Forests of global contention

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WITH THE biodiversity and climate treaties fully negotiated and ready for signature, it was obvious that the Rio conference would have had to confront the contentious issue of the forest convention proposed by the North. A last-minute insertion of fresh sentences into the text of the Agenda 21 -- the action plan to emerge out of Rio -- at the last preparatory committee meeting in New York in April had doubly ensured that the issue would have had to be discussed and negotiated in Rio.

The offending paragraph called for efforts to develop appropriate international cooperation and to negotiate an appropriate legal instrument (See box: The offending paragraph.... ). The paragraph had been inserted at the last minute by the Swedish chairperson, Bo Kjellen, and was seen by many developing countries as an underhand move to force open the forest negotiations once again. When the first preparatory committee (prepcom) meeting had taken place in Nairobi, the idea of a forest convention had been strongly opposed by developing countries.

In March 1991, when the second prepcom met in Geneva, it was agreed that no forest convention would be negotiated and that only a non-legally binding statement of principles would be enunciated in Rio. Even this was seen by many developing countries as the emergence of a "soft law" which could be used by the North to impose conditionalities in future aid and trade negotiations.
How the idea originated The idea of a legally binding forest convention apparently first arose during ex-Swedish prime minister Ola Ullsten"s review of the Tropical Forests Action Plan (TFAP). Ullsten was reportedly appalled at the failure of the plan to restrict destruction of tropical forests. He, therefore, felt that an international law that could enforce discipline in the use of forests would be a better approach.

The idea soon had two takers -- each with its own vested interests. One, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which was feeling left out of the global environment business, since the ozone and biodiversity conventions were being negotiated under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the climate convention directly under the UN. Two, US President George Bush, who was not prepared to take strong action against profligate energy consumption in his own country and found the idea of a forest convention extremely useful as a diversionary tactic. He first proposed the idea of a "tropical forest convention" at the June 1990 Houston Summit of the Group of Seven, the world"s seven most economically powerful nations.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, who was fighting a difficult election at home, had written to Bush in advance of the Houston summit to announce strong action on carbon dioxide emissions cuts and had released his letter to the press. But Bush did not agree with Kohl in Houston, arguing that the impact of carbon dioxide emissions on the world"s climate was still a matter of scientific uncertainty and that, in any case, he would not accept a "radical position that"s going to throw a lot of American men and women out of jobs".

But, in order to keep his mantle green, Bush was able to get the Houston summit to note that the destruction of tropical forests had "reached an alarming pace" and that there was an urgent need to negotiate a tropical forest convention "as soon as possible, but not later than 1992".

The idea immediately received a hostile reception from the South. Malaysia, supported by India and several other developing countries, took up the cudgels at the first UNCED prepcom in Nairobi in August 1990. Later, in the FAO fora, they had the idea rejected again. The Malaysians saw the initiative as an assault on their sovereignty and a clear effort to pass on the buck of sustainable management to developing countries. But, in spite of this, the western nations, in alliance with the secretariat of the UNCED and the FAO, continued their lobbying with amazing persistence.

In February 1991, the government of Sweden tried to intercede by organising a meeting to iron out the differences. By this time, the North had given up the idea of a tropical forest convention and had instead started talking of a global forest convention. Malaysia"s ambassador, Ting Wen Lian, nonetheless told the meeting in no uncertain terms, "My delegation questions the sagacity, if not the validity of such a focus on forests" and called upon the meeting to take note of the "whole gamut of environmental concerns and recall the reality that developed countries, which have been the main culprits of environmental degradation, should instead focus on how they can redress the damage they have done and are continuing to do."

Matters came to a head at the second prepcom in March 1991. Western countries and NGOs stepped up their pressure, with the US insisting on an immediate decision. Finally, after hectic efforts, India and Malaysia were able to build up a consensus within the Group of 77 to jointly oppose the convention.

What the West wants
Little is yet known about the details of the forest convention that the industrialised countries want. The various proposals for the convention submitted by western governments differ. But their underlying substance remains the same.

First, that the tropical forests are in a state of crisis. Second, that the crisis has grown in urgency because of the need to fix carbon dioxide through forests. Third, that national governments in tropical countries are incapable of managing their forests and, hence, the need for global intervention. But just intervention through money is not enough. So, fourth, principles for sustainable forestry must be defined at a global level so that management practices can be regulated.

Fifth, that these forestry practices are best defined by supranational agencies. Sixth, that trade embargoes and codes of conduct can be used as a means to reform forestry management in the tropics. And, seventh, that this proposed system can be enforced through a legal convention which will ensure compliance. A system of policing the world"s forests would, thus, be in place.

The idea of a convention raises many vital issues that the people of the South must take note of. There can be no doubt that there is an urgent need for forest protection and regeneration. But it is important to ask whether it is really possible to manage the world"s forests by setting in place a supercentralised system of global decision-making and governance.

Every law gives rise to a bureaucracy. And, in this case, the bureaucracy would be the FAO in Rome and the World Bank in Washington DC. But can a community of multinational bureaucrats and technocrats set practices for sustainable forest management across such a wide range of socioecological diversity?

