The UN Forum on Forest's fourth meet ended half a day ahead of schedule, raising doubts on the convention's ability to frame an agenda. Clifford Polycarp saw it all in Geneva

-- When deliberations began on May 13, 2004 the world's forest policy-makers thought that all was well at the fourth UN Forum on Forest meet (UNFF-4). But by midnight everything had collapsed: two resolutions were dropped and another significantly watered down. By next afternoon, the delegates were on their way home, half a day ahead of schedule -- a rare occurrence in multilateral negotiations. UNFF-4 held from May 3-14, 2004, in Geneva, Switzerland, had closed leaving many disappointed. The meet was a stark reminder of how complex forest issues are at the international level and a classic example of how little current arrangements can achieve. In the next 12 months, UNFF members will have to decide whether they need a stronger body or, given the complexities of forestry-issues, any international arrangement at all.

UNFF-4 was the penultimate session in a five-year process launched by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) in October 2000. The main goals of the process are to promote management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests, to provide a forum for policy dialogue and to follow up the implementation of proposals adopted by the forum's predecessors, the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF) and the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF) (See timeline: Towards UNFF).

At its first session in June 2001, the forum's member countries agreed that some thematic issues had to be addressed at each session, besides some other important issues could also be discussed. On UNFF-4's agenda were five themes: social and cultural aspects of forests (SCAF), traditional forest-related knowledge (TFRK), forest-related scientific knowledge (FRSK), forest-related monitoring, assessment and reporting (MAR) and criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management (C&I). Other issues tackled at the meet included enhanced cooperation, the outcomes of ad-hoc expert groups' meetings on monitoring and reporting, finance and transfer of environmentally sound technologies. Effectiveness of international arrangements on forests was also reviewed.
Negotiating day On May 13, delegates were faced with the prospect of having to negotiate on all the seven key resolutions that had to be adopted at UNFF-4. The working groups discussing these were scheduled to meet at 10 am but were held up because G-77/China -- a group of developing countries -- was still huddled in consultation.

Once the working groups met, they discussed draft texts on FRSK and a combined draft text on MAR and C&I. Drafts on other issues were also discussed simultaneously in informal groups. By 1:30 pm, delegates had reached an agreement on the resolution on SCAF. Negotiations on other issues continued into the night and at some point there was an agreement on the report of the ad-hoc expert group on finance and the transfer of environmentally sound technologies after an initial draft was significantly shortened; there was also concord on matters related to FRSK.

Meanwhile, one working group was discussing the modalities on decisions related to TFRK, while the one discussing MAR and C&I waited for G-77/China to conclude their consultations. The latter emerged, late in night -- a split group. And that threw the negotiations into a tailspin, resolutions on FRSK and on finance were reopened -- the former by Saudi Arabia and the latter by New Zealand. The working group dealing with TFRK then moved to discuss FRSK and finance. They agreed to New Zealand's amendment and arrived at a compromise on Saudi Arabia's suggestion after some tough negotiations and then moved back to discussing TFRK. There was no consensus here and the resolution was eventually abandoned.

Simultaneously, members met informally to discuss resolutions to enhance cooperation on various forestry-related processes, only to stop short of passing a resolution. Soon after, the group on MAR and C&I met and individual members of the G-77/China group spoke for themselves. Ironically, the absence of a unity turned out to be more effective as delegates quickly arrived at an agreement. The meet ended by 2:30 am on May 14, with a resolution to review international agreements on forests. The final day witnessed no negotiations and the meeting wound up by about 1:30 pm.
What was the fight all about? At UNFF-4, there was no unanimity on most issues. TFRK was a contentious area almost in its entirety. Moreover specific issues in other resolutions were also blighted by discord. Among them was a resolution on enhanced cooperation that contained a paragraph linking sustainable forest management to a recent decision of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD; held in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia between February 23-27, 2004). The decision placed emphasis on the ecosystems approach. Also contested was a paragraph in the resolution on MAR and C&I that makes certain thematic elements the reference framework for countries wanting to improve their C&I processes.

TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE RELATED TO FOREST RESOURCES: The group discussing this had to grapple with extremely sensitive and politically charged issues such as intellectual property protection for traditional knowledge, indigenous and local communities' rights -- which vary widely across nations and even regions -- and access to genetic resources derived from forests and sharing benefits from the use of such resources. It failed to come out with resolutions on any of these. Some ascribed the failure to indigenous communities' demand to defer discussions on TFRK till UNFF-5. A proposal to this effect was even tabled by Canada, which felt that an international conference of indigenous peoples scheduled for later this year, in Costa Rica, would be able to provide better direction to TFRK- related issues. But the suggestion was not taken up.

