Rome, Italy, 15-19 March 2005



1. This Information Note provides a brief history of the FAO Committee on Forestry (COFO), including an overview of the trends in the subjects that the Committee has addressed.

2. The FAO Conference, which first met in 1945, was the principal global forum for the discussion of international forestry issues from the mid-1940s until 1971, when COFO was established as a standing committee of the Council. The stated aim of COFO was to “periodically review forestry problems of an international character and advise the Director General on the medium- and long-term programme of work of the Organization in the field of forestry and on its implementation.” Since its first session in 1972, COFO has met regularly at two-year intervals, except for a three-year break between 1990 and 1993 when the schedule was adjusted so that COFO and the FAO Conference would meet in the same years.

3. The agenda of COFO has evolved somewhat over time, with an increasing emphasis on forest policy issues. The agenda currently includes recurrent items such as a review of FAO programmes in forestry, the work/recommendations of Regional Forestry Commissions, the State of the World’s Forests (SOFO), and the World Forestry Congress. Most of the session is alloted to the discussion of technical and forest policy issues of international importance; for example, in 2005 COFO will discuss the role of forests in achieving the Millenium Development Goals, wildland fire, and forests and bioenergy.

4. An inaugural lecture delivered by a distinguished figure in forestry set in motion the early sessions of COFO (1972 through 1978). The idea of an inaugural or keynote speaker is being revived in 2005 with a special address by the Prime Minister of Finland.

5. COFO is open to all Members of FAO. Attendance at COFO sessions has increased over the years, rising as FAO’s membership has increased. COFO attendance rose from 55 Member Nations in 1972 to 97 in 1990, remained at approximately 100 until 2001, and increased to 113 members and over 400 registered participants at the 16th Session in 2003.

Major Trends

6. Forestry was a major agenda item of the FAO Conference from 1945 through 1969. The early sessions of the FAO Conference focused on the need to restore forests and rebuild timber stocks following the Second World War. Over the years, the discussions evolved to address the key technical and policy issues of the time. Perhaps the most important long-term trend has been the evolution towards consideration of forests in a broad, inter-disciplinary socio-economic context.

7. From the beginning, the Conference considered forestry issues relevant to the various regions of the world. This led to the establishment of Regional Forestry Commissions, which provided countries with a venue to discuss forest-related concerns at the regional level. In 1947 the Conference established the European Forestry Commission, and within 15 years Regional Forestry Commissions had also been established in Latin America and the Caribbean; Asia and the Pacific; the Near East; Africa; and North America. As of 2004, the six Regional Forestry Commissions had met a total of 127 times. In recent years, the Regional Forestry Commissions have become increasingly active as a mechanism for regional action, for example to actively promote the implementation of national forest programmes and the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF)/International Forum on Forests (IFF) proposals for action.

8. Forest industries and the restoration of timber supplies were prominent topics of early Conferences, and they, together with logging and the marketing and utilization of forest products, have remained on the agenda throughout COFO. Over time, discussions in COFO have moved from large-scale to small-scale forest industries, forest harvesting, community-based forest enterprises, and to wood fuel and non-wood forest products.

9. In 1981 one of the key forest policy issues was wood for energy, which was the subject of a major report which FAO had submitted to the UN Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy. Notably, forests and bioenergy will be discussed again in 2005.

10. In 1995 COFO noted the results of a recent international expert consultation on non-wood forest products and urged FAO to follow up on the recommendations in this area and to develop as a "centre of excellence" for non-wood forest products development. In recent sessions, COFO has endorsed the need for continued FAO leadership in this area.

11. The periodic review of forest information and its use to support outlook and trend studies have remained important over the sixty-year period. In recent years, new information on environmental and social parameters has been requested, but limitations on the quantity and quality of data and definitions of key forestry terms pose important challenges. As global forest resource assessments have become more sophisticated, the discussion has taken on more of a “fine-tuning” character, such as through the recent expert consultations on harmonizing forest-related definitions. COFO has also requested FAO to assist countries in building capacities to monitor, assess and report on their forest resources and institutions.

12. The contribution of forests to livelihoods was always of concern to the Conference and COFO, but the emphasis and the terminology have changed over time. In 1976 delegates recommended that forestry for community development be given high priority in the FAO programme of work. Subsequently the 8th World Forestry Congress (1978) with its theme of Forests for people gave further support to the concept of social forestry. During the 1980s, FAO became a leader of the “community forestry” movement; in recent years, this has been mainstreamed in FAO Forestry programmes under the concept of “participatory forestry,” which retains its identity as an element in the FAO Programme of Work and Budget. This programme has a strong emphasis on “sustainable livelihoods.”

13. A similar “mainsteaming” trend can be observed with respect to gender, which was not an issue in early sessions of the Conference or COFO. In 1986 it was recommended that training and extension programmes be designed in developing countries specifically for the target group of women, and in 1990 COFO further addressed the issue. In recent years, this has not been a separate agenda item as “gender mainstreaming” has gradually made progress.

