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Beyond 2000: constraints and opportunities

Balance between technical and policy focus

The evolution of the Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission over the past 50 years demonstrates the countless ways in which the Commission has served its members and FAO. It also reveals that this has not always been an easy task. Various constraints have obstructed opportunities the Commission tried to seize. In some instances delegates were forced to concede to unfavorable circumstances; in others, they found ways of overcoming constraints by capitalizing on the APFC’s unequaled role as a regional forum for reviewing, advising and taking action on key issues. Recent history shows that the Commission continues to be an active and relevant force in the region’s forestry arena.

Most of the constraints challenging the APFC are neither unique nor insurmountable. Accordingly, the range of opportunities has expanded and contracted with the support given to the Commission by FAO and the willingness of members to contribute toward positive action. APFC delegates spent considerable time discussing their options in 1981 and again in 1996. In parallel, FAO’s governing bodies periodically evaluated the activities of the six regional forestry commissions and usually asked FAO to expand their roles.

The most forceful statement in this respect was embodied in the 1995 Rome Statement on Forestry, adopted by the world’s forestry ministers, which envisaged that "stronger RFCs will enable countries to:

- use their inside knowledge and access to first-hand information to determine strategic priorities and key problems on which regional efforts should concentrate;

- facilitate the coordination of technical and financial resources indispensable for increasing the efficiency of actions aimed at solving regional and national forestry problems;

- become authoritative fora and centers of excellence for the discussion of issues and policy orientation; and

- secure the flow of investments required for advancement towards the sustainable development of forest resources."

Balance between technical and policy focus

The relative attention given by the APFC to technical versus policy issues has been a question of debate and concern throughout the history of the Commission. Striking the right balance between technical and policy in carrying out its work appears to be crucial for maintaining the relevance of the Commission.

Twenty years before the APFC was established, the Pacific Science Association (PSA) appointed a standing committee "for the collection of information on forest resources of the countries around and in the Pacific, particularly as regards present and future supplies of timber," recommending that it cooperate with its counterpart for the protection of nature (Eldredge, 1999). At the seventh PSA Congress, held immediately prior to the Mysore Conference, the impending creation of the APFC prompted much discussion. Both FAO and the PSA believed that the APFC would primarily compile regional forest statistics, which they realized would result in "statistical duplication on an enormous scale." This notion was reinforced by M. Leloup, FAO’s Director of the Forestry and Forest Products Division at the time, who attended the PSA Congress before travelling to Mysore. He suggested that "if the Bureau were set up, then it might act as the sole statistics-collector and compiler, if Congress countries were agreeable."

This historical anecdote shows how the substance of the APFC’s work was somewhat equivocal even before the Commission was established. The Mysore participants indicated they wanted the APFC to follow up on the FAO Conference resolutions, which included policy issues in addition to the collection of forestry statistics and technical aspects of forestry. The preamble adopted at the Second Session defined the purpose of the Commission to deal with both policy and technical issues. Yet, FAO’s representative at the very same session told the delegates that the primary task of the Commission was "advice and guidance on the broad aspects of forest policy, rather than examination of technical details."

The way in which the balance between technical and policy issues relates to the APFC’s past, current and future constraints and opportunities may not be immediately obvious. The Commission’s average attendance over the first 50 years provide a hint, as they have tended to be higher when subsidiary bodies dealing with technical issues were functioning. An organization’s success depends to a significant extent on whether it can fulfill its mandate or mission. Since policy reform and implementation, let alone capacity building for it, is a much more difficult and long-term process than the solution of technical problems, a sense of achievement is usually obtained more easily in the latter case. In other words, the value of the organization to its members, reflected not least in attendance rates, is much enhanced when periodic accomplishments can be shown. The FAO Committee on Forestry recognized this when it recommended in 1995 that "FAO stimulate inter-sessional activities of RFCs, including technical studies, as a way of enriching their work and also that of FAO."

The most recent experience confirms the notion that subsidiary bodies dealing with technical issues constitute a motivating factor for broader APFC participation. Since the first post-Rio session, attendance rates have sharply increased in parallel with the Commission’s work on the Asia-Pacific Forestry Sector Outlook Study and the Code of Practice for Forest Harvesting in Asia-Pacific. Although the increase has not been the exclusive result of these activities - FAO’s efforts have significantly contributed - it suggests that they have added to the value of the Commission in the eyes of its members and others.