There were other stumbling blocks as well. The G-77 and China insisted that the progress on access and benefit sharing (ABS) achieved at the recent CBD meet would be diluted by opening up the discussion at another forum. The CBD's ad-hoc expert group on benefit sharing has already been mandated to negotiate a legally binding regime on the matter (see: 'On the front burner', Down To Earth, March 31, 2004). Bringing ABS into the UNFF's ambit would lead to unnecessary delays in this group's work, felt the Chinese and G-77 representatives. A trade official pointed out that it was good that TFRK decisions fell through because they had no references to most issues of concern for developing countries, such as disclosure of origin of the genetic resource and the knowledge associated with it and prior informed consent of owners of that resource or knowledge. Instead, the draft text only made references to registers and databases for documenting traditional knowledge -- measures which put the burden of protecting such knowledge entirely on its holders and are inconsistent with concerns voiced by developing countries in forums such as the World Intellectual Property Organization and the World Trade Organization (WTO) (see: 'Break the Deadlock', Down To Earth, March 31, 2004).

ENHANCED COOPERATION: The main issue of contention here was the EU proposal to welcome a paragraph of a decision taken at the CBD's February meet. The paragraph, which also had Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland and the US's support, recognises sustainable forest management as a means of implementing the ecosystem approach. It envisages a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources to promote their conservation and sustainable and equitable use. It also aims for a fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of utilisation of genetic resources. The G-77/China explicitly opposed this reference and wanted it deleted. This is consistent with the group's demands in other negotiations, most notably at the recent Commission on Sustainable Development meet in New York (see: 'Another Opportunity Lost', Down To Earth, May 31, 2004). China put it most cogently, it argued that the ecosystem approach was a scientific tool to achieve sustainable forest management and not the other way around as the CBD decision suggests.

MAR AND C&I: One of the paragraphs in the resolution on these issues acknowledges seven thematic elements -- the extent of forest resources, biodiversity, forest health and vitality, the productive, protective and socio-economic functions of forests, and the legal policy and institutional framework associated with them -- as reference framework for sustainable forest management. Though the paragraph does not say so, a delegate from Peru saw these themes as the first internationally agreed upon criterion for sustainable forest management. Most developing countries, including India, are against setting such criterion. They fear that it would be linked to certification and labelling schemes which act as barriers to fair trade and could even be incompatible with WTO rules. It remains to be seen how this issue is taken up at future meetings.

OTHER ISSUES: Countries were divided on whether the forum's Ad-hoc Expert Group on Considering With a View to Recommending Parameters for Developing a Legal Framework for All Types of Forests should take into account recommendations of a similar expert group on finance and the transfer of environmentally sound technologies. The US and G-77/China opposed the move, while Canada and the EU supported it. But the final decision makes no reference to it.

The resolution on forest-related scientific knowledge was reopened late on the penultimate night when Saudi Arabia insisted on an insertion calling for promoting and supporting integrated and interdisciplinary research on forest-related aspects of climate change to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Most countries opposed the idea of going into such specifics. As a compromise, they agreed to "integrated and interdisciplinary research on forest-related issues of importance at the national and international level."

The SCAF resolution did not create many ripples. But it did make an important link between forests and attainment of the development goals set in UN's Millennium Declaration of 2000 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development of 2002. Many believe that this link holds the key to UNFF's future direction.

So where is the UNFF heading?
Two meetings over the next year will determine that. First, the forum's Ad-Hoc Expert Group on Considering with a View to Recommending Parameters of a Mandate for Developing a Legal Framework for all Types of Forests will meet in September this year. At this meet, experts nominated by all countries will assess existing legally binding and non-binding instruments on forests to identify gaps, review experiences of existing forest-related and other relevant organisations. UNFF-5's agenda will be based on this expert group's work as well on the forum's own review of its working. Its course will also be determined by recommendations of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests -- a 14-member group comprising organisations such as the CBD, The World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Thus far, only Canada, Egypt, the EU, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Switzerland and the US have submitted their views for the September meet. The US simply suggested strengthening of the UNFF. At the other end of the spectrum is Canada, which advocates an international convention on forests. Switzerland's proposal seeks a common ground between the two. Reform the UNFF to create a permanent forest policy institution, it says. The EU has taken the more diplomatic route and suggested a range of both binding and non-binding options. Amongst the binding proposals, it recommends a framework convention with possible regional or thematic protocols under it. The non-binding options include an improved UNFF. The EU also suggested that if need be, UNFF should be discontinued and the FAO reinforced by including ministerial segments at the global and regional level.

Malaysia, for its part, also supported an international framework or a convention that would address all forest-related issues in a holistic and integrated manner. It opposed the option of leaving forest-related issues to regional processes or bodies such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). Unofficial chatter indicated that at least one country favoured vesting the task of developing legally binding to bodies such as the UNFF and CBD.

An expert closely associated with the UNFF suggested an alternative he felt would appeal to many: a soft legal option along lines of the London Guidelines on the Exchange of Information on Chemicals in International Trade, that later culminated into the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. This he believed would help countries buy time till they felt comfortable with a legally binding treaty. Whichever course countries choose, they will have to ask themselves one question: do we need the kind of policy setting that was on witness at UNFF-4. Moreover other stakeholders will also have to be involved, if a durable settlement on world forests has to be reached.

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