An international forum on forests promises to bring in real change
THE United Nations Forum on Forest (UNFF) -- a global body established last year to promote the management, conservation and sustainable development of the world's forests -- recently met for the first time in New York to discuss organisational issues. International forest policy first came up for discussions at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), where industralised countries tried to push for a global convention on forests. They had to abandon this demand in the face of opposition from developing countries. India, in particular, pointed out that a global convention would undermine the rights of forest communities to manage their forests. An Intergovernmental Policy on Forest (IPF) was established in 1995 for a period of two years, to continue this dialogue. This was followed by the establishment of the Intergovernmental Forum on Forest (IFF) in 1997. This body has now been replaced by the UNFF, established as a subsidiary body of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
The first session of the UNFF considered proposals to host the UNFF secretariat. It also heard an update on progress towards establishing a "collaborative partnership on forest" (CPF), set up by ECOSOC to support and enhance the work of UNFF. While some participating countries were eager to start discussions on a legal framework on forests, such as a legally binding convention, others wanted to keep this controversial discussion out until other organisational matters were dealt with.
UNFF is to function on a five-year "multi-year programme of work" (MYPOW). Informal consultations were held relating to implementation, monitoring, assessment, and reporting of mypow. Emphasis was laid on implementing the earlier proposals of IPF/IFF, which include proposals on financing.
A need was felt to distinguish between UNFF as a forum for discussion and CPF as an implementing body. Countries agreed on the importance of raising the political profile of forests but flagged a number of areas where consensus may be hard to reach, especially regarding finance, and when work on a legal arrangement such as global convention should begin and how.
A contentious topic during the organisational session was the location of the UNFF secretariat. Despite offers from Costa Rica, Switzerland and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the G-77/China's preference for New York, where a number of permanent missions are stationed, eventually prevailed. It was decided that the first and the fifth session would be held in New York and the three intervening sessions will be held in Geneva and San Jos.
The biggest challenge that the UNFF is facing is to convince the stakeholders that it is not another "talk shop" as its predecessors. A positive step towards this was seen with countries clamouring for implementation of IPF/IFF proposals. These interventions give the hope that at least for the few initial years the UNFF will focus on action and avoid debates.
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