’s responses and the accuracy of global totals. Country reporting was understood to be the foundation enabling availability of data “needed to make informed decisions for sustainable management of forest resources”.

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