International commitments, implementation and cooperation

Stephen M.J. Bass 1


International initiatives affecting forestry are rich and diverse, but not yet coherent. Forest initiatives provide `soft law', usefully encouraging interpretation to suit different circumstances, but conversely allowing inaction. Extrasectoral initiatives can be powerful - positively or negatively - but international forest initiatives are not interacting effectively with them: neither multilateral trade nor environmental agreements are well informed about sustainable forestry. International development assistance strongly focuses on poverty reduction, but the forestry community has yet to reveal its value to this politically important cause. However, intergovernmental processes concerning forests are not isolated: they are increasingly open (albeit at the margins) to civil society and private sector - partly because these have produced many innovations, such as certification. Three pieces of global forest governance architecture will prove increasingly important: the national forest programme (NFP) for setting national political and social frameworks for forestry; the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF) for global consensus and review; and the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) for coordinating international support. Attention now needs to turn to building a `tiered' system of multistakeholder participation from local to global levels, and to building the capacity of international forest institutions to work with this system and influence extrasectoral processes.

1. The set of international forestry initiatives is rich and diverse, but is not yet a coherent, resilient system. Over 20 intergovernmental agreements and 40 intergovernmental organizations directly address forestry. There is growing collaboration between them, but also duplication. Many innovations have arisen to fill perceived gaps; these are increasingly the product of civil society and private sector actions. Thus a spectrum of international forestry initiatives is emerging, from public initiatives to partnership to private.

Before we explore this spectrum, a caution. We should not assume that progress derives only from implementing international forestry initiatives. Many extrasectoral international initiatives - on trade, aid, finance and technology - may have at least as significant an effect on forests (good or bad). Much has also been achieved through decentralization and devolution initiatives, where stakeholders have gained the rights and resources to manage forests well. The challenge is to ensure that these other processes are also informed about the conditions required for conserving, restoring and sustainably managing and developing forests.

2. International agreements on forests provide `soft law'; these encourage interpretation to suit many different circumstances, but conversely permit inaction. Governments have always had very different goals from forest agreements and cooperation.2 Consequently, they have not been able to agree on a comprehensive, legally binding convention. Instead, many non-legally binding principles and criteria define how forests should be managed:

The UN Forum on Forests (UNFF), successor to the IPF/IFF, is charged with facilitating and promoting the implementation of the Proposals for Action, with providing a forum for continued dialogue and policy development, and with monitoring and assessing progress through government reports.

Several benefits derive from the `soft' approach. It allows for effective interpretation to suit particular national and local contexts. Thus country-led, multistakeholder national forest programmes (NFPs) were defined through the IPF/IFF and given legitimacy as the main framework for interpreting the Proposals. In addition, as a result of the extensive diplomatic activity, forests are now established as an important international concern among certain politicians and officials. Many are now more aware of the limitations of intergovernmental processes - and the need to avoid imposing international precepts and to welcome civil society and business inputs.

However, there is some cynicism that the Earth Summit/IPF/IFF negotiations progressed, over many years and at significant cost, from forest `principles' to mere voluntary `proposals' (albeit with political and moral obligations attached). Key problems constrain implementation and cooperation:

3. Multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) provide some `hard' regulation of global public goods, but they are not fully informed about sustainable forestry, and have few mechanisms to influence forest users. Carbon sequestration and storage is regulated by the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol, with its associated Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Biodiversity is governed by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The World Heritage Convention (WHC) provides for conserving the heritage of unique landscapes and ecosystems.

A significant benefit of the large number of MEAs is a reasonably complete coverage of global forest environmental services (which partly explains why there is no global forest convention). Furthermore, the Global Environment Facility arranges some financial support. Such an infrastructure might not have been achieved if it were promoted by the forest sector alone. However, the forest sector is having growing influence on the Global Environment Facility, notably through the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF). There is also increasing information exchange on forests between the MEA secretariats. However, some generic problems constrain MEA implementation and cooperation for SFM:

4. The trade regime, in contrast, is `harder' and more monolithic - but poorly informed about SFM. In contrast to the rich but incoherent sustainable forestry and environmental regimes, the global trade regime is simpler and legally based. As a result, trade imperatives for forestry can in practice be much stronger than even the most important social and environmental intentions. The predominance of the World Trade Organization (WTO) at the centre of the trade regime is now somewhat tempered by the increase in powerful regional and bilateral trade initiatives. However, neither the WTO nor regional trade organizations have forestry expertise in their staff or delegations. Here lies the challenge for the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), as the competent body in the forest regime, to help shape the trade regime, addressing the many trade uncertainties that limit progress in implementing forestry agreements and instruments, e.g. how far certification is a trade barrier, and how to control trade in illegally-produced timber.

