UN Forum on Forests
Experts Meet: How did we do?

A week’s conference just passed. Five days of presentations, discussions, proposals, planning, and relationship building. All in the name of eventually designing a new framework for international forest policy. How did we do?

Where are the trees that we saved from falling? Where the communities whose tenure rights were secured? Did we contribute to increased carbon sequestration and storage? How about clean water provision? Have we helped conserve biodiversity? These are some of the questions floating through my head after a week that—given the format as UN conference—was surprisingly exciting, dynamic, and personal.

The United Nations Forum on Forests is the world’s authoritative platform to develop and decide international forest policy frameworks. Comprised by 197 Member States and situated directly under the Economic and Social Council, the multi-lateral, “high-level” Forum is tasked with a tremendous challenge: to secure a sustainable, equitable, universally accepted, and overall positive future of our world’s forests.

Since is establishment in 2000 (find UNFF Milestones here), major achievements have been the Four Global Objectives on Forests and the Non-Legally Binding Instrument on All Types of Forests (Forest Instrument). Now, what does that mean? These two, internationally agreed, sets of mechanisms encourage Member States to practice and promote sustainable forest management and to report on their progress. While it is an achievement to get 197 countries to adopt commonly stated goals for forest management, the progress made by the UNFF falls far short behind the expectations of many involved people—and of some who have become disengaged in the course of the tedious process.

The UNFF (and its guideline tools) is ill-equipped to address a challenge as complex as forests, including their implications for local communities, indigenous peoples, women, economic development, water supply, climate change mitigation and adaptation, regulation of ecological processes and other ecosystem services.

After another week of talking, this time in an “ad-hoc expert group” meeting (AHEG1), have we come any closer to getting our job done? Or have we maybe already achieved a lot more than openly visible, but on-the-ground results are yet to become evident? As newbie in the UNFF policy process (and young person in general), I won’t allow myself too much of a value judgment. One thing is clear, however: we can do better than that.

What’s the missing link? Unlike with many detached, high-level, and slow-moving political processes, I actually had the feeling that the overwhelming majority of country delegates and IGO representatives (intergovernmental organizations) at the AHEG1 appeared to have sincere admiration, ambition, love—call it want you want—for forests. The gathering of experts, some of which had spent decades in on-the-ground implementation in tropical, boreal, or temperate forests, the drive and accuracy evident in some of the science and policy presentations, the harmonious environment at the coffee tables under the Kenyan sun—it all seemed to be a wonderful event. And yet, many people did not hide their frustration with the UNFF policy process, many openly stated that nothing was going to move—not now, not until truly path-breaking decisions and structural reforms are desperately needed in the spring of 2015.

Something was in the air; the clear feeling that once delegates returned to their home countries, the conference report would vanish in some dusty drawer or cabinet; the voluntary commitments and stated intentions to ensure sustainable forest management at national levels would be confronted with the dire budgetary realities; and, in many cases, national implementation would even be under the authority of another ministry or department, rendering all learning and knowledge transfer at the UNFF meeting even more marginal to national progress. The positive and lively conversations with delegates of different countries would become irrelevant for actual national-level decision making, and the dichotomy between low-forest cover countries and high-forest cover countries, between North and South, between donors and funders, and between those legible to multi-lateral negotiations and those unfamiliar with the process would come to light.

Whenever magic happens somewhere, how do you hold on to it? How to keep momentum? Not that AHEG1 was a magical moment, but it seemed a lot less absurd than many other multi-lateral meetings. Bound only by the rationale that some sort of common denominator needs to be reached—in order not to fully lose face and driven by the more or less clearly felt realization that it is the ‘right’ thing to do—how will implementation ever occur once the public spotlights, or the eyes of your neighboring delegate, are not on you anymore? How, if national budgets don’t even allow for some Member States to send their delegates? How, if other, legally binding, agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol or the Convention on Biological Diversity compete for resource allocation within budgetary planning? Isn’t it understandable that forests lose out when all that binds nations together is a Non-Legally Binding Forest Instrument?

The United Nations is an enormous achievement of humanity. With its peace-keeping function and institutionalized international dialogue, the value and service of the UN cannot be overemphasized. This, however, doesn’t mean we should refrain from criticism. There are things the UN simply can’t do. There are things where you and I are asked to step up and to realize and embrace our responsibility as members of civil society. This is, among others, where the Major Groups come in. There being a gigantic road of work before us in order to get the job done, I am going to delay this topic to another post.

In the end, I believe AHEG1 was a good meeting. Ideas have been developed and exchanged about a, marginally to fundamentally, renewed system of institutional bodies, funding mechanisms, governance, and civil society participation for a future International Arrangement on Forests for 2015 and beyond. Innovative proposals as well as motivated and knowledgeable individuals are not lacking. To be successful, i.e. to create a forest framework that is well-equipped to bring positive forest outcomes to the ground—to monitor, report, and replicate them—, however, we need to factor in politics and adapt our strategies accordingly. Let’s find the missing link between awareness and understanding the significance of our world’s forests and multi-level implementation of forest policy—from global to local.