International Forest Governance: International Forest Policy, Legal and Institutional Framework

Susan Braatz 1


International forest governance - comprised of the policy, legal and institutional frameworks for international decision-making on forests, has developed rapidly over the past decade. Today there is a rich mix of "soft law" and legally-binding commitments on forests at the global level. The forest policy dialogue that took place under the United Nations in the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests and Intergovernmental Forum on Forests from 1995 to 2000 and continues under the United Nations Forum on Forests has developed a comprehensive agenda on forests. Over the past decade, many legally binding global conventions and agreements related to forests have been ratified. There has been a strengthening of regional agreements on forests in recent years. International forests policy is likely to respond to recent shifts in sustainable development emphases, putting a greater focus on poverty alleviation. The international organizational framework for forests is also complex, consisting of many international and regional institutions, organizations and processes that facilitate the development and implementation of international forest policy. Steps have been taken to increase collaboration and cooperation among these bodies. The development of multi-stakeholder processes in various international policy fora and new partnerships are providing increased opportunities for non-governmental, scientific, business, indigenous peoples and other organizations to participate in international decision-making and implementation of commitments. Despite significant developments in international forest governance in recent years, some opportunities and challenges to implementing the international commitments and achieving the ultimate goal of sustainable forest management remain.


International forest governance includes the international policy and legal frameworks for forests and the institutional arrangements that facilitate international policy development and implementation. This paper provides an overview of recent developments in international forest governance and highlights issues and challenges to facilitating sustainable forest management through implementation of international commitments.

International forest policy and legal framework

The development of international forest-related policy and obligations, both legally and non-legally binding, has been particularly rapid since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This is in response to concern over high rates of deforestation and forest degradation globally, recognition of various global services from forests, and strengthened commitment to international action to facilitate sustainable forest management worldwide.

International forest policy dialogue and development under the IPF/IFF/UNFF process

Despite strong polarization of views on forests at Rio, particularly between developed and developing countries, the first global consensuses on forests were reached at UNCED. These were embodied in the "Forest Principles"2 and Chapter 11 of Agenda 21, which, respectively, articulated the overarching principles and an action plan for sustainable forest management. These, and a large number of agreements on forests reached in the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF) and Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF) (including the IPF/IFF proposals for action) between 1995 and 2000 and under the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF), since 2000 constitute a comprehensive international agenda on forests and a body of "soft law"3. The "international arrangement on forests", comprised of UNFF and the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) (see below), is recognized as a key mechanism to facilitate and coordinate the implementation of sustainable forest management at national, regional and global levels (United Nations, 2002).

Forest-related international conventions and agreements

Legally and non-legally binding commitments on forests have been made through a large number of global conventions and agreements (see Downes, 1999; Ruis, 2001; Tarasofsky, 1995 and United Nations, 1998b.). The main ones are the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (ILO Convention No. 169), Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention), International Tropical Timber Agreement (ITTA), UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (World Heritage Convention) and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade/World Trade Organization (WTO). The objectives of these instruments, dates of entry into force, and their relevance to forests are indicated in Box 1.

Box 1: Key international forest-related conventions and agreements

CBD (1993): conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and the equitable sharing of the benefits of genetic resources, including forest biological diversity; an expanded programme of work on forest biological diversity was adopted in 2002

CITES (1975): control of trade in endangered or threatened species, including several tree and woody species

ILO No. 169 (1991): protection of the social, economic and cultural rights of indigenous peoples, including (implicitly) forest dwellers and forest-dependent indigenous peoples

ITTA (1994): facilitation of trade in tropical timber and ensuring of exports from sustainable sources

Ramsar (1975): conservation and wise use of wetlands, including mangroves and some other forest ecosystems

UNCCD (1996): mitigation of the effects of drought and prevention of desertification, including optimising the contribution of forests to this goal

UNFCCC (1994): limitation of human-induced disturbances to the global climate system by stabilizing greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration in the atmosphere. Forests are reservoirs, sinks and sources of GHGs; rules and modalities for forests to mitigate climate change are provided by UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Marrakech Accord. Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol include forestry projects.

World Heritage (1975): protection and maintenance of sites of outstanding cultural and natural heritage of universal value, including forest areas

WTO (1994): support to and ensuring of the proper function of free trade, including of forest products; the Committee on Trade and Environment is addressing the links between the multilateral trade system and trade measures under multilateral environmental agreements, including issues related to trade in forest products

Important developments are currently taking place in CBD and ITTA. Parties to CBD adopted an expanded programme of work on forest biological diversity in 2002 and are addressing implementation, and monitoring, assessment and reporting of progress. It is broader in scope and more action oriented than the work programme on forest biological diversity adopted by CBD in 1998. Negotiations on a successor agreement to ITTA, 1994 began in mid-2003 and are due to be concluded by early 2005. The challenge for both ITTA and CBD will be to find a way to strengthen international forest policy and legislation by filling gaps, avoiding undue overlap with other instruments, and maximizing the potential for successful implementation.

