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World forestry issues: a UNDP perspective

J.G. Speth

James Gustave Speth is Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

When forest programmes are discussed in UNDP, we find that many of our priority themes become involved. Those working on programmes in gender in development, sustainable food security and agriculture, health and nutrition, trade and sustainable development, water, biological diversity, energy, climate change and dryland management should all be at the table. Foresters must consider all these dimensions as they focus on the sustainable management of forest lands for all their services and benefits.

These connections to many programmes reflect the uses of the forests by the rural poor in developing countries. This is not a minor sector with a small proportion of the society involved. Marginal agricultural lands, where families practise subsistence farming in a shifting mosaic of farmland and forest, are homes to one-half of the people of Africa, one-third of the people of Asia and one-quarter of the people of Latin America. The proportion of the poor in these areas is even greater.

The forests are intimately involved in these people's production and provision of food, water, energy, housing and medicine. Subsistence-farming families are using and managing forest vegetation every day to meet their most basic needs. International and national organizations might learn much from the holistic, cross-sectoral approach practised by rural people. We cannot allow the "forest agenda" to become fractionated in disparate programmes.

Mirroring the local importance of forests is their global significance. The planetary ecosystem we are just beginning to understand - the biosphere - may have a minimum threshold of forest cover necessary to support a certain level of human habitation. We do not know. We do know that when the dawn of the third millennium is considered from a historical perspective a few major trends will stand out. Our doubling of population from five billion to ten billion in a few decades will be one; a precipitous drop in global forest cover will be another. We will have lost an area the size of Europe, including Scandinavia, in the last two decades of this century.

Forests exemplify many of the hard choices, trade-offs and potential conflicts of interest related to sustainable development. A long-term and cross-sectoral perspective is necessary to optimize human benefits, and there is always a tendency to liquidate rapidly the natural capital which has accumulated slowly over a long period.

UNDP usually works from a national perspective on sustainable human development (SHD) issues. The loss of forests, including the many development options they provide, constitutes one of the most serious threats to SHD. The countries of Central America, West and southern Africa and mainland Asia (with a couple of exceptions) have, in the past few decades, lost more than 90 percent of their closed forest. Of course Europe, excluding the former USSR and Scandinavia, lost a similar proportion of its forests long ago. Of the countries which were once extensively forested, some have lost 99 percent of their closed forests and 30 have lost more than 90 percent. Fourteen of them are least developed countries and 12 have recently suffered violent disorder requiring United Nations peacekeeping forces. The list includes almost all countries where peacekeeping forces have recently been present. Extreme deforestation is a good indicator of the degradation of natural resources that is repeatedly associated with increasing civil strife and disorder.

For all of these reasons, UNDP takes the view that one cannot work on SHD for the poor in developing countries without integrating the forests. A national vision and strategy on forests needs to be firmly incorporated within the overall national development strategy. UNDP's main role is to cooperate with and support countries' National Forest Programmes (NFPs). The fate of forests, and the many essentials they provide, especially for the poor, will depend on these national programmes.

Analysis of NFPs, which is often conducted by the countries themselves, has shown that capacity building is essential and indispensable to their success. A growing international consensus favours a capacity building that is not so much based on centralized institutions and sophisticated training, but that is more related to innovative and challenging tasks such as participatory stakeholder involvement, cross-sectoral integration and effective management of multiple funding sources.

These are key bottlenecks, which are not limited to forestry programmes and are not, by and large, technical forestry matters. UNCED Agenda 21 establishes UNDP's responsibility for capacity building, and we have assigned the highest priority to its fulfilment.

We need good forestry and agriculture for successful NFPs, and UNDP looks foremost to FAO in this regard, but it will take more than good forestry. To sustain forests, NFPs should be nested in an approach that provides SHD for the rural poor. Trade and macroeconomic policy, health and education need close consideration, and this implies comprehensive SHD programmes.

Two things are clear concerning comprehensive and newly strengthened national programmes to sustain forests: they must be country-driven and country-initiated; and they will, in many countries, require new and more effective international support. Sustaining forests can best be achieved through a combination of national and international policy reforms, long-term plans to stabilize forest areas and industrial countries' commitment of greatly enhanced financial and technical support to developing countries.

Partnerships need to be forged between developing countries and the international community. Partnership agreements could specify the actions to be taken by countries inside and outside the forest sector to address the underlying causes of deforestation and the support and actions to be undertaken by the international community. UNDP is ready to assist, promote and contribute to such partnerships.

This could provide "the new beginning" of support from the international community recently called for in a meeting of developing countries' NFP directors. The elimination of forests and the foreclosure of development options constitute the urgency of the challenge.

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