The establishment of the ad hoc Working Group on Forestry Statistics and Information, suggested at the last APFC session in 1998, will provide a further opportunity for Commission members to actively pursue a joint effort, particularly if and when the regional project for capacity building in this area becomes a reality. Similarly, the recommendation that member countries report on their experiences in deriving revenue from various environmental services of forests may lead to yet another cooperative undertaking. It would also occur in an area the APFC has traditionally neglected, namely the formulation and implementation of policy tools relating to revenue from forests.


The previous section has made it evident that participation is a critical element in an organization’s functioning. All three aspects of participation - its extent in the APFC’s work, its sessions and the administrative capacity of delegates- have been at issue during the Commission’s evolution. These aspects are related to additional organizational ingredients, including the sense of ownership, the impact of APFC recommendations and activities, and funding.

When the APFC was created, provisions were made for FAO to host, staff and finance the Commission Secretariat; member governments were made responsible for the expenses of its delegations in attending the sessions. On one hand, this has ensured the institutional link to FAO and guaranteed funding support for the key logistical aspects of APFC sessions. On the other hand, it has placed certain limits on what the APFC could achieve. The impact of the worldwide recession during the 1970s, for instance, was clearly reflected in the activities of the Commission, both through decreased funding from FAO and the diminished ability of member countries to finance staff travel.

In response, the APFC in 1977 discussed ways and means for increasing the input of member countries into the activities of the Commission. It concluded that responsibility for preparing the documentation for Commission sessions should continue to rest with the Secretariat, but that members should contribute their views on the content of the various agenda items in time for these to be of use in preparing the papers. While this measure did not significantly alter the respective work load or financial responsibilities, it revived more active involvement of member countries in the preparation of the sessions - a service the APFC’s Executive Committee had performed during the 1960s - thereby increasing the members’ sense of ownership and paving the way for a return to Commission work through subsidiary bodies.

Attendance rates increased again after reaching their low point in the late 1970s but dropped to an all-time low in 1993. Different reasons may account for this, including the proliferation of regional and international meetings following the Earth Summit, which perhaps stretched the travel budgets and human capacities of many of the APFC’s economically disadvantaged members. Whatever the reasons, it prompted the delegates to express concern over the "rather poor" participation at the session. They urged FAO to investigate the root causes of the trend of declining participation since the 1987 Session and "implement remedial action."

The resulting review of regional forestry commissions revealed a number of points related to participation. Financial difficulties were certainly among them, but so too were the facts that RFCs had no means to enforce follow-up actions to their decisions, and that their recommendations were not binding either for international organizations or their own governments. These two aspects went to the core of a further observation, namely that RFC delegations, "although representing their respective governments, were seldom in a position to commit resources or take concrete decisions or obligations in the name of their governments." The APFC itself felt that "at a time of pressing international issues arising from UNCED, there should be more active participation in its sessions by senior officials with major responsibility for policy development and programme implementation."

Early APFC sessions were commonly attended by ministers and other very high-ranking officials. More recent meetings have attracted relatively lower ranking officials. To a large extent this trend is a result of the proliferation of regional and international organizations and meetings in recent years, considerably adding to the already saturated list of senior officials’ engagements. Even within FAO, the creation of COFO and, more recently, the holding of ministerial meetings in conjunction with COFO sessions have provided alternative channels for countries’ high-ranking administrators to communicate their positions.

When different internal and external fora within an organization begin to compete for the attention of senior representatives, it is appropriate to reassess the comparative advantage of the respective mechanisms. Along these lines, FAO’s review of RFCs recommended that "the Commission members themselves take responsibility for ensuring that its activities are sufficiently important and interesting to attract all its member countries" and suggested a number of ways they could do so. Three such suggestions dealt with strategic planning, participatory processes and general strengthening of Commissions as technical and policy fora.

The first recommendation addressed the balance between technical and policy issues and the ease with which progress towards an organization’s mandate can be measured and achieved. The FAO review suggested that RFCs could increase their influence on countries and the international community by establishing programs of work that could be monitored and adjusted in subsequent sessions. In this way, the activities of RFCs, priorities for allocating scarce resources, and specific approaches of intervention could be identified and set in a participatory way. The timeframe in which the goals are to be achieved could be defined and a task manager could be appointed. Finally, RFCs could more easily establish how follow-up would be carried out. For example, the subsequent sessions of RFCs could examine progress towards SFM and the main issues involved in the context of UNCED follow-up. This discussion would provide the opportunity for each RFC to identify priority orientations for its future work that could be translated into concrete elements of its programme of work.

