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No forest convention but ten tree treaties

B.M.G.S. Ruis

Barbara M.G.S. Ruis is a researcher
on international law relating
to forests in the Faculty of Law,
Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam,
the Netherlands.

An overview of the treatment of forests in ten existing global agreements suggests that fostering synergies among them may not be sufficient to cover the gaps that remain.

Many existing international trea-ties contain provisions that aim to regulate certain activities related to forests. However, there is no global legal instrument in which forests are the main subject; there is no international treaty in which all environmental, social and economic aspects of forest ecosystems are included, and political trends suggest that such a treaty will not be created in the foreseeable future. This article gives an overview of the inclusion of forests in ten multilateral instruments of forestry importance. It concludes that the current focus on fostering synergies among these instruments might not be sufficient to ensure sustainable forest management, and proposes an explicit and fundamental expansion and shift in focus within the Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Trade Organization to include sustainable forest management.


There is currently no comprehensive legally binding instrument on forests. International negotiations explicitly aimed at a global forest convention were initiated in 1990, proposed and endorsed by the G-7, the group of seven major industrialized states. At that time it was thought that it would be feasible to conclude a forest convention in 1992, when the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) would be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But during the negotiations in Rio it became apparent that the international community was far from reaching consensus on the contents of a forest convention. There was even disagreement about whether such a convention should be negotiated at all. Instead, the juridically lame "Non-Legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of all Types of Forests" (Forest Principles) was adopted. Since a statement is, by its nature, non-legally binding, the title's inclusion of these words shows that this non-binding aspect needed extra emphasis, demonstrating the great divergence of views during the UNCED negotiations. The designation that it was nevertheless "authoritative" could do little to endow it with the weight of a binding agreement.

It falls outside the scope of this article to discuss what the divergent views were; it is sufficient to say that in the post-UNCED institutional follow-up with regard to forests, namely the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF, 1995 to 1997), the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF, 1997 to 2000) and the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF, 2000 to the present), the international will to arrive at a legally binding agreement has been increasingly on the wane.1 The decrease in willingness to come to a global agreement is not only limited to forests, but can also be noted in other areas of international environmental law, as illustrated by the recent controversies surrounding the acceptance of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. In 1992, there was a strong sense of urgency and a unique cooperative spirit among States to set the sustainable development agenda for the future of the earth. If the Forest Principles were the highest attainable achievement during those environmental heydays, it is no surprise that today, with the onset of conference fatigue (the same viewpoints repeated over and over, mandates from capitals defined narrowly and high-level segments often consisting merely of statements read aloud), a meaningful legally binding instrument appears a less realistic expectation. Perhaps it would even be difficult to achieve international consensus on the Forest Principles if they had to be negotiated today.

UNFF, together with the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) established to support its work, in effect forms the present international arrangement on forests. The arrangement has among its tasks the strengthening of long-term political commitment to sustainable forest management and operation in a manner consistent with and complementary to existing legally binding instruments relevant to forests. Regarding work towards a forest convention, the mandate of UNFF is tentative: "consider the parameters of a mandate for developing a legal framework on all types of forests" within five years.

As the conclusion of a global convention on forests seems unlikely, at least in the short term, attention is focusing more on existing global conventions to see if the synergies among them could be put to good use and be applied or expanded to include forests.


The potentially most important global conventions related to forests are the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, particularly in Africa (UNCCD). These three conventions, together with seven other multilateral agreements (see Table 1), are discussed below, in particular with regard to their contents relevant to forests. Although all have forestry relevance (and can thus be considered "tree treaties"), they all have in common the trait of taking into account only certain aspects, functions and roles of forests.

Besides the global instruments cited here, there are many more agreements aimed at environmental conservation, including habitat protection and protection of particular species of fauna and flora, in particular at the regional level. These, however, fall outside the scope of this article.

