Forestry convention: lair in the woods

  • 14/06/1996

THE issue of who will govern the world's forests, and how, is hotting up again. The Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) has set up the Ad hoc Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF) to recommend what should be done by the global community to better manage the world's forests. At the Earth Summit (1992) in Rio, NGO'S like CSE had successfully opposed the proposal for a global forestry convention. The convention would become a tool for strengthening bureaucratic management of our forests, instead of deepening community control.

We knew that despite our temporary victory at Rio, the real battle was still to come. In March 1995, we were invited by the director general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to a special meeting on forests and forest- people. That meeting was to precede a meeting of the world's forest ministers. Interestingly, even though FAo has the charter for the management of forests, it has been the playground for agriculture ministers. This then was the first time FAO convened a meeting of forest ministers.

Not surprisingly, the unsaid agenda was to give FAo a leadership role in global forest management. Worse Still, FAO was reviving the idea of the forest convention. A draft statement of the forest ministers - ostensibly the result of their meeting - was prepared even before their arrival, and leaked out to us. It said that the ministers resolved to work on the "need, or otherwise, to proceed towards a legally binding instrument on forests". The recommendations of this meeting would go to CSD and could well have been accepted. After massive lobbying, the FAO backed out and the statement was watered down. The CSD then decided to set up the Ad Hoc IPF. The Panel has to submit its report in April 1997.

Of the five agenda items of the IPF, item 5 is politically the most important. It calls for the study of international organisations and multilateral institutions and instruments, including appropriate legal mechanisms. Therefore, the panel has to recommend to governments if the existing forest-related global institutions and instruments are adequate, or there is a need for new institutions/legal instrument.

Multilateral agencies and multilateral instruments are all desperate for survival, and each wants to bag the mandate to protect and manage Southern forests. In 1993, roughly us $1.5 billion was given in overseas assistance for forests. This comprised of grants (71 per cent) and loans (29 per cent). But the multilateral agencies controlled only 13 per cent of the money transfered.

But for us the main issue is not which institution will do the work, but what work has to be done. Forests are local resources, best managed by local communities. Therefore, It is time to redefine the role of multilateral organisations in this crucial area.

1 Another parallel issue is also gaining momentum - the 'development of a set of criteria and indicators (c&i) for the "sustainable management of forests". This process has been underway since Rio. The idea is to use the c&i for labeling which woods are ecoftiendly and vice versa. Across the world, there are at least four c&i initiatives underway, and many more are still taking off.

In addition, there is the initiative led by NGOS -like World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC offers its services to national governments as a "certifier of certifiers" for trade in forest products. These initiatives are vying wit4,each other for legitimacy. One can also hear the call for developping a "harmonised" c&i - that is, a single set of criteria for the entire forests of the world.

These are reasons for serious concern. Firstly, the single mok important criterion and indicator for sustainable forest management has to be the direct control of local people in forest management. How can this process, led as it is, by supra-national agencies who see trees and not people, ensure that this criterion is followed? A study of the current c&i shows that in most cases, people are not even mentioned, and if they are then, at best, their participation is sought, not guaranteed.

Besides, since forests are local resources, the c&i have to be first developed by local communities and then 'harmonised' into global standards. In fact, what is happening is that criteria developed for 'green trade' are being palmed off as criteria for green forestry. For the deprived millions who live in them, the vast tropical forests are habitats. The extraordinary diversity of forest types and use by the forest people, and in particular, the diversity of life, cannot be coded into a national or global c&i. This can only be done for the single-use, humanmade, monoculture forests of the Northern model.

It is our strong belief that the c&i process is controlled by the pulp and timber lobby of the temperate North. The real worry for the South lies in this process becoming the logical input into a legal framework, which will then govern its adherence. The forest convention then would not be far away.