Stakeholder Involvement at the UNFF: Can Civil Society Truly Participate?

Report from the Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue Organized by the UNFF Major Groups

“Major Groups play a crucial role in the UNFF process” UNFF10 chair Mario Ruales Carranza from Ecuador said. Witnessing the negotiations and current UNFF structure, one may ask: How far does the influence of civil society groups in the Forum’s process reach? Are the views and recommendations of the nine Major Groups of Women, Children and Youth, Indigenous People, Non-governmental Organizations, Local Authorities, Workers and Trade Unions, Business and Industry, Scientific and Technological Communities, and Farmers and Small Forest Landowners incorporated in the final UNFF document? To what extent do they meaningfully influence decision-making?

The Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue (MSD) gave all Major Groups the opportunity to speak in front of the plenary. During a three-minute speech, the focal points pitched their ideas to country delegates. The fact that even more seats than during the negotiations of the parties remained empty didn’t stop the enthusiasm of the Major Group focal points to make use of the opportunity to voice their concerns.  Shashi Kant, a professor of forest resource economics and management at the University of Toronto, opened the dialogue with the words “Dear brothers and sisters,we are all part of the global forest family.” The informal tone characterizing the MG statements was a refreshing alternative to the standard “Dear Excellencies,” according to the protocol.

“Sustainability can only be achieved by decisions that come from our heart and not from our mind. We need to fall in love with sustainability.”  – Shashi Kant

Peter DeMarsh, focal point for Farmers and Small Forest Landowners, raised the question of how civil society can “play the fullest role possible.” He identified three critical preconditions for the wellbeing of our world’s forests and the people that depend on them:

  • Livelihoods need to be improved
  • Forest degradation needs to be reversed and forest cover increased
  • Forest protection needs to become a national priority for Member States

“As the world’s population hits nine billion people,” DeMarsh noted, “we need to see each other as assets, not as burdens.” This, the focal points agreed, also includes guaranteeing the full participation of women and young people in enabling the above-mentioned preconditions. We need to figure out how to work together more effectively and what we can all do in our own countries. It is not about what happens at UN conferences or about the words spoken, Pat Farrington, part of Ireland’s delegation, pointed out. What matters, he continued, is what happens on the ground.

The focal points touched on a number of issues and shed light on the role of forests from different perspectives. Women are one of the main actors in sustainable forest management in almost all developing countries, Cecile Ndjebet, representative of  Women’s Major Group, said. Yet, women’s work is commonly not recognized adequately. It is therefore crucial, Ndjebet added, to “include women in decision-making processes like land tenure reforms to achieve a forest-based economic development.” Hubertus Samangung, MG Indigenous People, called for a permanent working group on traditional knowledge at the UNFF like it is the case in the Convention on Biological Diversity. The forest industry, according to the MG Business and Industry, can alleviate poverty and contribute to sustainable development. To this end, the MG representative stated, forest industry should enhance education and training and provide fair employment conditions. Further, the MG stressed that forests provide carbon-neutral, recyclable products for a green economy that help mitigate climate change and alleviate poverty.

Andrey Laletin, MG NGOs, raised concerns about an “erroneous understanding of the nature of forests.” Believing that industrial tree plantations can replace natural forests “is an ill-conceived paradigm,” he stated. This reflects the manifold views in which forests can be seen and shows the importance of continued knowledge exchange and increased dialogue among different forest stakeholders in order to nurture trust and find collaborative solutions. Several countries gave positive feedback and stressed the importance of civil society involvement. A delegate from Uganda, for instance, welcomed the MG participation and praised civil society for being more efficient than governments in implementing forestry projects because of their connection to communities.

After the Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue and positive responses from several country delegates, an essential question remains unanswered: Will governments provide adequate financial means to support the UNFF MGs? The MGs intend to increase their contribution to the UNFF process and concrete plans are currently being discussed. Among the ideas is the proposal to open an office in Ottawa, Canada in order to increase coordination and strategic planning capacities among the MGs. If this increased bureaucratization and institutionalization will yield the expected positive outcomes remains to be seen. A valuable characteristic of the work of civil society groups is higher flexibility and dynamism in organization and decision-making, as compared to governmental bodies. Can this be maintained when channeling MG work through an institution like the proposed office in Ottawa? In any case, it is encouraging that countries recognize that there is potential to leverage the participation of Major Groups in the UNFF – and other UN processes.

The next big UNFF conference, which will be held in 2015, will define the incorporation of forests into the post-2015 development agenda. The UNFF MGs are eager to ensure substantial input from civil society into the future framework under which our world’s forests will be governed. The main challenge for MGs will be to gain the support from individual countries, to organize and coordinate among themselves, and to find (sometimes hidden) ways to influence policy.


I took over the position as focal point for the Major Group Children and Youth, having been involved in the topic for several months through my work with the International Forestry Students’ Association (IFSA). I am looking forward to exploring new ways of amplifying the voice of youth, particularly finding overlaps with the UN Convention on Sustainable Development and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Another article will be devoted to Children and Youth, stay tuned.