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World of forestry

Fifteenth Commonwealth Forestry Conference

Fifteenth Commonwealth Forestry Conference

A participant's personal account

Foresters who understood the importance of politics in the practice of their vocation were usually regarded with suspicion or at best grudging respect by their colleagues. It lay to the late Jack Westoby to draw the attention of the unconvinced to the politicizing of the forestry profession.1 Twelve years after Westoby's pioneering attempt to arouse his colleagues, the Fifteenth Commonwealth Forestry Conference confirmed today's acceptance of the close link between forests and politics by adopting the theme "Forestry in a changing political environment: challenges for the twenty-first century."

(1Westoby, J.C. 1985. Foresters and politics. Paper presented to the Ninth World Forestry Congress and published in Commonwealth for. Rev., 64(2):105-116.)

The Commonwealth Forestry Conferences, held every four years, bring together the 53 countries of the Commonwealth, representing 1.6 billion or approximately one-quarter of the world's population. The Fifteenth Conference in May 1997 attracted 360 participants from 30 Commonwealth countries, five non-Commonwealth countries and several international, regional and national organizations. It was held at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, for only the third time to be held in Africa. It, and the World Forestry Congress held late in the same year, fell in a year of great political significance for the world's forests, when the United Nations General assembly met to consider progress made in implementation of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) resolutions and commitments, to review the report of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) on forests and to consider the successor arrangements to that most unequivocally political of bodies, the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF).

This Commonwealth Forestry Conference was organized in plenary sessions and in working groups; the latter deliberated on three subthemes:

· the interface between the community, the state and the private sector;
· the technological means of ensuring sustainable forestry;
· the products and services of forestry.

A criticism levelled at previous Conferences was that there was not enough opportunity for participants to contribute to the formal presentations and to the Final Declaration. For this reason the working group format was chosen, and it was generally thought to have been a success in involving ail in the deliberations and outputs of the Conference. The relatively small numbers attending, compared with 2 500 at the World Forestry Congress in Paris in 1991 (and the 3 000 expected in Antalya) or the 2 000 attending the International Union of Forestry Organizations (IUFRO) World Congress in 1995 helped contacts between participants, and the use of English as the sole language of the Conference eased communication.

Increased political awareness of the importance of forests was reflected by the presence of both His Excellency the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, Cd. R.G. Mugabe, to open the Conference and Chief Emeka Anyaoku to deliver the keynote address. It was also apparent in the attendance in the discussions on the first subtheme, where one participant noted that there were nine times as many in the first as in the second subtheme!

The usual presentation by various Commonwealth agencies on their activities since the last Conference (the Oxford Forestry Institute, the Commonwealth Secretariat, CAB International and the Commonwealth Forestry Association) was given a wider international scope by the inclusion of reviews of the activities of the secretariat of the IPF (Jag Maini), FAO's Forestry Department (David Harcharik) and the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development (John Spears). There were some very professional displays in the poster presentation and the six commercial stands. The Conference was commemorated by an informal tree planting ceremony where schoolchildren welcomed the participants with a song specially composed for the occasion and then helped the representatives of each country or organization plant their trees.

The Conference was the occasion for the presentation of the Queen's Award for Forestry. This prize, given from time to a person who is judged to have made an outstanding contribution to forestry, is not the global "Nobel Prize for Forestry" that some would like to see instituted because it is restricted to a citizen of a Commonwealth country. Nevertheless it is a highly prestigious award, given this year to Dr Jerry Vanclay (Australia) of the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) for contributions to knowledge of the growth of trees and forests through modelling approaches. The Tom Gill Medal, given for services to tropical silviculture and donated in memory of the distinguished American silviculturalist of international reputation and not restricted to a Commonwealth citizen, was awarded to Dr C.T.S. Nair (India), who is Coordinator of FAO's Forestry Research Support Programme for the Asia and the Pacific (FORSPA).

All of these activities. and the events outside the formal sessions, such as the dinners generously hosted by the Government of Zimbabwe, gained immensely from the relatively small numbers of participants. The pre- and post-Conference tours brought participants together in a relaxed atmosphere, and all who took part, whether old Africa hands or first-time visitors to the continent, were united in their awe of the spectacle of the Victoria Falls and of the game which could be seen close to the hotel and in the adjacent park.

