U.N. mulls the protection of Earth's forests
The final meeting of the United Nations Forum on Forests, now under way, could result in firm commitments to protect the world's forests or, some environmentalists worry, merely an agreement to continue negotiations.
One member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. forum is international environmental policy expert Matthew Auer, who remains guardedly optimistic that the two-week negotiation will conclude with one or more concrete outcomes, such as a fund to help international organizations and countries protect the world's forests. The forum is scheduled to meet May 16 to 27 at U.N. Headquarters in Manhattan.
"At the international level, there's been much stalemate and disagreement on the issues of forest protection and management," said Auer, an associate professor in Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs. "Since the late 1980s, countries have periodically debated the pluses and minuses of having a legal convention. But there are even better options available that are easier to agree on and implement."
Auer says the United States and a few other countries are unlikely to sign a legally-binding convention.
"It's not that the United States isn't interested in being involved," Auer said. "It's that the U.S. is not convinced that a convention is the best way to promote sustainable forest management. There are many environmental conventions in force that do not deliver what they promise. A better alternative is to link forests to other sustainable development goals that include the environment, health, nutrition and energy. Forests need to be integrated into these other interests and solutions."
Another obstacle to an international arrangement on forests is the nature of the resource. Air and water flow across international borders. Barring the occasional hurricane or tornado, trees tend to stay put.
"It's partly a matter of sovereign property rights," Auer said. "Governments will look at a forested area and say, 'This resource is mine. I don't want someone else telling me how to manage it.' Nevertheless, there are regional and global services provided by otherwise local forests, including carbon storage and life-giving oxygen."
The U.N. Forum on Forests was created by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in 2000. For this key, current meeting, members of the forum were asked to collect information on the state of the world's forests, to review the effectiveness of the current legally non-binding arrangement and, ultimately, to bolster international commitments to sustainable forest management.
Auer is also the coauthor of a report in this month's Journal of Forestry that examines recent international efforts to promote sustainable forest management. Auer, along with U.S. Department of Agriculture Acting Director Safiya Samman and U.S.D.A. Policy Analyst Catherine Karr Colque, recommend world governing bodies recognize the importance of forests to countries' long-term sustainable development, and urge states to integrate forest policy into their long-term development plans. This report was written with support from Indiana University and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service.
"Taking Stock of the International Arrangement on Forests" Journal of Forestry, April/May 2005, v. 103, no. 3, pp. 126 - 133
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This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.