The second recommendation was directed at the composition of delegations participating in RFC sessions. It was pointed out that the forestry scene was constantly evolving at international and national levels, and that a new and broader range of participants in forestry dialogues had emerged. It was argued that this called for RFCs to increase transparency and participation in debates. RFCs could diversify participation at sessions, and member governments could elevate their country delegations to more senior management levels.

Finally, the FAO review stressed that "the strength and comparative advantage of RFCs was their geographical focus on the situations prevailing in a specific region, which facilitates the identification of priority issues and development opportunities, the selection of options presented by policy analysts, and the promotion of actions aimed at implementing selected options." It was pointed out that an effective contribution of RFCs in these areas could be obtained by establishing a more systematic and continuing process of analysis of the evolution of the forestry situation, identification of issues and definition, and interactive examination of policies and strategies. Although FAO and FAO’s governing bodies have made similar arguments in the past, the usual response from the APFC has been that the region’s diverse biophysical and socio-economic conditions present an almost insurmountable obstacle in the search for common ground. Diversity, however, has also its advantages, as will be addressed shortly.

Clearly, the future extent of participation and official capacity of participants in the APFC’s sessions and activities will depend as much on FAO as on the Commission members themselves. Decentralization, an increased effort to support RFCs and a more conscious attempt to incorporate APFC recommendations into the FAO work program have already contributed to renewed activity on the part of the Commission. Increased inter-sessional initiatives, a commitment to devise alternative funding arrangements to support Commission work and the willingness to involve a wider range of stakeholders has improved the effectiveness, visibility and status of the Commission. These measures will in turn hopefully attract higher-ranking delegations and thereby increase the likelihood that APFC recommendations are given more serious consideration in the member countries.


Communication is a crucial factor for an organization’s smooth functioning. In today’s world of voice and electronic mail, it is sometimes easy to forget that when the APFC was established, communications technology was far more rudimentary and access more limited - typewriters and conventional postal services were still the most commonly used means of interaction during intervals between Commission sessions. The validity of the principle that people are more likely to cooperate when willing and able to communicate with each other, however, has remained unchallenged.

When regular sessions became less frequent during the 1960s and 1970s, APFC members expressed their concerns. The sub-committee established at the 1981 Session to look into this matter found that the interval between sessions was becoming too long and that there was a lack of follow-up and continuity between sessions. It concluded that there was insufficient dialogue among the members between sessions.

When the Commission discussed communications again in the mid-1990s, the number of regional and international organizations and meetings had increased tremendously, particularly as a result of UNCED. This entailed still greater necessity to keep up with various developments and engage in "networking." One important step in improving information flows was liaison among regional forestry commissions, which FAO initiated in 1994 through joint meetings of RFC Bureaus in Rome in conjunction with COFO sessions. The APFC also resolved to pursue greater interaction with other FAO Committees and Commissions in the region with responsibility for the closely-linked sector of agriculture; promote the use of new technologies, such as e-mail systems, and exchange expertise among member countries of the Commission.

An additional means of improving communication among APFC members and other interested parties was introduced in the form of in-session seminars. The first one, held in 1993 on investment in forestry, was welcomed by all participants. Similar exercises were repeated in 1996 to introduce the proposal for the APFSOS and in 1998 on forestry statistics and information. The Commission appreciated these side meetings, enabling member countries and international organizations to provide more extensive information on programs and activities.

A further promising communications tool for future Commission work emerged from the Asia-Pacific Forest Sector Outlook Study. National focal points were designated to coordinate information exchange among member countries, the Expert Advisory Group and FAO. The APFC felt this approach was a positive experience and decided to continue it in future work. In a similar vein, the delegates who proposed the establishment of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Forestry Statistics and Information recommended that FAO create a network of "national statistics correspondents" focal points.

All of these initiatives demonstrate that the APFC’s commitment to intensify interactions among its members and with other stakeholders. The level of communications can be seen as a function of the value the Commission members attach to their organization. This value is itself partly a function of the issues the Commission places on its agenda, the activities it undertakes and the results it achieves. These, in turn, have an impact on the level of participation in the Commission’s work, which creates positive incentives for increased communications.


