Paul Hohnen is Managing Director of Greenpeace International, the coordinating body for 30 national Greenpeace offices, in both developing and industrialized countries.
Between 10 million and 100 million species - scientists are still counting - exist today and forests are home to at least 50 percent of terrestrial species. Even based on optimistic assumptions, leading biological diversity scientist E.O. Wilson has estimated that 27 000 species extinctions occur each year from tropical deforestation alone. Overexploitation by the logging industry is rapidly eroding not only the landscape but also the genetic base of hundreds of internationally traded timber species. At the same time, thousands more "non-commercial" species of plants and animals are endangered.
In spite of some assertions to the contrary, management only for sustained timber yield will not conserve biological diversity nor forest quality. In Scandinavia, where more than 90 percent of forests are intensively managed for sustained yield, the proportion of forest species threatened with extinction (e.g. 5 to 10 percent in Sweden) is as high as in the tropics. Scandinavian "model" forestry is being exported worldwide regardless.
In North America, entire ecosystems are now classified as endangered, with the practice of "clearcutting" as a major culprit. Continuing overconsumption of paper and timber products in the rich Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries heightens tensions, while the food security and livelihood of hundreds of indigenous peoples and millions of local inhabitants that depend on integrity of forest ecosystems is imperilled.
The conclusion is inescapable. The expanding US$100 billion global trade in forest products is "sustained" on a foundation of ecologically and socially destructive forestry practices.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), indigenous people's groups and local communities will be essential to halt these practices, challenge entrenched interests and change the world's course from exploitative "forestry" to responsible "forest use".
The participation of major groups - including NGOs, local communities, indigenous people's groups and women - was one of the key principles agreed to at the 1992 Earth Summit, and it must be fully taken on board, by FAO and, especially, by governments.
Over 100 countries at UNCED also agreed that the protection of biological diversity must be an overriding goal of any resource use, from forests to fisheries and agriculture. Embodied in the Convention on Biological Diversity, this principle signals the second major paradigm shift for forest management. Increased emphasis on ecosystem-based and precautionary approaches to forest use has been the scientific community's response.
In this vein, FAO recently indicated that it wished to promote harmonization of "criteria and indicators" for sustainable forest management of all forest types at the national level. So far, NGOs and many governments have been opposed to this process because of its exclusive nature, its failure to consider the underlying causes of deforestation and its failure to distinguish between national and forest-level assessments. This tension must be resolved and the criteria and indicators work redirected. In Scandinavia, for instance, forest industries have already recognized that the credibility of any criteria and indicators - and certification - depends on public acceptance and endorsement, including by NGOs.
One fundamental problem has been the refusal by governments or FAO to give adequate recognition to or to promote NGOs' own efforts towards responsible forest use. In fact, the criteria and indicators process is seen by many as specifically aimed at undermining NGOs' attempts to bring about the independent certification of forest products. The Forest Stewardship Council - an unprecedented forum where industry, environmental and social groups have agreed on what they understand by responsible forest management - has not been taken seriously by governments or by United Nations agencies.
In an attempt to provide constructive solutions to the forest crisis, Greenpeace has issued its own Principles and Guidelines for Ecologically Responsible Forest Use, and is implementing forest management projects based on these principles in several countries around the world. Some of the key aspects of these guidelines are: the establishment of fully and permanently protected ecosystem networks prior to any forest use; that all forest use (including logging) should do no more than mimic disturbance in fully protected reference sites; respect for indigenous people's rights to control their activities on their customary territories; and continuous assessment and inventories of forest resources and dynamics.
Of course, ecoforestry is but one component of the solution. The international community and FAO also need to devote more attention to macro-economic and cross-sectoral conditions aggravating forest degradation. Increasing the power and reach of transnational corporations, international inequity and debt, structural adjustment programmes, poverty, landlessness and insecure land tenure and subsidized agriculture are limiting factors that must be dealt with if we are to make any progress towards meeting human needs while still conserving the foundation of life on earth.
FAO's niche in forest issues seems to be providing technical assistance, for instance in monitoring and assessing forest cover and (hopefully) forest quality, and capacity building. This is where it should concentrate. It should continue to work to gain the respect and trust of NGOs and other major groups. It can do this, and send a positive message to governments and industry, by: promoting conservation of biological diversity as the overriding principle guiding all land use; participating in (but not controlling) global forest talks, the composition and structure of which reflect the complexity and urgency of forest problems; and ensuring respect for the rights and full participation of indigenous people, local communities and NGOs in forest decision-making. With this as a contract, the next 50 years for forests could be brighter indeed.