5. International development assistance now focuses on poverty reduction. This goal has a high political profile, and could either further the cause of SFM - or could threaten it. John Hudson of the British Government's Department for International Development identifies five overlapping phases of development assistance to forestry in the last 40 years: (1) industrial forestry; (2) social forestry; (3) environmental forestry; (4) sustainable natural resource management; and (5) reducing poverty (Hudson, 2003). The absence of the word `forestry' in the last two phases is significant; indeed, there has been a decline in forest sector aid. `Poverty eradication' support entails empowerment of marginalized groups, developing economic opportunities, and reducing livelihood and institutional vulnerability. Poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs) have rapidly become the international norm for guiding loans and grants to highly indebted poor countries.

PRSPs potentially offer NFPs a high-level platform for dialogue on the macrolevel and cross-sectoral issues critical to SFM - although they will need pushing to cover environmental dimensions adequately. The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) also present a politically powerful agenda to improve coherence in the international forest regime - although forests as such barely figure in them.3 These usefully challenge forest stakeholders, casting aside old assumptions about what forests are for, and what stakeholder roles should be. Yet forest stakeholders have not risen to the challenge, or mastered this new game of PRSPs and MDGs. Consequently, many are still perceived by the aid system as pursuing SFM as a goal rather than a means to an end.

6. Intergovernmental processes concerning forests and the environment have become usefully open to non-governmental inputs, but only at the margins. Once forced to campaign outside negotiating doors, civil society and the private sector are now increasingly invited to submit perspectives and ideas in `intersessionals', have observed in several negotiations, and are entering implementation partnerships. The UNFF is trying hard to improve their involvement. The benefits are many, including considerable `reality checks', innovations, improved equity and greater credibility of the outcomes.

The main problems derive from these non-governmental groups having highly diverse interests in forests and similarly diverse (and potentially conflicting) tactics. Cumbersome rules and procedures have evolved around the UN Economic and Social Council, and many groups consequently remain marginalized, but ultimately the challenge is for the `major groups' themselves. They are simply not organized to identify, within short periods, representatives to take part in talks with governments (and they are only really talks). Private sector groups involved in forestry are similarly not organized at the global level, competition being their norm. Existing private sector organizations tend to represent the larger and more politically powerful companies, rather than the most progressive or the most disadvantaged.

7. Civil society and private sector groups have produced many innovations for the global forestry regime, notably certification. A recent review by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) (Bass, 2001) proposed ten highly catalytic initiatives that, at different times, have done most for sustainable forestry. Although any such a list is disputable, it is notable that half of the initiatives were intergovernmental, and the other half civil society and/or business. Non-governmental involvement seems to have heightened the political and market profile of forest issues. In addition, innovation is key to solving multiple forest problems; innovation requires the ability to take risks and attempt multiple changes, something which governments are not always in a position to do.

Certification has had a particularly strong impact - not only directly on forest management, but also indirectly on forestry debates, policy and regulations. Many forest stakeholders treat it as seriously as (inter)governmental initiatives. Perhaps this is because it attempts to answer the key questions `what is good forestry, and how can we recognize it in very different places, improve accountability for it, and reward it?' In this way, certification has linked high policy aspirations with practical realities, and enabled the many dimensions of SFM to be more comprehensible.

At the international level, there are benefits to the current proliferation of certification schemes - different stakeholders can choose the schemes most suitable to their needs, and price competition and sources of innovation are increased. But there are undoubted problems of stakeholder confusion between the growing number of schemes, with inequitable access to benefits, and with different degrees of governmental involvement.