TABLE 1. Relevant multilateral conventions related to forests



Entry into force

Number of parties

Web site

Most important in terms of forests


Climate Change Convention



186 (01/05/01)

Convention on Biological Diversity



180 (21/06/01)

Desertification Convention



174 (15/06/01)

Other conventions of relevance (in chronological order of adoption)


Ramsar Convention on Wetlands



124 (12/08/01)

World Heritage Convention



164 (15/05/01)

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species



154 (08/05/01)

Ozone Layer Convention



177 (15/06/01)

Indigenous and Tribal Peoples



14 (01/05/01);

International Tropical Timber Agreement



56 (01/05/01)

World Trade Organization



141 (31/05/01)

In addition to the text of the conventions, developments since their adoption - such as additional protocols or decisions and resolutions of the respective Conferences of the Parties (COPs) - are also mentioned.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

UNFCCC was adopted as a consequence of the worldwide concern over global warming. The ultimate objective of the convention is to limit human-induced disturbances to the global climate system by seeking to achieve a stable level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In 1997 the COP adopted an additional legally binding commitment, the Kyoto Protocol, which sets out emission reduction targets and methods. This protocol has been signed by 84 States, and as of 25 June 2001 has been ratified by 35, but has not yet entered into force. (Editor's note: see article by Moura Costa in this issue for an explanation of the requirements for entry into force.) Thirty-nine developed countries and countries with economies in transition commit themselves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5 percent compared with 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. However, the Kyoto Protocol does not include further operational details that will determine how these cuts are to be achieved and how countries' efforts are to be measured and assessed.

There is a close relationship between climate and forests. Forests act as reservoirs by storing carbon in biomass and soils and as carbon sinks when their area or productivity is increased, which results in greater uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), the most important greenhouse gas. Various forestry practices have a significant role in helping to slow down the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. Conversely, forests are a source of greenhouse gases when biomass burns or decays. Some practices involved in plantation development, forest management and agroforestry, such as tilling and use of natural fertilizers, can release greenhouse gases.

A plenary session of COP-5 of CBD at United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, May 2000


While UNFCCC mentions forests only briefly, the Kyoto Protocol is more explicit: Article 2 states that industrialized parties shall "implement and/or further elaborate policies and measures ... such as ... promotion of sustainable forest management practices, afforestation and reforestation". Under the protocol, certain human-induced activities in the land-use, land-use change and forestry sector (known as LULUCF) that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, namely afforestation, reforestation and tackling deforestation, may be used by industrialized countries to offset their emission targets. Conversely, changes in these activities that deplete carbon sinks, such as deforestation, will be subtracted from the amount of permitted emissions. Many uncertainties and complexities surround this subject, and there is a need for further definition. LULUCF proved to be one of the major breaking points at the COP in November 2000, when the lack of consensus necessitated that the session be resumed at a later date.

Convention on Biological Diversity

CBD has three goals:

A large part of the world's terrestrial biological diversity is found in forests; forest ecosystems are estimated to contain 70 percent of the world's plant and animal species. Since its adoption, CBD has considerably expanded its horizon to include forests within its purview.

In 1995, COP-2 adopted a statement on biological diversity and forests and stressed that forests have a crucial role in maintaining global biological diversity. Subsequently, a Work Programme for Forest Biological Diversity was adopted by COP-3 in 1996. The Work Programme focuses on the research, cooperation and development of technologies necessary for the conservation and sustainable use of forest biological diversity of all types of forests. In 1998, COP-4 decided to consider forests one of the three priority themes for COP-6 in 2002. It also established an Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Forest Biological Diversity. This group has a mandate to provide advice on scientific research and development, to review available information on status, trends and threats to forest biological diversity and to suggest actions for the conservation and sustainable use of forest biological diversity. It has had two meetings and has the potential to become an interesting forum for developing an inclusive forest biodiversity policy framework.

The COP of CBD is supported by a Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice, which works on a wide variety of biological diversity-related concerns including also topics such as forest fires and harvesting of non-timber forest resources.

CBD has influenced the global dialogue on forests also through its leading role in support of recognition of the traditional forest-related knowledge of indigenous people and forest-dependent people in the IPF/IFF process. CBD certainly includes articles on indigenous and traditional forest-related knowledge, but at the same time it also presents the risk for indigenous people to be seen as a "resource" for biological diversity, i.e. as people who can provide knowledge on components of biological diversity, rather than as people who hold legal, social, cultural and economic rights in relation to it.

Another influential link with forests is provided by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which provides funding for projects under CBD that support activities related to biological diversity, including forest biological diversity. Furthermore, CBD established in 2000 the Global Taxonomy Initiative, which is also of relevance to forests.