In India, for instance, the World Bank had launched its social forestry programmes over 10 years ago with the firm opinion that it knew all the answers. Today, conceptually, the programme is in a shambles as the World Bank now looks for, what it calls, a new "intellectual and leadership" role. It is not that the World Bank does not have the right to make mistakes, but as long as the bank and other international agencies take on the mantle of being the world"s knowledge centres, they will never allow community management systems to emerge.

USA"s compulsions
By the time everyone reached Rio, the issue of forests had got further embroiled in US domestic politics. President George Bush has turned his back on environmentalists, at least for this election. He has recently allowed the logging of US forests that constitute the habitat of an endangered bird, the spotted owl. On his insistence, the world has had to agree to a weak climate treaty. And, just before the Rio conference, he announced that USA was not going to sign the biodiversity convention, agreed to after long and painful negotiations. The US government was, therefore, extremely isolated at the start of the conference. The US administration had to take an initiative on something to gain its leadership role and that something, which the US President had in mind, was forests.

On June 1, the White House put out a press release announcing a "Forests for the Future Initiative" under which the US President proposed to double the worldwide international forest conservation assistance from US $1.35 billion to US $2.7 billion. As a down payment, USA committed itself to US $150 million right away and called upon other donor countries to join this initiative. The proposal hoped to create "market-type incentives" for forest conservation as countries interested in this money would have to bid and compete for it. The press release also stated that the new initiative would "accelerate progress" towards a Global Forest Agreement as proposed at the Houston summit.

The forest initiative had all the political elements that could have turned the Rio conference in favour of the US. It could easily have diverted the attention of the summit away from the North"s environmental problems to the South"s forests. The initiative failed only because of the crudeness of the US position, which totally disregarded southern concerns. In terms of the benefits that the initiative would bring, the White House had only talked of protection of biodiversity, maintenance of carbon sinks and reservoirs, functions like soil erosion control, and economic benefits like plants which can be used to manufacture modern medicines. There was no mention of the fact that forests play a crucial role as a habitat for millions of tribal people across the world.

The fear that a forest convention would reinforce extraneous forest management objectives onto developing countries and local communities was confirmed not just by this White House statement, but also by the deliberations on the forest principles. As they came to Rio, there were still many square brackets which had to be discussed and negotiated.

One of the bracketed paragraphs talked about the importance of forests as carbon sinks which ought to be taken into account while developing national forest policies and plans. When the chairperson from Guyana suggested that this entire paragraph be deleted because it listed merely one function of forests, India, Cameroon and Gabon, countries with large forest areas, supported the move. But countries which wanted the paragraph to remain were Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait, which have a lot of oil but no forests.

Nobody was sure whether the G-77 would hold together against this initiative. It was clear that the OPEC countries would support the US as they would like to see a greater focus on carbon sinks (namely, forests) rather than carbon sources (namely, oil), as they feared a drop in the global oil demand following the concern over climate change. It was also widely rumoured that African countries, which were demanding a convention on desertification, may be forced to make a deal that they would get a desertification convention only if they agreed to a forest convention. In fact, the European Community delegation openly stated as much in the main committee. This suggestion of linking the two ideas led to a massive uproar and an adverse comment from the chairperson, Tommy Koh of Singapore. Finally, an intermission had to be arranged, after which the EC tamely agreed to a desertification convention.

South American countries were already under heavy US pressure to agree to a forest convention. Venezuela, being an oil-exporting country was reportedly divided. And Brazil, being the host country, was only interested in playing the role of a mediator even though it has been deeply interested in forest issues. It was, therefore, quite possible that countries like India and Malaysia could get isolated and the idea of a forest convention could get carried through with a near-majority consensus.

Given this climate of confidence, southern countries began to see red in every sentence that talked of international guidelines or smacked of international concerns like global forest sinks and reservoirs. As a result, the negotiations in the first contact group of governments came to an end on June 9, two days before the summit of heads of governments was to begin, still full of square brackets. Pressure began to build up behind the scenes on recalcitrant governments to give in.

Pressure tactics
On June 10, the German delegation brought out a memorandum which singled out India as the one country opposing the various contentious texts. India"s environment minister, Kamal Nath, strongly protested against the note and also walked out of a meeting because of the intransigence of certain western ministers. But carefully thrown hints that other countries had capitulated on several key points helped to increase India"s sense of isolation, which got dispelled only after direct contacts were made at the ministerial level. A meeting was held late at night between two southern ministers and two northern ministers, the latter acting mainly on behalf of the US, to bring about some kind of a rapprochement.

The dialogue at this meeting was extremely interesting and informative. It was pointed out that forest projects have a long gestation period and that it was ridiculous to include in the forest principles, still under negotiations, the idea that "they may be inadequate and needed a further review". This was the window that the industrialised countries wanted to open up negotiations for a forest convention in the near future. The European ministers argued that their NGOs and domestic public opinion would consider UNCED a failure if it did not open the way for a forest convention. Southern ministers then pointed out that they too had public opinion back home and that as this opinion did not want a forest convention, there was no scope for a compromise. The meeting, which went on late into the night, ended without any conclusion.

