Forest matters

 
By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Why is the European Union so strongly in favour of a forest convention? , I recently asked Jorgen Steen Neilsen, the editor of Information, a highly respected daily in Copenhagen, and a highly respected environment journalist himself. The issue of a forest convention is being raked up again and is certain to come up in the special session of the UN General Assembly (UNGASS) to be held later in June. As the UNGASS is scheduled to take place only a few days after a G-7 (the Group of Seven powerful industrialised nations) meeting in Denver, us, several leaders of the industrialised world, including us president Bill Clinton, are expected to attend the UN meeting and they will probably have a coordinated position.

But despite the high-profile character of the New York meeting, Neilsen knew nothing about the European Union's (Eu) strong position in favour of a forest convention. The idea of a convention had been strongly rejected by developing countries, including India, in the Rio conference five years ago. I am intrigued why countries like Finland, which have a strong forest industry, are pushing such a convention. Is it being pushed by some shadowy countries like Finland and Canada because they want to set up systems to protect their timber trade and forest industry, or is it truly to protect the world's forests? If indeed the objective is the first one, it should be taken up in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and not as a multilateral environment treaty. The advantage that these nations would get by setting up a multilateral treaty is that its trade provisions would allow sanctions against errant nations outside the rules of the WTO.

Nobody really knows why this convention is being proposed by its protagonists. No position papers are ever put out in international negotiations by countries. Therefore, an observer has to keep guessing the motivations. There is a smokescreen around the forest convention issue because in NGO Circuits, the key issue discussed in the context of the forest convention is forest conservation, not trade in forest products.

Neilsen pleaded total ignorance. "We rarely come t4'know what countries are taking which positions and why," he said. Neilsen and I then walked over to a meeting and met several Danish environmentalists. Again, there was considerable lack of information. In fact, next day at a meeting of 100-odd Danish environmentalists held to discuss the progress made in the five years after Rio, I had to point out that the international negotiations had become disempowering for the civil society. Even though the Rio conference has generally changed the rules of NGO participation in the UN and made the system much more open, the vast distance between the negotiating capitals and the rest of the world means that the negotiations remain shrouded in mystery. And if Demmank's civil society, with its wealth and access to Information systems, can feel disempowered, one can imagine the state of the South's civil society. The global civil society had put the environmental issue on the platter of international diplomacy. But now, the very nature of distance has disempowered civil society from intervening in this diplomacy - except for few mega-NGOS in the North and, even less so in the South.

Why is it so necessary to keep a watch on these negotiations? For two very simple reasons. These negotiations are the result of the process of economic growth and economic globalisation. Both together are not only linking the world economically but also taking production and consumption levels to a point that they are threatening the world's ecology. Ecological globalisation is the direct result of economic growth and economic globalisation. Countries recognise that many ecological problems cannot be solved by one country alone. Others have to join in.

But a country's politicians are not interested in saving global ecology. There are no votes in that. Even in the industrialised world, very few. So governments come to these negotiations with a single objective in mind: let us negotiate in a way that our national economy is least affected. So the governments gather to save their economies rather than the global ecology. Developing countries then -throw a spanner in the works by arguing that "we never created the problem, you did". A point that is often true. But transnational corporations of industrialised countries then tell their leaders that in an economically globalised world, they cannot act on their own. Everyone must join in.

The Business Council on Sustainable Development played a key role in pre-Rio days in convincing the transnational corporate community that environmental costs can be taken care of without losing competitiveness, if there is a level playing field. So environmental constraints, they argue, must be shared by all companies across the world. Leaders of developed countries then do their best to get leaders of developing countries on board an environmental treaty. The latter have a simple response: We are prepared to do anything as long as you give us additional aid and new technology.

Then begin the true, behind-the-scene negotiations. Because in this scenario, governments and diplomats quickly forget that they are building up global environmental governance systems - on principles of governance, that is, democracy, justice and equality - and quickly fall into a pattern of 'business transactions' - a mode of cooperation in which two parties benefit mutually while others can go to hell.

And with the negotiations so far off, the civil society has no knowledge of the politics of these negotiations, nor is it in a position to intervene. Thus, there is an urgent need to improve information flow in this area, something like a global environmental watchdog alerting the global civil society to the designs of our governments. It is a tough task but we have to solve it nonetheless.

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