Perhaps inevitably, every time the members of the APFC have reviewed the role of their organization with a view to expanding the scope of its activities, comparisons were made with the other regional forestry commissions, particularly their European and North American counterparts. In 1981, for instance, delegates noted that the European forestry commission had an active body which functioned between sessions, studied special problems and helped implement the Commission’s work program; and that the North American Forestry Commission had a number of informal active study groups on subjects as diverse as tree improvement and wildlife.

The APFC also recognized that these two regions "had, of course, the advantage of being compact and this both reduced travel and gave a greater degree of geographical comparability from country to country than in the APFC’s far-flung and diverse region." This argument reappeared in 1996, when the Commission drew attention "to the contrast between [the European and North American] Commissions (which have fairly homogeneous membership) and the Asia-Pacific situation, which shows marked inter-country diversity [..., which] made it more difficult for all members to attach equal importance to any given forestry issue or topic." A survey conducted during that session found that almost three-quarters of the delegates felt that the agenda covered the most important points (the key agenda items included follow-up to UNCED’s agreements on forestry; protected areas management and rural development; and the in-session seminar introducing the proposal for the forest sector outlook study).

In the earlier instance, the APFC decided that "despite the problems that diversity entailed," the preferred mechanism to expand the Commission’s role was informal study groups. In the more recent assessment, delegates merely pointed out that particular care was needed in selecting Commission activities that appeal to the full constituency.

Concerning study groups, it is interesting to note that these have so far only been formed for specific topics. Presumably, the Commission plenary would decide on what these topics are, thereby risking the preclusion of problems particular to a minority of members. Countries to which these issues are relevant would then be free to participate in the group’s activity. Why subsidiary bodies along geographical lines, similar to Silva Mediterranea as a joint organ of the European, African and Near East RFCs, have never been formed is a legitimate question.8 Logically, the three major forestry outlook studies have divided the Asia-Pacific region into sub-regions on the assumption that they share common concerns following from their similar environments. If side-meetings during APFC sessions were arranged for the sub-regional groupings, issues of relevance to a minority of countries could then be taken up by sub-regional subsidiary bodies if so desired.

Concerning the desire for agendas that appeal to the full constituency, it may be argued that the diversity of members, in addition to the increasing range of forest-related issues and stakeholders, renders a consensus agenda an elusive goal. Yet, the increasing globalization of many forestry issues is lending credibility to the idea of "common problems." Moreover, today’s means of communication underline the advantages of diversity as they facilitate the identification of like-minded parties and the creation and maintenance of interest-based networks. The APFC has traditionally played a role as networker in the region, although in areas of more traditional interest to hard-core foresters. There is no reason why it could not serve the same function for emerging issues, such as ecotourism, the role of women in forestry, or issues of interest to a minority of its members, such as the Pacific island states or the temperate zone countries.


The past, current and future constraints and opportunities of the Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission have provided ample room for self-evaluation. When the APFC reached its low point during the 1970s, the Commission members decided, in recognition of the vital multi-dimensional role that forestry could play in the region, both for the development of the industry and for rural development," that "a dynamic and vigilant role for the APFC was essential to the implementation of forestry-related programmes in the region." This awareness has been reflected on numerous occasions and has constituted the backbone of the APFC. With this in mind, the Commission set out to overcome the obstacles that presented themselves and utilize the strengths gained from lessons learned. In the process, numerous achievements have emerged from the combined efforts of the APFC and its partners, particularly FAO.

Since its inception, the APFC has attached great importance to regional cooperation, among its member countries and with other partner organizations. This spirit of cooperation has been the greatest strength of the Commission and has led to its greatest achievements. Recent experience has clearly highlighted the potential of the Commission to effectively address important issues of forestry development in the region when such cooperation is put to practice.

As it confronts the challenges of the next fifty years, the APFC can look back with satisfaction on its past ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and varied challenges. Drawing upon the strengths of its diverse membership, and maintaining its emphasis on regional cooperation, it should be evident that the APFC can continue to be a strong force in supporting positive forestry development in the coming decades.

8 A regional precedent exists, for example, in the form of regular South Pacific Heads of Forestry meetings.

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