Regional agreements on forests

The past decade has seen increased policy development and collaboration at the regional level, including through regional and sub-regional conventions, agreements, organizations and processes. A comprehensive discussion of these is beyond the scope of this paper, but a few examples include the Amazon Cooperation Treaty; Central American Forests Convention; agreements and collaboration on forests in Europe, Central Africa, North America and Southeast Asia; and a forestry protocol and collaborative activities under the South African Development Community. The nine processes of criteria and indicators (C&I) for sustainable forest management, the majority of which have regional or ecoregional coverage, represent strictly voluntary collaborative agreements. In some cases, they have been extremely effective catalysts for regional and level action.

Forests in the context of recent international political commitments on sustainable development

The Millennium Summit, held in September 2000, and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), held in Johannesburg in August/September 2002, were significant for forests for two main reasons: 1) WSSD reinforced countries' commitment to implement international agreements on forests, and 2) together they set new priorities related to sustainable development.

The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, which was agreed upon at WSSD, called for action to support UNFF, the implementation of IPF/IFF proposals for action, and the implementation of CBD's expanded programme of work on forest biological diversity.

The Millennium Summit and WSSD both placed greater emphasis on the social and economic aspects of sustainable development, including poverty alleviation. Aligning international forest policy to these development goals would have a significant impact on forest policy and legislation. More emphasis would be placed on the contribution of forests to poverty alleviation and to the social and economic aspects of forests, as well as to environmental sustainability. Success in linking forests more closely to these broad sustainable development goals would be important for several reasons. It would reinforce the position of forests on the international agenda, increase political commitment to sustainable forest management, highlight cross-sectoral linkages between the forest and other sectors, and help mainstream forests in national planning and development efforts. Implementation of international commitments on forests would almost certainly be enhanced by integrating the commitments into mainstream development planning. Demonstrating the contribution of forests to basic development objectives may strengthen the support of finance, planning and other sectoral departments that have control over the bulk of financial resources. For this reason, raising awareness of the strong link between the forest-poverty alleviation link and addressing forests adequately in poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs) will be important.

International institutional framework for forests

The second main component of international forest governance - the institutional framework, including international organizations, institutions and processes - is critical to the implementation of international commitments on forests. Although the main responsibility for implementation lies with countries themselves, international organizations and institutions play a critical supportive role. As in the case with the international policy and legislative frameworks, the international institutional framework for forests is complex. IPF acknowledged that no single, multilateral body, organization or instrument has either a mandate or capacity to address, in a balanced, holistic and mutually reinforcing way, all issues relating to forests. During IFF deliberations, over forty international and regional organizations carrying out forest-related work were identified and the critical need for close cooperation and coordination among them was highlighted (United Nations, 1998b).

The Collaborative Partnership on Forests and CPF Network

In 2001, shortly after UNFF was established, the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) was formed to support the work of UNFF and to enhance cooperation and coordination on forest issues. This innovative partnership consists of 14 international forest-related organizations, institutions and convention secretariats4. CPF membership is a unique mix of technical, development, research, financing and scientific organizations, as well as secretariats of the key international forest-related conventions and instruments. CPF members support the work of UNFF, carry out collaborative and joint activities, individually support countries' efforts to implement IPF/IFF proposals for action, and work to enhance cooperation and collaboration among themselves. The CPF Network was formed in 2002 to enhance dialogue and collaboration between CPF members and a wide range of other international and regional organizations, NGOs, private sector entities and other major groups (See Vahanen, 2003 and the CPF website5 for more information on CPF and the CPF Network.)

Other forest partnerships

In recent years, several other partnerships have emerged and have enriched the international and regional institutional framework on forests. These include public-private partnerships and coalitions of international organizations, governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The prominent role that partnerships played at WSSD highlighted their contribution to efforts to fulfill international commitments (see Witte et al, 2003). The WSSD "Type II" forest-related partnerships include: A Public-Private Partnership for Sustainable Forest Management; Asia Forest Partnership, Regional Model Forest Centre for Latin America and the Caribbean, and Sustainable Forest Management in the Congo Basin Region. Two examples of other innovative partnerships are the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration, instigated by IUCN, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and UK, but now including many other partners; and the World Bank-WWF Alliance for Forest Conservation and Sustainable Use.

Enhanced stakeholder participation in international forest governance

Participatory processes in international policy processes have also been strengthened in recent years and are contributing to forest governance. The multi-stakeholder dialogue process in UNFF, and similar means to facilitate stakeholder input to CBD, UNFCCC and ITTO, among others, provide an opportunity for NGOs, business, the scientific community and other entities to contribute to international decision-making on forests. Such processes have also been stimulating dialogue between stakeholders at regional level.

Opportunities and challenges for international forest governance

The success of international forest governance can ultimately be judged by the degree to which the commitments are successfully implemented, and the extent to which progress is made toward sustainable forest management. Success of international forest governance is therefore dependent on: 1) whether the international commitments together constitute a comprehensive framework for achieving sustainable forest management globally, and 2) all the factors necessary for effective decision-making and implementation are in place.