14. The need to promote improvements in forestry research and education at all levels was recognised as being of prime importance from the early FAO Conferences. Collaboration with the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) was recognised as a priority for FAO early on. However, it is interesting to note that forestry education has not been on the agenda in the past 15 years, although this continues to be a programme supported by FAO, as evidenced by the issue of Unasylva devoted to “reinventing forestry education” in 2004.

15. Discussions on forest management started in 1949, when FAO was invited to define the term “managed forest”. By the 1990s the discussion had shifted to a much broader approach to forest management, leading to the establishment and implementation of criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management. In recent years, forest policy issues have tended to focus less on single issues and more on multi-disciplinary approaches, with an emphasis on strengthening the institutions that support national and regional processes and promote inter-sectoral approaches.

16. The planting of trees featured from the beginning of the discussions on forestry in the FAO Conference, including the afforestation of desert and other bare land. The importance of good quality seed, tree breeding, and the conservation of genetic resources have been on the COFO agenda consistently over the years.

17. Forest protection has been a consistently recurring agenda item. Forest fire was highlighted on the agenda as early as 1950, and it will be highlighted again in 2005.

18. Two World Forestry Congresses had been held before the establishment of FAO, in 1926 in Rome, and in 1936 in Budapest, but from the 3rd Congress onwards FAO, through the Council, selected the host country and participated in the organization of the Congress. In 1974 COFO adopted the “Principles Governing World Forestry Congresses”. The 12th Congress requested FAO to monitor the Congress Statement and to report on its implementation at the 13th Congress. In 2005, COFO will be asked to consider bids by member countries to host the 13th Congress.

19. The nature of COFO itself has also evolved over time. Recent developments include:

From the Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP) to national forest programmes

20. The special challenges facing forestry in the tropics had been recognized from the outset, and in 1965 the Committee on Forest Development in the Tropics (CFDT) was established by the FAO Conference. Although it functioned as a separate committee, the CFDT should be viewed as part of the history of COFO. In 1983 the CFDT recommended a plan of action for the conservation and development of tropical forests, which led to the creation of the Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP) two years later, hosted by FAO in collaboration with several other major international organizations.

21. By 1990, even though it was only five years old, the TFAP was called into question as countries, NGOs and international organizations struggled with the complexities and difficulties of confronting global forest policy issues in an effective manner. A high-level panel commissioned by FAO recommended sweeping changes, eventually resulting in the abolition of the “TFAP” (increasingly viewed as overly prescriptive and “top-down”) and the evolution of “national forest programmes” (holistic, participatory “bottom-up” processes tailored to the needs of individual countries, including non-tropical countries).

22. COFO has in recent years consistently supported the importance of national forest programmes (broadly defined) as the key to implementing sustainable forest management in countries throughout the world. National forest programmes have become the organizing concept for national capacity-building efforts supported by FAO and a number of partners, as evidenced by support for the independent National Forest Programme Facility hosted by FAO.

COFO and the International Dialogue on Forests

23. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the modern “international forest policy dialogue” started when forest policy issues were discussed at the first FAO Conference in 1945, and continued in COFO starting in 1972 and in the CFDT between the mid-1960s and the early 1990s. Also starting in the late 1940s, international forest policies were regularly debated by the Regional Forestry Commissions.

24. The early 1990s were a time of turmoil in the international dialogue on forests. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 was a milestone event that agreed on the non-legally binding “Forest Principles,” and eventually led to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF), the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF) and finally to the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) as a subsidiary body of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC).

25. COFO has consistently supported UNCED and post-UNCED initiatives. FAO has provided many of the technical support and background documents considered by IPF, IFF and UNFF. Further, COFO endorsed the establishment of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Forests, which by invitation of ECOSOC in 2000, led to the establishment of the 14-member Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF), both under FAO leadership. This increasing emphasis on partnerships is also evident at the corporate level, as exemplified by the Strategic Framework for FAO 2000 – 2015 approved by the FAO Conference.

26. In 2003, COFO commended FAO for its work in forestry and climate change, and recommended that it strengthen its technical work in collaboration with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). COFO also supported partnerships between FAO and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), as well as implementing the IPF and IFF proposals for action.

27. The need for the commitment of national leaders to the conservation and management of their forests has long been recognized. In 1984 COFO recommended that every possible measure should be taken in every country to accelerate the process of heightening political awareness of the critical importance for the future of mankind of adequate attention to the world’s forests to the year 2000 and beyond. The meetings of Ministers responsible for forests organized to coincide with COFO in 1995 and 1999 contributed to raising awareness and political commitment to forestry at the national, regional and global levels. An additional ministerial meeting will be held on 14 March 2005. Meetings of forest Ministers have also been convened at the global level by UNFF and at the regional level, for example in Europe, Central Africa and Central America. In addition, a Forest Summit attended by Heads of States and Governments was held in Central Africa as recently as February 2005.

28. The challenge to FAO and its member countries is to find ways to translate high-level political commitment into effective action on the ground. COFO continues to play its historic role of trying to link political commitment – through regional and national institutions – with effective forest policies and practices in the field.

29. The challenges for COFO today are similar to the challenges when the FAO Conference first discussed forestry sixty years ago – how to effectively address the economic, social and environmental aspects of forests in the context of the larger society in which forests play such an important part.