Lost in the deep woods

IT'S a bit less than a conspiracy, a bit more than a fetish. Five international organisations have made forest conservation their overriding priority. The gigantic United Nations bureaucracy based in New York, Washington, Tokyo and Rome is breathing in carbon dioxide, breathing out oxygen.

First came the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) formed in 1983, soon followed by the Tropical Forestry Action Programme (TFAP) of the Food and Agriculture Organisation in 1985, the UN Environment Programme's Biodiversity Convention. The World Bank's exclusive policy for forest conservation followed soon after. Now, there is a session of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD), set up to examine the possibility of hammering out a global agreement on forests.

Yet, the juggernaut of deforestation continues apace. In the next 5 years or so, the world will have reached the point of no return -- the point at which the world's anatomy will be too scarred for any regeneration to ever be sufficient. Cutting trees, unfortunately, is still more profitable than conserving them. International initiatives have so far failed to shift the balance, to develop an economic model in which keeping forests intact would mean money in the till. There is an obvious reason for this failure: the world's rich, who benefit most from the myriad services of a conserved forest -- like sinks for CO2, biodiversity, and more -- are not interested in paying for the benefit.

The international bureaucracy, a loose amalgam of national engines of governance, is beefing up the mechanism of dangling the carrot -- rotten in parts -- of either increasing or decreasing aid in the belief that doing so will arrest tropical deforestation. There is no thought given -- at least not evident -- to compensating developing countries for the loss of revenue that curtailing commercial activity can lead to.

Despite the apparent failure of international initiatives in correcting market crashes related to forestry, the UN, backed by countries like Canada and the USA, is kickstarting another attempt at negotiating just such an international agreement. The session of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development, due to start early April in New York, will be discussing a proposal from the FAO that it take the lead in starting these negotiations.

The FAO seems not to have learnt from its recent fiasco of trying to manage tropical forests through the Rome-based International Civil Service. In an official review chaired by the Swedish ex-prime minister, Ola Ullsten, the FAO's Tropical Forest Action Programme (TFAP) deviated from its original guidelines.

The Ullsten review said that despite its wideranging aims, the plan had in practice "too narrow an approach to the forestry sector, especially with regard to ecological and environmental issues, and too little attention to its linkages with other sectors". Ullsten also found that foreign experts often outnumbered local professional staff on field missions -- a gross numerical imbalance that cost US $700,000 per country -- and concluded that "the approach savours of arrogance, with foreign experts telling the country what is good for it instead of creating a dialogue aimed at working out solutions". It also pointed out that NGOs were consulted in only 7 of the 25 countries under review.

Similarly, the ITTO, a Japanese brainchild, has failed in its main objective of increasing the economic value of the world's forests by increasing and rationalising the international price structure for timber, taking into account the national costs of forest management and reforestation.

The ITTO's broad aim is to control deforestation caused by commercial logging and to promote sustainable forest management in tropical countries. However, over a decade after after the organisation began working, what remains indistinct is what sustainablity really means in terms of land use, forest management and their social and ecological impact. Some countries use an oxymoron, "sustainable logging", to describe a situation where the potential harvest and harvest area per decade do not reduce over time; unfortunately, the term excludes the concept of species preservation. Some NGOs challenge the concept of sustainable logging in tropical forests. They argue that there is no evidence to prove that logging in tropical forests has no significant effect on the local ecology.

The renewed proposal to negotiate a legal forest conservation agreement, opposed wholesale in 1992 by developing countries, is clearly another attempt by the North to justify the billions of dollars it is arbitrarily splurging on forest conservation, an imprecise concept. It is also an attempt to keep the responsibility of conserving forests from the local people, who are best placed to conserve them.

Such a top-down, legally binding approach is fraught with dangers, not the least of which is the homogenisation of approaches to forestry, a field characterised by the enormous variety of forest users. The innumerable forest-user interfaces need a very decentralised and diverse regulatory regime instead of a centralised global one.

Whether forests should be managed as private, state or community property resources, or a mix of 2 or all these options, and whether the mix of management systems should vary from one ecozone to another, is a key issue raised by grassroots groups. Many countries are today passing through a learning phase and can only come up with appropriate solutions by experimenting and debating at the local, national and international levels -- in that order. At this stage, to gift the onerous responsibility of guiding forest use to the global bureaucracy -- which cannot comprehend or negotiate the tradeoffs involved in the multiplicity of forestry management systems -- would be detrimental to the communities it plans to protect.