As indicated above, the IPF/IFF process developed a comprehensive and holistic international policy agenda and UNFF is working to facilitate its implementation. CBD's expanded programme of work on forest biological diversity complements this agenda, and efforts are being made to seek synergies between the activities of the respective bodies.

The constellation of legally binding commitments, as noted by IPF in 1998, does not deal comprehensively with all aspects of forests. This is at the heart of the debate on a forest convention that has been ongoing since Rio. Those favoring a convention argue that strengthening synergies between the various instruments can help fill some of the existing gaps (Tarasofsky, 1999), while others caution that dealing with forests on a piecemeal basis is likely to be inadequate (Ruis, 2001). They also argue that a new legally-binding instrument can mobilize funding, facilitate technology transfer and capacity building; can increase political commitment for the forest sector at national level; and that monitoring and provisions for enforcement would give impetus to efforts to implement the commitments. Those that argue against a convention do so on the grounds that negotiation of conventions is expensive and time consuming and a forest convention may not offer significantly greater advantages than strengthening existing instruments or maintaining the status quo. The debate that commenced at Rio over a forest convention continued in the IPF/IFF process. The issue of structural options, including legal, financial and institutional modalities, will be taken up by UNFF at its fifth session in 2005.

Implementation of the international commitments on forests will depend on political commitment; the availability of adequate institutional, technological and human capacity and financial resources in countries; and effective planning, including monitoring and assessment of progress. Although the need for additional financial resources to support sustainable forest management, particularly in developing countries but also in countries with economies in transition, was recognized at Rio, there has been considerable debate in IPF, IFF and UNFF on the source of the funds (e.g. internal vs. externally derived sources, public vs. private funds, official development assistance or other sources). Overall, development assistance levels have declined since 1992, and with it, financing for sustainable forest management has declined. Unlike with some international agreements (e.g., CBD and UNFCCC), there is no financial mechanism earmarked specifically to support sustainable forest management, particularly the incremental costs to countries to safeguard global values of forests. (GEF does, however, support the conservation and sustainable use of forests, but through biodiversity projects; it has committed $778 million for such projects since 1991 [GEF, 2003]). Similarly, issues of transfer of environmentally sound technology and capacity strengthening have been priority issues on the agenda of developing countries. Developed countries have on the other hand tended to emphasize the importance of good governance at national and local levels to achieving sustainable forest management.


International forest governance has developed rapidly over the past decade. The proliferation of international agreements, instruments, and conventions, as well as bodies that deal with various aspects of forests reflects the rapid evolution of the international forest agenda. This complexity, however, poses a real challenge: how to set coherent policies and coordinate action effectively. Some efforts have been made to find synergies among international forest-related instruments, but clearly more is needed.

The international institutional framework for forests has increased in complexity but has also matured a great deal over the past few years, with many organizations actively supporting sustainable forest management, and new partnerships and participatory processes working to enhance stakeholder participation in decision-making and implementation. The Collaborative Partnership on Forests is enhancing interagency cooperation and collaboration.

Despite significant developments in international forest governance over the past few years, several key issues remain, including: what legal, financial and institutional modalities for forest governance would best facilitate progress toward sustainable forest management and help achieve national and international sustainable development priorities; where and how can the necessary resources (financial, human, technological) be secured; and how can governance structures and processes be strengthened in countries so that they can effectively support sustainable forest management.


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GEF, 2003. Forests matter. GEF's contribution to conserving and sustaining forest ecosystems. NY, Global Environment Facility.

Poore, D. 2003. Changing landscapes. London, Earthscan Publications, Ltd.

Ruis, B.M.G.S. 2001. No forest convention but ten tree treaties. Unasylva, 52(206): 3-13.

Swiderska, K. 2002. Implementing the Rio Conventions: Implications for the South. http://www.iied.org

Tarasofsky, R.G. 1995. The international forestry regime - legal and policy issues. Gland, Switzerland, International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and World Wide Fund for Nature.

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Vahanen, T. 2003. Collaborative Partnership on Forests - a model for interagency collaboration. Paper prepared for the World Forestry Congress, Quebec City, Canada, September 2003.

Witte, J.M., C. Streck and T. Benner, eds. 2003. Progress or peril? Partnerships and Networks in Global Environmental Governance. The Post-Johannesburg Agenda. Washington, D.C., Global Public Policy Institute.

1 Senior Forest Policy Advisor
Secretariat of the United Nations Forum on Forests
Two UN Plaza, DC2-2286
New York, NY 10017 USA
Prepared for the World Forestry Congress, Quebec City, Canada; 21-28 September 2003

2 The full name of the Forest Principles is the "Non-legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of all Types of Forest"

3 Soft law agreements reflect political rather than legal commitments

4 CPF members include the: Center for International Forest Research (CIFOR); Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations; Global Environment Facility (GEF); International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO); International Union of Forestry Research Organizations (IUFRO); World Conservation Union (IUCN); Secretariats of CBD, UNCCD, UNFCCC, and UNFF; United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF); and the World Bank. FAO chairs CPF, and the Secretariat of UNFF provides secretariat support.

5 http://www.un.org/esa/forests/cpf.html