A suspicious proposal

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AT RIO, while the forest convention was being resisted tooth and nail by developing countries, yet another idea was being floated. This was to establish a World Commission on Forests on the lines of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC). This would help broaden the scientific consensus and sort out existing policy differences on forest management.

The idea, which had been earlier proposed by the Woods Hole Research Centre, a private US institution, was pushed by Ola Ullsten, former prime minister of Sweden, and currently Sweden's ambassador to Italy in an article in The Earth Summit Times. It was Ullsten who had first suggested the idea of a forest convention in his review of the Tropical Forests Action Plan.

According to Ullsten the mandate of the commission should be to "define sustainability in ecological and economic terms and investigate scientific, economic, policy-related aspects of the conservation and utilisation of all types of forests." The commission should report to the UN General Assembly.

The idea was, as expected, greeted with tremendous suspicion by developing country delegates. Indonesia's minister of state for population and environment, Emil Salim, said the idea missed the main problem faced by developing countries in managing their forests -- declining and unfair terms of trade. Argued Salim, "Escalating tariffs, which prevent developing countries from adding value to their forest exports, must be removed". He added that a reform of the international economic system which gives developing countries better access to the markets of the North would help them to find alternative sources of income.

Salim has also argued for a long time that if the West sees southern forests playing a role as global repositories of biological wealth and carbon sinks, then they must be prepared to pay for this service. But the North refuses to discuss such ideas. Why then a scientific commission for forestry?

Other southern delegates and NGOs were more blunt. They saw the commission as a way of keeping the idea of a forest convention alive for an appropriate political climate to push it through. The idea of a forest commission did not go much further at least in Rio.