Precious time is being wasted in formulating a forest convention

Ola Ullsten , former prime minister of Sweden and co-chairperson of the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development, spoke to Amit Shanker on the sustainable use of forests

Published: Sunday 30 April 2000

How can there be sustainable development when so many people are dependent on forests for their livelihood?
Sustainable development generates revenue. One must understand that there is no trade-off between sustainability and development in the long-term perspective. When sustainability is achieved, there will be a transitional period when you have to make investments to make sustainable use of forests possible.

Forests as well as wildlife species have been vanishing at an alarming rate in India. Don't you think we should stop felling trees altogether?
Forests are a renewable resource and you can cut trees as long as you plant more of them. You have to have a landuse plan for purposes such as preserving biodiversity, recreational purposes and maintaining a certain area of forest for carbon sequestration.

Sustainability doesn't mean that you lock up the forest. You can use the forest and still preserve it. Besides, India falls within the 15-18 biggest forest countries of the world. At the same time it has only 1.8 per cent of world's forests. The problem is that if you view forest resource in relation to per capita to the population, you have very little forests. That is why your policy of increasing forest cover is a step in the right direction.

Economic benefits from forest produce is one thing. But how can one put a price tag on wildlife and the ecological functions of forests?
Forests have two functions -- to provide material goods and its ecological functions. When we talk of material goods, and wood being the dominant one, you have a value. But for all other ecological functions there is no measured value. So we are proposing a forest capital index to find a way to measure the value of non-wood functions of forests. However, designing such an index is not easy but we have to start thinking immediately.

What role does the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF) have in today's situation?
I think the recent meetings have brought forest issues on top of the international agenda, which is good. However in the process, the iff has spent too much time searching for a forest convention. That too when it has became clear that we are not ready for such an instrument now. Now what they are proposing is to institutionalise the iff permanently, which I think misses the point of the new discussions where the focus is to involve the civil society and governments around the table on an equal footing.

Unfortunately, if the forum wants to continue with meetings with half-asleep industrialists and non-governmental organisations ( ngo s) sitting in the galleries, nothing positive will emerge. They may just as well meet by themselves -- the governments. But if they would like to go beyond that conventional way -- to involve civil society -- then there is hope for our forests.

Do you think a convention on forests is a good idea?
We must first define what has to be regulated in terms of trade, forest management and certification. If we have a convention before discussing these legalities, it may prove destructive to the effort being made to save forests so much so that it may even lower the threshold of sustainability.

You have spoken of countries having situation specific criteria and indicators for assessing sustainable forest management. Don't you think a universally applicable body of criteria and indicators will be more effective?
Criteria and indicators are a kind of policy instruments for sustainable forest management. But they cannot be the same for every country. For instance, the conditions in India are quite different compared to the Scandinavian countries. What we can have is a clearing house sort of harmonisation so that one knows about the criteria and indicators employed and how they differ from country to country depending on different biological circumstances.

Shouldn't communities, rather than government, be left to manage forests on their own?
jfm is one way of engaging local communities in forest management. But some people are critical of the programme. However, I am not surprised because any new idea take its own time to settle down. But there can be no doubt on the need to make local communities benefit from their resources. For instance in Sweden, forests are almost entirely privately owned by farmers -- there are around 30,000 forest farmers. They all have an incentive to look after the forests and preserve them for their children. This fiscal incentive is very important in the way we are looking at natural resources today.

So I think jfm is a very commendable idea as long as there is real sharing of responsibility and decision-making between the state and the local communities.

Don't you think action and not deliberation is the crux of the solution to forest degradation?
According to one estimate around 40 hectares of forests is being lost every minute. However, there are at least 40 criteria and indicator concepts that we are aware of. Countries like Malaysia are using these to great benefit. So it not that serious work is not being done. However, precious time is being wasted in formulating a legally-binding global forest instrument even as the world's forests are disappearing at a faster rate.

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