8. The UNFF and CPF are central to global forest governance architecture. They have the potential to reduce forest policy `inflation' and improve coherence in both vision and implementation. Although the UNFF is recent, it is largely accepted as the principal global forest forum. It is endeavouring to improve the way in which the `major groups' organize themselves and are able to make inputs. Yet there are problems. It is difficult to shake off its heritage from the IPF/IFF: too often, diplomats (or trade officials, and certainly too few forest stakeholders) sat `behind the flag', protecting a wide range of national interests in ways that were not best informed about either international interests or even their own national forest needs. The risks that countries with very different interests use the UNFF merely for reworking bland principles will be exacerbated if the UNFF's dynamic and style are dominated by meetings in New York or Geneva.

The CPF was set up in 2001 to improve cooperation and coordination between the international agencies working on forests, and to support the UNFF. This is useful if it can progress beyond mutual recognition to really improving agencies' focus and effectiveness. Several benefits are apparent already:

However, competition for resources and limited institutional incentives could constrain realization of the above benefits. It will be difficult to rationalize and coordinate international mandates, roles and programmes - and then do this at the national level, too.

9. National forest programmes potentially provide any country, North or South, with (a) an essential `bottom-up' forum to express demands to the global regime, and (b) a platform for implementing global forest initiatives and cooperation. A paradox of many international sustainable development commitments is that the agreed `country-driven, holistic' processes are rarely attempted in practice. Rapid `paper plans' tend to be produced to meet an obligation. These may be little more than expert-driven plans that go nowhere without international support, or are skewed by it, or simply become out of date. Many Tropical Forestry Action Plans suffered this fate. However, much more positive experience has recently been identified (OECD and UNDP, 2002; Mayers et al, 2001). This reveals how SFM arises from putting local systems and processes in place - rather than writing a plan based on an international precept. It points to the following as key ingredients for NFPs and similar processes:

An effective NFP is rightly recognized as central for a country's interaction with the international forests regime. In future, it will also prove essential for engaging with important extrasectoral policies, whether aid, trade or investment. Key extrasectoral players therefore need to be a part of the NFP process/forum. The National Forest Programme Facility and the multidonor Programme on Forests (PROFOR) are important sources of support to NFPs, and their ability to aid countries in the above ways will prove to be increasingly critical.

The NFP logic may often also apply at regional levels. Regional forest conventions (notably in Central America) and regional institutions have proven effective for handling shared problems, and may be more open to politically contentious issues than global initiatives.

10. The many elements described above need to work together, as a global `continuous improvement' system for SFM. Many parts of a rich institutional landscape for SFM are in place, but they do not work as a system. Three linked, catalytic activities are suggested:

Acronyms and abbreviations

C&I Criteria and Indicators
CBD Convention on Biological Diversity
CDM Clean Development Mechanism
CITES Convention on Trade in Endangered Species
CPF Collaborative Partnership on Forests
FCCC Framework Convention on Climate Change
IPF/IFF Intergovernmental Panel/Forum on Forests
ITTO International Tropical Timber Organization
MDGs UN Millennium Development Goals
MEAs Multilateral environmental agreements
NFP National forest programme
PROFOR Programme on Forests
PRSPs Poverty reduction strategy papers
SFM Sustainable forest management
UNFF United Nations Forum on Forests
WHC World Heritage Convention
WTO World Trade Organization


Bass, S. 2001. Change towards sustainability in resource use: lessons from the forest sector. London, IIED.

Hudson, J. 2003. International policy processes and initiatives including development assistance. In Contribution to Millennium Ecosystem Development Response Options, Chapter 9. (unpub.)

Mayers, J., Ngalande, J., Bird, P. & Sibale, B. 2001. Forestry tactics: lessons from Malawi's National Forestry Programme. Policy that works for forests and people series, 11. London, IIED.

OECD & UNDP. 2002. Sustainable development strategies: a resource book. London, Earthscan.

1 IIED, 3 Endsleigh St, London WC1H 0DD, UK. [email protected]

2 National forest assets are diverse, and situated in sovereign territory. Forest-rich countries may wish to protect rights to export timber, or to turn forests into other developmental assets. Forest-poor countries may need access to other nations' forests for offsetting carbon emissions. Thus requirements for international regulation will similarly differ and may clash.

3 Forest stakeholders will find only one overt mention of forests in the MDGs. They occur only as an indicator (change in land area covered by forest) for Goal 7 (ensure environmental sustainability).