Guest Article #4

Forests Plus: Looking outside the box

Can you picture life without forests? Within their branches and trunks, forests record the history of life on earth. Forests can be seen as a mirror of evolving human needs, dynamic and ever-changing. They have the unique ability to sustain and revitalize us – through a multitude of services from food and shelter to biodiversity and clean water.

Over a decade ago, the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) was established to promote management, conservation and sustainable development of forests. The Forum addresses all cross-sectoral aspects pertaining to forests – using a 360-degree perspective.  Most people are aware of the economic values of forests, particularly timber production, and more recently the focus has been on climate change mitigation values through forest carbon sequestration.

However, the full picture of what forests offer is much more than simply economic values and carbon – they provide a healthy environment for people, secured livelihoods, shelter and sustenance. Forests are central to achieving sustainable development, yet they are not addressed in a holistic and integrated manner by the mechanisms and institutions created by the Rio “Earth Summit.”

A holistic approach to forests is clearly needed, one that takes into account economic, social and environmental values, as well as cultural and spiritual dimensions of forests. Looking at sustainable forest management through a biodiversity lens alone, for example, cannot address the full suite of forest issues. A key requirement in this regard is more frequent and effective cross-sectoral and cross-institutional integration.

Approaches to forests at the policy and institutional level are often fragmented; a fact exacerbated by the reality that threats to forests most often come from outside the forest sector. In this regard the notion of “forests-plus” as an approach embracing forests' inter-sectoral and inter-institutional complexity has received support at Forum discussions, including in particular at a recent high-level roundtable held at the 9th UNFF session in February.

“Forests for People” is the theme of this year, the International Year of Forests 2011, which celebrates the central role of people in sustainably managing the world's forests. People are ultimately at the heart of all forest issues. However, in order for forests to truly be a sustainable natural resource to effectively improve the well-being of people, the economy and the environment, countries will need to devise programmes on a range of issues, from governance to tenure security, access and benefits to local participation, as well as increased funding at all levels, based on well-informed policy decisions, social dialogue and coordination among different ministries.

Throughout the years, we have recognized the need for greater cross-sectoral and cross-institutional cooperation to fully value the multiple functions of forests. Unless these issues are addressed in policies at all levels, deforestation is likely to continue unabated.

The UNFF Secretariat has been engaging and strengthening cross-sectoral linkages with various partners within the UN system, and outside, through a number of initiatives. Since its creation in 2000, the UNFF has promoted a 360-degree perspective of all things forests, recognizing the need to widen the debate on deforestation well beyond the forest sector. An international agreement was reached in 2007, when all 192 member States of the UN agreed to address forests in this comprehensive fashion and to implement the non-legally binding instrument on forests (forest instrument) and its four Global Objectives on Forests. The adoption of the forest instrument is a milestone, as it marks for the first time an international institution embracing a holistic approach to combat deforestation and forest degradation.

To reinforce and operationalise this cross-sectoral approach, in the past two years the UNFF Secretariat has signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with a number of UN organizations. Among these is the joint agreement signed between the UNFF Secretariat and the Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which acknowledges the intricate link between forests and biodiversity. The MOU was based on a request that both secretariats received from their respective governing bodies. The UNFF, which has universal membership of all 193 member countries of the UN, adopted a decision (UNFF8 resolution) in May 2009, which requested the UNFF Secretariat to explore with the secretariats of the Rio Conventions a format and opportunities for collaboration and cooperation and to develop targeted joint activities related to sustainable forest management, the four global objectives on forests and the forest instrument. In this context, the UNFF8 resolution specifically mentioned opportunities for collaboration in celebrating the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010 and the International Year of Forests in 2011. This year's resolution (UNFF9 resolution) requested the Forum Secretariat to continue to further its cooperation with the secretariats of the Rio Conventions to promote a comprehensive approach to the multiple values of forests and sustainable forest management.

Recognizing the importance of cross-sectoral coordination, and synergies between forest-related Rio objectives, the CBD and the UNFF Secretariats launched a range of joint activities in 2010 and 2011. Together with the International Year of Biodiversity (2010), the International Year of Forests (2011), the lead up to Rio+20 celebrations, and the UN Decade on Biodiversity, these activities will promote greater political awareness and public interest. Among the activities, there have been a series of regional and sub-regional capacity building workshops on forest biodiversity in the context of climate change. These have been supported and followed up by the expertise of members of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF), a forum of 14 international organizations that work in support of the UNFF, enhancing forest-related collaboration on several issues. The two Secretariats will be joining forces again at the Future Policy Award Ceremony, scheduled for 21 September in New York, with the central focus of “Forests for People.” The Ceremony will honor three countries for their visionary forest policies.

Another important example of cooperation can also be seen through the agreement to work closely with the Secretariat of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), in order to address the institutional gap between drylands and forests. The agreement also recognizes the protective functions of forests in preventing soil erosion and maintaining clean water supplies. This agreement draws a direct link between sustainable forest management and sustainable land management, which integrates all land uses, including agriculture, transport, environmental conservation and forestry.

Increased attention towards the multiple values of forests due to the International Year of Forests has provided a unique opportunity to strengthen implementation at the national level, by supporting national governments, international and regional organizations, and other interested stakeholders, to work together in a cross-sectoral and cross-institutional manner.

Our work continues ahead to help the forest community bring together agencies and organisations from all sectors (including environmental protection, agriculture, marine resources, transport, energy, finance and public works) to create public awareness of the importance of sustainable forest management – and its 360-degree perspective of all things forests –and to assist in mobilizing both human and financial resources to promote an integrated approach to manage forest resources sustainably.