The usual output of Commonwealth Forestry Conferences is a Declaration, addressed to Commonwealth heads of government, international bodies (with particular reference to the World Forestry Congress in October) and to national organizations. Although the common fate of such calls for action to world leaders, whether from the World Forestry Congress or the IUFRO Congress, is to be forgotten almost as soon as the last delegate has left the conference hall, some of the recommendations of the declarations of previous Commonwealth Forestry Conferences addressed specifically to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) have been more successful in, for example, leading to the establishment of the Empire (now Oxford) Forestry Institute, the Commonwealth Forestry Association and the international provenance trials on Central American pines.

When Westoby (op. cit., footnote 1 ) wrote that "... if national forest policies are truly to serve the interests of people, then overall socioeconomic policies must be working in the same direction. There must be commitment to a greater measure of social justice, to more equal access to land and other resources, to the participation of people themselves in the developing process", he was expressing a view that was only just gaining acceptance at that time. While there may be a long way to go to meet this ideal situation, there has undoubtedly been enormous progress in the right direction since 1985. The democratic process, freedom of discussion and even greater social justice have spread to many parts where it was unimaginable in 1985 but, unfortunately, while Westoby drew attention to the traditional role of foresters in protecting the interests of future generations, those other groups to whom he referred as needing the special care of foresters, the rural dispossessed and the urban poor, have if anything increased in numbers and, while their needs are included in forestry sector planning, the social and political causes of their poverty remain.

Given today's acceptance of the importance of social, economic and political contributions to the sustainable management of forests, many participants were disappointed with the bland language and the all-inclusiveness of the draft Conference Declaration presented to the final plenary session, which had been prepared from the conclusions and recommendations arising from the discussions of the subthemes in the working groups. The Declaration will be presented to CHOGM as well as to me World Forestry Congress, and it appeared that an opportunity to make an impact beyond the scale of the Conference was being lost. In particular, me recommendations of the Declaration addressed to CHOGM were not presented in a manner to catch the attention of politicians, to draw their attention to why forests were important to their countries and to the people they represent. Likewise, the recommendations addressed to the international community did little more than request the continuation of recent international trends towards reduced duplication of activities and more action in partnership, me development and strengthening of networks for sharing information and the expansion of existing opportunities for education, training and research to meet the new challenges of sustainable forest management.

But the Declaration did recognize the need for follow-up to its recommendations between conferences. A feature of the Commonwealth Forestry Conferences is that there has always been provision for continuity between conferences and the implementation of recommendations through a permanent body, the Standing Committee on Commonwealth Forestry. One of the recommendations of the Declaration was for this body to be more active in the implementation of Conference recommendations. One of the means for doing this would be for greater involvement of the Commonwealth Forestry Association (CFA) which is, despite its Commonwealth title, the only professional association with a global perspective representing me forestry sector. The CFA has been represented on this Standing Committee and has had a role, albeit relatively illdefined, in following up Conference recommendations in me past. The Declaration adopted at Victoria Falls requested me Standing Committee to invite the CFA to strengthen its information role in the Commonwealth, its human resource development capabilities and its international membership. The CFA has certainly become more involved in recent years in its information role, not only through the improved technical quality of its flagship journal, The Commonmealth Forestry Review' but also by means of other publications. Ways in which the recommendations might be implemented were discussed in an informal workshop at the end of the

Conference; while the record is good and the good intentions are there it remains to be seen how much of the ambitious recommendation of the Conference can be achieved by a purely voluntary organization.

Despite disappointment at the contents of the Declaration, this author was impressed at the way in which the Commonwealth Forestry Conference is actively seeking to broaden its appeal outside the Commonwealth. It is aiming to maintain the momentum between conferences not only within the Commonwealth but globally through new and expanded arrangements, and particularly through an wider role for the Commonwealth Forestry Association even if this will be inevitably limited to those who can, or wish to, communicate in English.

J.Ball Senior
Forestry Officer (Plantations)
Forestry Department

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