'It really riles me to see developing countries pushed into a corner'

Tough-talking Malaysian negotiator Wen Lian Ting explains why the North's stand on forests is morally unjust and politically untenable

By Sunita Narain
Published: Wednesday 15 July 1992

WEN LIAN TING, Malayasia's permanent representative to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), won the epithet of "dragon lady" during the Rio summit for her unwavering opposition to the forest convention. The tough UNCED prepcom meetings, spread over a period of two years, required enormous mental and physical stamina, which Ting displayed in good measure. But she was convinced that hers was a just cause, "I felt it was totally unfair for developed countries, for those who are powerful and rich, to feel that just because they want something, they can push the developing countries into a corner."
President George Bush used forests to divert attention from his country's energy policy and the Europeans focussed on them to appease their own environmental lobby. Observed Ting acerbically, "Our forests have become pawns in the chess games played in the salons of the Western Hemisphere...."

How did you get involved with the negotiations on the forest convention?
The idea was proposed by President George Bush. And very soon, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) started working on a convention. Being based in Rome, I was quickly involved.

What was your experience in FAO when you raised the forest issue?
It was rather difficult. The developed countries had managed to garner the support of FAO forestry officials, so my encounter with them was a rather unfortunate one. We took part in the COFO meeting, which is the FAO Committee on Forestry, and because of our views, they even prevented us from speaking. They prepared the report of the conference inserting their points of view when such views were never even expressed on the floor.

Why do you think that happened?
As I saw it, this was more an inter-agency rivalry. Because UNEP had initiated the biodiversity negotiations and the climate change was being discussed under the UN. So FAO felt that it wanted a piece of the action as well and, as they have a forestry section, they thought they had the mandate to start the initiative on the convention. And, of course, they were prompted by the developed countries in this.

The forestry convention has continued to be debated in all the prepcoms for UNCED. Tell me more about your experience with the negotiations.
Well, in UNCED, we were under a lot of pressure just because the Group of Seven decided in Houston in 1990 that the world should have a convention on forests. And it has been two years of sustained pressure to resist such a convention. We have succeeded in putting across some facts: firstly, that we do not wish to see a convention on forests till we have a comprehensive report on the world's forests. Secondly, that we are negotiating issues concerning all types of forests, not just tropical forests. And, thirdly, that countries have a sovereign right to utilise their forest resources.

Why do you feel that a North-sponsored forest convention should be opposed?
Oh, there are many reasons for that. The developed countries have so few forests left that, if we have a convention, it is an unbalanced one. We have said we will consider global management of our forests when the developed countries have planted back their forests.

Northern NGOs say that the forest principles, as negotiated at UNCED, are very weak and are even worse than the World Bank statement on forestry. What do you think?
What is the World Bank statement on forestry? As I understand it, the World Bank plan for tropical forests entails a complete moratorium, so that the world does not use tropical timber, but temperate timber instead, because there is enough temperate timber to go around. I think this is flawed logic. We would like to utilise our forest, obviously in a sustainable way, unlike what the developed countries did to their forest many years ago.

You are called the dragon lady over here!
I take all this with amusement. The name is probably given because of my combative power of debate on the floor. When I want to make a point, I make sure it gets across and I am not usually in the mood to entertain any deflection. I feel what I say is very important and something that developed countries should pay attention to. It is not something frivolous. I would like to say that, during the negotiations, I have had a lot of support from the G-77 countries, particularly India. In fact, G-77 countries were very solid in their opposition to the convention.

But is it really true that G-77 held together? In this meeting, for instance, we do know that there has been a lot of effort to change the African position on forests by tempting them with the desertification convention. The OPEC countries have already broken away because of their stand on fossil consumption.
My impression is that G-77 is together on this issue, more than perhaps on any other issue that we have discussed. In fact, at one time, I thought that some countries could have been 'neutralised' along the way because of their bilateral concerns, but I was really reassured and gratified to know that the G-77 countries have resisted the efforts to divide the group.

Industrialised countries definitely tried to make a linkage between desertification and forests by simply saying, "If we give you a convention on desertification then we want you to support this idea of a convention on forests". But we were delighted that the African countries resisted this move.

Is the convention the beginning of a kind of global governance that we may have in the future?
Well, this is certainly a valid fear. In fact, with this process, there is a definite push to internationalise what has so far been clearly within the bounds of national action. This tendency will grow and it worries me enormously. The attempts to swap debts for environmental purposes are similar as this internationalises land use in countries.

Malaysia has been under severe criticism about its own forestry practices. Will things change in Malaysia now?
It's true that there was criticism of Malaysia's forest management and development. But, as you know, Malaysia is a member of the International Timber Trade Organisation team (ITTO) and its team has been visiting Sarawak. The ITTO has set certain sustainable guidelines which would require governments to limit their production to 9.2 million cubic metres a year and the Sarawak government has made a commitment that they would abide by the given target. But this is going to be a nightmarish task since it will mean a loss of jobs for a lot of people in the forest sector.

But you will agree that this change in land use patterns is extremely difficult for indigenous people.
Well, the Malaysian government has said that the forest people are free to keep to their forest habitat for as long as they wish. But we would like them to have a choice if they want to join the mainstream of modern life.

What has this experience meant for you personally?
I think the second prepcom was when the pressures really built up. We really had to make the strongest assertions that we are not going to agree to a forest convention. Just before the prepcom, a meeting had been convened under the leadership of the Swedish government to get us to agree to a convention right away.

I was sent to that meeting by my government to tell them that this is not the way to proceed and I had to say so in the strongest terms. We questioned the very validity for such a focus on forests and that developed countries must recall that it is they who have been the main culprits and that they should focus on what they can do to check the continuing damage.

Looking back, I must say that it has taken a great amount of mental stamina besides physical strain just to hold on to the very strong views and to articulate them forcefully.

But I ask myself how I managed to summon up the stamina to keep at it every time we had a meeting. I suppose it was the force of my conviction that kept me going. It really riles me to see developing countries pushed into a corner and their views totally disregarded.

I don't know whether I should confess to some mental fatigue at this stage, but I am certainly relieved that the whole process has come to an acceptable conclusion. My mind now turns to the next step. We must continue to take the debate beyond political and technical assertions. We must get down to the ground to see what we can do to make things better.

How have other people reacted to you?
Well, I have been called a lot of names. They fall into two basic categories: one is of the biological diversity variety. I have been called dragon lady and tiger lady. The other is of the metallic variety. People have called me the iron lady and the steel lady.

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