In this East African landscape, moving dunes threaten to encroach on the shrubland; sustainable forest management is one of the corrective actions envisaged under UNCCD to tackle such problems


United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, particularly in Africa   

UNCCD aims at combating deserti-fication, mitigating the effects of drought and contributing to sustainable development. This involves long-term strategies that focus on improved productivity of land and on the rehabilitation, conservation and sustainable management of land and water resources, leading to improved living conditions for people. Protection and expansion of forests are important elements in UNCCD, since forests have significant ecological functions that mitigate effects of drought and prevent desertification. Strategies to deal with desertification are likely to mitigate forest loss as well, and vice versa. Intact forest ecosystems help stabilize the soil; consequently, deforestation fosters both desertification and land degradation. Deforestation has serious consequences in terms of water runoff, soil erosion and loss of soil fertility.

In addition to this ecological connection, the underlying socio-economic conditions and causes of forest loss and desertification are very similar. Deforestation and other unsustainable forestry practices carried out by poor rural communities for economic, commercial or survival purposes have contributed to land degradation and loss of soil fertility in many developing countries. Sustainable forest management is an important part of the corrective actions envisaged under UNCCD to tackle land degradation, promote sustainable agricultural and rural development and reduce rural poverty.

The significance of UNCCD for forests is potentially enormous, but the lack of implementation and compliance with the convention and persistent uncertainties regarding funding make it difficult for UNCCD to define its work programme more precisely in regard to the inclusion of forests.

Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention)

The objective of the Ramsar Convention is the conservation and wise use of wetlands through national action and international cooperation. More than a thousand sites, totalling over 80 million hectares, are designated as wetlands of international importance. Some of these sites contain forest ecosystems, such as mangroves, although the exact number cannot be established, as forests as such are not identified under the convention.

Originally, the Ramsar Convention focused exclusively on preserving wetlands as waterfowl habitat, but it has developed extensively over time to embrace the broader implications of wetland destruction. Its COP has taken several decisions to acknowledge the importance of wetlands not only for their waterfowl, but also for their biological diversity and other ecological and environmental functions. More emphasis has been placed on the concept of sustainable development, including for example participation of local communities and indigenous peoples. Since 1999, the criteria for designating a wetland to be of international importance have included the following:

Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (World Heritage Convention)

The World Heritage Convention (WHC) aims to establish a system of collective protection of cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value. States recognize their duty to ensure the protection, conservation and transmission to future generations of their cultural and natural heritage. Forests can be considered as natural heritage, defined as "natural sites or precisely delineated areas of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty" (Article 2).

WHC establishes the World Heritage List containing world heritage sites. The Operational Guidelines of the convention, devised to guide in establishing the World Heritage List, represent a flexible mechanism to reflect new concepts. The latest revision (Intergovernmental Committee for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, 1999) sets out that the natural heritage sites listed should "be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial ... ecosystems and communities of plants and animals" or "contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity..." (Paragraph 44).

At present, almost 700 sites are listed as world heritage sites. Of those, 41 sites fall in the category of tropical forests, representing 30.6 million hectares. Other types of forest have also been designated in the World Heritage List; Thorsell and Sigaty (1998) have counted 61 sites as containing significant forest protected areas. Additional forest sites have been identified for world heritage nomination. However, most designated sites have a relatively small surface area.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)

CITES is aimed at protecting certain endangered species of wild fauna and flora from overexploitation through international trade, via a system of import/expert permits. The convention focuses exclusively on trade and is premised on the view that the control of international markets will contribute to the preservation of endangered species. CITES operates by listing endangered species in one of its three appendices, which constitute different levels of control in international trade. Numerous forest animal species are included in the appendices, but at present only 16 tree species have been listed, mainly species used for timber. Listing of timber producing species of major commercial importance has become increasingly controversial in recent years, because some parties think this may have the potential to lead to the introduction of unfair trade restrictions. While listing in CITES appendices will help draw attention to the need to take action for better management and conservation of given species, it is clear that listing, as such, does not conserve species.

COP 10 of CITES recognized in 1997 "that commercial trade may be beneficial to the conservation of species and ecosystems when carried out at levels that are not detrimental to the survival of the species in question"; however the COP also noted "that some timber species may be under threat because of detrimental levels of use and international trade".

In 1994, CITES formed the Timber Working Group to study implementation problems resulting from the inclusion of timber species in CITES and to review the definition of terms and units used to describe parts and derivatives of timber trees in trade. CITES has also instituted a Mahogany Working Group and a Plants Committee.

Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (Vienna Convention)

Human-induced emissions of certain gases - particularly chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons (gaseous halogen compounds used e.g. to extinguish fires) - react with ozone and thus deplete the ozone layer, causing increased levels of ultraviolet rays which may cause harm to human health and the environment. Through the Vienna Convention, States make a commitment to protect the ozone layer from these destructive gases and to cooperate with each other in research to improve scientific understanding of the processes involved. The Vienna Convention is a framework agreement, without targets or timetables for action. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was agreed in 1987 and has been amended four times since. Many States have not yet ratified these amendments. The protocol contains detailed international standards governing the production and consumption of ozone-depleting chemicals and aims to reduce and eventually eliminate human-induced emissions of ozone-depleting substances.

The convention establishes a framework for the adoption of measures to protect "human health and the environment against adverse effects ... from human activities which modify ... the ozone layer"(Article 2). The main relevance of the ozone regime for forests is the link between depletion of the ozone layer and the possible adverse effects this might have on forests (Article 1.2). For commercial forests, tree breeding and genetic engineering may be used to improve tolerance of ultraviolet-B (UV-B) radiation, but for unmanaged or natural forests these methods are not an option. While many forest tree species appear to be UV-B tolerant, there is some evidence that detrimental UV-B effects can slowly accumulate in trees from year to year (UNEP, 1998). While it can be argued that implementation of the ozone regime would be beneficial to forests, the ozone regime does not explicitly consider forests.

Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (ILO Convention No. 169)

The International Labour Organization (ILO) convention, which may also be cited as the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, also aims to protect the social, economic and cultural rights of indigenous peoples. Parties assume the responsibility for undertaking action to protect their rights, with the participation of the peoples concerned, and to guarantee respect for their integrity.

Indigenous peoples are often closely associated with forests; forests provide habitat and are important to them for economic, social and cultural reasons. Concerns about conserving and managing forests often coincide with concerns about the survival and integrity of the cultures and knowledge of indigenous peoples.

Relevant articles in the convention are to be found in the section that considers land rights (Articles 13 to 19), such as:

Also relevant are:

There is no specific focus within the framework of the ILO convention related to forests, although its implementation programme includes activities such as ancestral domain management and environment and natural resource management. Although the convention has been ratified by only 14 States, it certainly influences national policies and is considered an important instrument on indigenous people in international law.

International Tropical Timber Agreement (ITTA)

ITTA is a commodity agreement to facilitate the trade in tropical timber and to ensure exports from sustainable sources. Country membership in the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), which administers ITTA, is restricted to States that are either producers or consumers of tropical timber. The agreement first came into force in 1985, but a renegotiated agreement entered into force in 1997. During the renegotiations, the positions of producer and consumer States were sometimes opposed: producers favoured extending the scope to cover timber from all sources, in order to bring all forests under the same stringent guidelines as agreed for tropical forests, while consumer countries held the view that broadening the convention to a global scope was beyond its mandate.

Besides promoting trade, ITTO also deals with environmental concerns; this is a source of conflicting interests which hamper effective implementation of some objectives of ITTA. The ITTO Council consists of 56 members which account for about 75 percent of the world's tropical forests and 90 percent of the international trade in tropical timber. The votes in the council are divided equally between producing and consuming States. Voting share within each group is determined primarily by the respective States' share in the tropical timber trade, although voting share for producing countries also reflects their forest cover. Given this voting structure, ITTO is not necessarily well equipped to safeguard the environment, since those who benefit most from international trade and thus have the largest voting power are likely to be the least enthusiastic about environmental regulations that potentially restrict trade (Hunter, Salzman and Zaelke, 1998). There has been general reluctance by ITTO producers to pass any decision that could be viewed as a trade restriction, whether it involve incentives, labelling or limiting trade in endangered species (Humphreys, 1996)

A parallel development within ITTO was the adoption in 1991 of the "Year 2000 Objective", aimed at achieving sustainable management of tropical forests and trade in tropical timber from sustainably managed resources by the year 2000. The Year 2000 Objective was formulated as a non-binding goal, although it has also been argued that it can be described merely as a process (see Poore and Thang, 2000). The Year 2000 Objective was only accepted after the consumer States pledged to apply to their own forests the same standards for sustainable forest management developed by ITTO for internationally traded timber. Implementation of the Year 2000 Objective at the national level is progressing at a rather slow pace.

Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization (WTO)

WTO forms the administrative and institutional framework of the revised 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and related instruments. The GATT/WTO regime is intended to support and ensure the proper functioning of free trade, while taking into account the protection of the environment. The most important provision in this regard is GATT Article XX, which includes exceptions to all trade rules for certain purposes such as the protection of animal or plant life and the conservation of exhaustible natural resources, subject to the condition that they will not be "applied in a manner which would constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination ... or a disguised restriction on international trade".

The GATT/WTO regime is of relevance to forests since it regulates all trade, including timber and timber products, and since trade liberalization can have both positive and negative effects on the exploitation of natural resources. A range of provisions in WTO can accommodate the use of trade measures needed for environmental purposes, as are often included in other environmental treaties. For example, a ban on timber exports for conservation purposes could be consistent with Article XX. In 1998 an Environmental Database was established containing all environment-related notifications to WTO.

The establishment of WTO's Committee on Trade and Environment, in 1995, is an attempt to bring environmental and sustainable development issues more into the mainstream of WTO work, but the pace of progress on these issues to date has been rather slow. However, the committee has begun to discuss, or will discuss in the near future, several issues applicable to forests, such as ecolabelling, improved market access to forest products and services, community-based processing and marketing of wood and non-wood forest products, full cost internalization and its application to sustainable forest management, and certification of forest products.


Hundreds of environmental treaties have been concluded, especially during the past 30 years, on a wide variety of subjects. Yet these have not been negotiated in a systematic way, and coordination among them is lacking. As a result, there are gaps and overlaps in their coverage.

Table 2 summarizes the gaps and overlaps in the consideration of nine functions of forests by the ten treaties reviewed in this article. As is evident from the table, the word "gap" does not refer to a complete lack of consideration (there are no complete gaps as such), but rather to a lack of comprehensiveness in coverage.

The mention of a treaty in the table refers to the whole legal regime created by the treaty, including protocols and COP decisions. "Intersection in theory" represents not the actual implementation, but the potential for implementation of the relevant treaty. Comparing these agreements is complex because of variations in degree of political commitment, number of parties, effectiveness, degree of implementation, compliance, funding and control mechanisms. It is worth noting that the Forest Principles and proposals for action arising from the IPF/IFF/UNFF process, which are not legally binding, cover almost comprehensively the nine functions mentioned in the table.

Given the number of environmental conventions, there is noticeable reluctance to negotiate any new treaties, as would be necessary to address the gaps. Instead, the magic of synergistic interaction is often invoked as the solution (see e.g. UNU, 1999). Synergy is one of the buzzwords today in international environmental law. The notion is that improved coordination of the implementation of existing conventions would make it possible to cover yet uncharted areas (freshwater resources or river ecosystems, for example). Enhanced harmonization would also resolve conflicts in areas covered by more than one legal instrument - such as conservation of specific species or ecosystems - but is mostly seen as an opportunity to streamline practical issues such as information management, reporting obligations and scientific research. "Increased coordination", "avoidance of duplication", "fostering synergies", "holistic approach": these terms represent the new way of thinking in international environmental law. It is dangerous, however, and potentially detrimental to forests, to focus attention only on synergies among existing treaties.



The general applicable rule on the rights and obligations of States that are parties to successive treaties relating to the same subject matter is found in Article 30 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. It specifies that if the parties to an earlier treaty are also party to a later treaty, the provisions of the later treaty prevail, and the earlier treaty only applies to the extent that its provisions are compatible with those of the later treaty. The problems occur when parties to a multilateral treaty are not identical (see Aust, 2000). In some cases, a treaty (e.g. CBD, GATT) therefore contains a "conflict clause" which seeks to regulate the relation between it and another treaty or treaties. One of the main problems is the lack of coordination among existing treaties and the great dispersion in addressing forest-related issues. Coordination at the national level is also inadequate, since various ministries are responsible for the negotiation and implementation of the distinct treaty regimes.


All general functions of forests are included to some extent in at least one multilateral treaty, but the gaps as identified by Table 2 remain significant. Some forest functions such as those related to water and soil are barely regulated within a treaty framework, while others such as fuelwood provision are regulated, but without compliance in practice.

Three legal options can be distinguished to cover the gaps in existing multilateral agreements identified in Table 2.

