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UN: Consensus On Global Forest Policy Hard To Find

The management of the world's dwindling forests is under renewed high-level debate. There is general agreement about the threat posed by uncontrolled exploitation of forest areas, but as a recent UN forum indicated, member states are still far apart on whether to begin negotiations for a forest treaty. UN correspondent Robert McMahon looks at the latest efforts to manage the world's forests.

United Nations, 21 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Forests pose an especially difficult challenge to international policy makers, in part because they span so many issues. They are economically and environmentally crucial but also have social and even spiritual significance in some parts of the world.

But they have emerged as a priority area on national and international political agendas. An international discussion on how to deal with forest management is moving forward at the United Nations.

Forests were among the most controversial issues considered at the UN's Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. A divide between North and South countries prevented any meaningful agreement from being reached. But since then, confidence-building partnerships between North and South countries have helped build international consensus on some forest-related issues.

In 1995, the United Nations was able to spur a forest policy dialogue through a body now known as the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests, or IFF. That body has been meeting since 1997. An IFF session last month tackled the issue of whether to create a treaty that would legally bind states to an agreement on forest protection and development.

No agreement was reached. Instead, the forum agreed to a carefully worded text calling for a possible consideration of a legal framework on the world's forests within five years.

Environmentalists reacted with dismay. Scott Paul, of the environmental group Greenpeace, is a policy analyst on forestry issues. Paul, who attended the UN forum, expressed frustration at the pace of the discussions, saying the UN "operates in a vacuum." He told our correspondent that while governments quibble, millions of hectares of forest are disappearing each year.

"Implementation and political will are clearly what is lacking in the international community. The international community has come a long way since Rio in coming to a better understanding of some of the major differences that separate countries regarding forest issues. But there does already exist a long list of agreements that are foundering."

But other participants in the UN forum said there were some achievements. One of them was to establish a permanent intergovernmental body on forests. It is expected to bring together relevant government ministers for regular consultations as well as heads of agencies from the social, cultural, environmental and economic spheres.

A diplomat at the Iranian mission to the UN, Bagher Asadi, is co-chairman of the IFF. He told RFE/RL that one of the forum's goals has been to encourage each member state to develop its own national forest strategy. He says this is beginning to happen.

And while members failed to agree on a binding forest treaty yet, he said they have an action plan while one is considered over the next five years.

"We have agreed at the level of the whole international community that within five years, the movement should begin and that is a very delicate balance among those who said let's decide to have it now and those who said no, no."

The agreements and compromises reached in the IFF forum now must be ratified by the next session of the UN's Commission on Sustainable Development, which meets next month.

UN officials said major forested countries such as Canada and Russia, as well as most Eastern European countries, were in favor of starting negotiations for a forest treaty now. Other major timber-producing countries, such as the United States and Brazil as well as a number of developing countries, were opposed to a treaty in the short term. Some of them were dubious about what such a treaty would actually accomplish.

Many environmentalists say time is running out, especially as knowledge grows about the role forests play in climate control and in maintaining diverse forms of life.

In Africa, for example, a new report says deforestation is posing a serious threat. A report late last month by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization said diverse causes ranging from overlogging to civil unrest destroyed more than 10 percent of the continent's forests between 1980 and 1995. Forests cover 520 million hectares in Africa and the continent has the world's second-largest supply of tropical forests, after Latin America.

Paul, the Greenpeace analyst, says the economic pressures are understandable but they are having a devastating impact.

"There is a tremendous amount of industrialization and mechanization taking place. Transnational logging companies are coming into a lot of untouched forest regions of the world. Many of these countries are very cash-strapped and unable to get their economies running. It's very tempting when a transnational corporation comes in and offers a large chunk of money to come in and essentially clear out vast sections of ancient forest."

The intergovernmental forest forum dealt not only with the question of rampant deforestation but also with developing strategies that will ensure that forests remain a viable economic resource.

About one-third of the UN members are low-forest countries, and in a number of these, shrinking forest areas are still used for subsistence.

Diplomat Asadi of the Iranian mission says low-forest-cover countries like his own are concerned with rehabilitating and reforesting some areas while still allowing people to rely on forest for their livelihood.

"The question for them is how to preserve the limited forest cover that they have which has been degrading and deforesting over centuries, particularly because of lack of development, which is related to the question of subsistence."

With consideration of a global forest accord still a distant prospect, Asadi and other UN diplomats stress that the most important immediate activity is happening on the national level. And the involvement of organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, in creating incentives that are conditional on good forest policy, may ultimately be the most effective approach.

In Indonesia, for example, forests until recently were widely considered to mismanaged and under threat. But with aid from lending bodies conditioned on sound forest management, government officials have taken new interest in properly maintaining their forests.