Meanwhile, the main committee, meeting under Tommy Koh, was trying to finalise all documents that night, working its way into the wee hours of the next morning. Since the text of the forest principles and the forest chapter of Agenda 21 was still not finalised, he referred it to a select group of ministers to sort out the remaining differences. Klaus Topfer, the German environment minister, was nominated chairperson of the group.

Topfer spent the day of June 11 in bilateral talks with various countries, including India. These talks revealed that the negotiations were not going to be easy. But few delegations wanted the matter to go unresolved to the summit of the heads of governments beginning the next day, where their leaders would be exposed to direct negotiations and could easily succumb under their pressure. At 10 pm that night, Topfer presented his compromise text to the select committee with television crews standing outside the door of the small, densely packed room, wondering about the future of the earth"s forests. Nobody really knew how strong northern pressure would be at the meeting and no delegation from the Third World, especially the bigger ones, wanted to get isolated.

By the time this ministerial-level meeting took place, it had become clear that a possible compromise lay in leaving a "window" open for future negotiations for a forest convention. But the fear was whether this "window" would be a "door", such that negotiations could begin within a few months. "Let"s face facts. They are so powerful that they will inevitably get the convention sooner or later," said a Third World delegate, who had been involved in previous negotiations.

The text that Topfer presented to the ministers had been skillfully prepared. Though Topfer presented it as a package deal, a quick glance showed that every paragraph was pro-North. The insertion of the words "including appropriate legal instruments" was an obvious red rag for the South.

But Topfer knew that developing countries would expend all their energy in getting references to legal instruments removed and then tired, late in the night, would agree to the remaining text with only minor modifications. And this is precisely what happened. India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan and Gabon, supported by China, all objected to the idea of a forest convention. On the other hand, USA, the UK, Canada, Finland and the Netherlands expressed support for it.

The Brazilian delegation took the easy way out saying, "We have reservations with every one of the paragraphs but we extend general support for the chairperson"s package approach." Gabon, which has 80 per cent of its land under forests, simply refused to discuss the proposed text, asked for all of it to be put under square brackets, and allowed to go to the heads of governments summit for resolution at that level.

India strongly argued that it could not accept the globalisation of its forests and an erosion of its sovereignty. Its forests were community resources used for crucial survival needs like fruits, fodder and firewood. India also argued that it made no sense to urge a review of the principles, negotiated after such a long effort, immediately after their formulation, because forest-related projects have a long gestation period. This was an obvious bid to bide for time. Not being a log exporter, India"s high moral ground carried considerable weight with the other countries.

It was finally Indonesian environment minister Emil Salim"s statement that anything that smacks of a forest convention is simply not acceptable that finally convinced the northern ministers. Finally, Emil Salim and Kamal Nath"s following formulation went through. It only spoke about considering the need for "all kinds of appropriate internationally agreed arrangements to promote international cooperation on forest management after these principles had been implemented".

In other words, the negotiated forest principles must now first be implemented by countries and then only could a review be undertaken to develop other arrangements for international cooperation. Developing countries, thus, came out of the meeting with the firm conviction that they had gained considerable time in their struggle against a forest convention. As Malaysian ambassador Ting Wen Lian put it, "We have not even given them a window. We have just given them a chink."

Omissions and additions
It is interesting that despite months of negotiations, the forest principles, as they came to Rio, square brackets and all, did not have a single line about the importance of forests to local communities. It was only in Rio, on India"s insistence, that the importance of forests for local communities came to be incorporated in the forest principles.

India, Indonesia and Malaysia also tried hard to prevent "carbon reservoirs and sinks" being listed as functions of forests, which the British environment secretary, Michael Howard, quite abrasively said would render the principles meaningless and open to derision from the world outside. But they finally gave in when USA pointed out that these functions figure in the climate treaty which had already been negotiated and signed by many nations.

The meeting finally ended at 3 am on June 12. The TV cameras and milling crowds had disappeared by then. But as Kamal Nath and Michael Howard went out in a spirit of bonhomie, they both knew that the issue of the forest convention had not gone away. Not surprisingly, The International Herald Tribune reported just one day after the Earth Summit ended that "the accord enables the UN to start negotiations on an international forest treaty, a result fervently sought by the US...."

But at least in Rio, George Bush failed to talk much about his forest initiative or the need for a forest convention in his speech the same afternoon. However, the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and the British prime minister, John Major, both welcomed Bush"s forest initiative and emphasised the need for a forest convention in their speeches, which newspapers reported was the result of US pressure. Interestingly, the country which first came up with the idea, Sweden, had backed away from it to support the South in Rio. As one Swedish delegate put it, "We cannot morally push for something which so few countries want."

With western NGOs plugging away for a forest convention, whose concerns numerous northern ministers quoted during the negotiations, the convention must come back again.

Clearly, the South won the battle in Rio. But will it win the war which is certain to go on?