TABLE 2. Gaps and overlaps in the coverage of the ten conventions by forest function


Treaties giving coverage

Intersection in theory

Reality of coverage for forests







Conservation of biological diversity and habitat protection of flora and fauna





This function of forests is well covered (also under many other is well covered (also under many other global conservation treaties)

Climate-related functions, such as carbon sequestration





Well covered but scientific uncertainties persist; little attention to impacts on micro (local) climate level

Human settlements, habitat for people, rural livelihoods





Little attention to this function

Natural heritage, cultural and spiritual values

ILO-169, WHC




Well covered but rarely implemented

Commercial industrial wood and wood products, non-wood forest products, agriculture





Many overlaps, no comprehensive all- inclusive approach

Woodfuels (including fuelwood, charcoal), energy security





Well covered in relation to desertification but rarely implemented; financial constraints

Ecotourism, recreation





Gap filled by non legally binding Global Code of Ethics of the World Tourism Organization

Watershed protection, water cycle regulation


UNCCD, Ramsar



Function receives very little attention

Soil conservation and erosion control





Function receives very little attention

a For identifying the functions of forests, use was made of FAO, 1999; Gardner-Outlaw and Engelman, 1999; World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development, 1999; and World Resources Institute, 2000.

Some forest functions, such as watershed protection, are given very little attention by existing global treaties; in the photo, heavily eroded slopes in the Indian Himalayas



Functions of forests are dispersed over a great number of separate international instruments. Some functions receive much more attention than others, and there is a lack of an integrated legal regime that would view forests in a holistic way, with due consideration to the full range of goods and services they provide.

The current reality is that there is no political will to start negotiations to come to a comprehensive multilateral forest agreement to fill in the gaps, although from a juridical perspective this would be possible and perhaps desirable (even keeping in mind that the conclusion of a legally binding convention is no guarantee that the commitments will be carried out; this still depends on political determination). The views of States are too divergent regarding the extent to which forests can be treated as a common concern of humankind - a global commons - as opposed to the realm of sovereign domain. At this stage, even if a global agreement could be reached, it would only be a marginal framework convention, to be substantiated at a later phase with a protocol, through years of difficult and costly negotiations.

Tree cutting for fuelwood can be a major cause of desertification (pictured here, roadside sale of fuelwood in Malawi), and fuelwood issues are well covered by UNCCD; however, the regulations are rarely implemented

- FAO/17808/A. CONTI

The most feasible and realistic solution at this time for reaching a more legally clear and more encompassing regulation is to look to existing multilateral instruments - especially those identified above as potentially most relevant to forests, namely UNCCD, CBD and UNFCCC. UNCCD could regulate many functions of forests, but lacks "teeth": there is a lack of political will to stimulate implementation and there are many problems regarding funding. Especially within the context of UNFCCC and CBD, forests are at present actively debated. UNFCCC is too limited in focus, considering forests mainly as carbon sinks.

Many existing treaties (WTA, CITES, ITTA, UNCCD, CBD) address issues of trade in forest products, but there is no single comprehensive all-inclusive approach


As for CBD, there is a discernible tendency for the COP and Secretariat to adopt a more comprehensive view of forests and to endeavour actively to expand the convention's horizons, which could help fill in the gap left by the failing international negotiations to conclude a forest convention. This tendency is demonstrated, for example, by CBD's assumption of the role of Task Manager on traditional forest-related knowledge under IPF in 1995, and by subsequent movement into other forest-related areas as well (not envisaged in CBD negotiations). CBD's programme of work for forest biological diversity, adopted in 1998, has wide objectives such as assisting parties to develop national measures for integrating the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity into national forest management systems (cf. Khalastchi and Mackenzie, 1999).

The author would dare to predict that besides CBD evolving to incorporate forest issues further, WTO has the potential to take up the complementary role of regulating all trade-related aspects of forests. This could be effective to some extent if CBD and WTO take on the explicit goals of filling in the existing gaps in the forest regime, with political will and funding attached. This is different from letting the magic of synergy do the work on its own.

Even with this scenario, however, some gaps and overlaps will remain. Forest issues dispersed under more than one multilateral instrument will not be as visible as they would be if addressed under a single instrument. In addition, under separate agreements it would be difficult to balance the value of forests as a resource with the value of forests as a source of products. The likely scenario will probably lead to an emphasis on only certain functions of forests, particularly trade and biodiversity. 


1 This loss of enthusiasm is seen, for example, in the United States' shift from pro to contra, and even in avoidance of the word "convention", openly used to refer to this objective in discussions at the beginning of the 1990s but now replaced by the less threatening "arrangement".

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