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Forest Management

Is Sustainable Forest Management Failing in the Tropics?

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The past week has seen the publication of two inflammatory and critical reports by the BBC and Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Both focus on the flourishing trade in illegal tropical timber between International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) member nations, and the failures by yet another member country to protect indigenous peoples rights and land. These developments have led many to ask the question: is tropical forest management failing to be sustainable?

In the wake of these reports, Civil Society Advisory Group (CSAG) representative Chen Hin Keong intervened at the annual ITTO conference today to voice his concern over the continued failure of the ITTO to monitor the Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) practices being conducted by ITTO nations. He also urged the council to provide a new status review on its progress in achieving International Timber Trade Agreement (ITTA) objectives.

The ITTO was established in 1986, with the aim of promoting the conservation of tropical forest resources and their sustainable management, use and trade. These objectives were based upon the original 1983 International Tropical Timber Agreement (ITTA) (updated in 1994 & 2006), which guided the organisation in implementing sustainable practices in member nations.

Mr Keong began by citing the EIA’s report into “serious issues about illegal logging and timber trade”. The report in question, published on 10th November revealed the damage being caused by the Cameroon-Vietnam timber trade.

In the investigation, EIA undercover investigators discovered the widespread violation of Cameroonian export laws, tax fraud and labour violations, including the abuse of Cameroonian workers “paid less than seven dollars a day”.

This report was mirrored by a similar BBC publication several days later. Which revealed the Indonesian government was allowing the South Korean firm Korindo to convert massive areas of concession forest to palm oil plantations massive, with the suspected use of illegal slash and burn techniques. A subsequent FSC report revealed “”evidence beyond reasonable doubt” that Korindo’s palm oil operation destroyed 30,000 hectares of high conservation forest in breach of FSC regulations”.

In response, Mr Keong urged for a new approach to be taken by the ITTO towards examining the implementation of SFM practices. To start Mr Keong stated that: “These reports should all be considered in totality. Jobs, revenue, livelihood, cultural integrity and sustainability of the resource and supply should not be looked at in isolation”.

This call for action from Mr Keong included a declaration that the: “key challenge should not only be focused on technical forestry aspects; we cannot leave the problems of SFM to the foresters and technicians at the forest level”. Also, that the council should “address the elephant in the room – where, what and why is SFM falling behind?”

Mr Keong further accentuated the disappointment felt by CSAG that the “report on the Biennial work programme for 2021-2022 has dropped the…Status of tropical forest management 2019 report”. Mr Keong stated that he felt “an up-to-date status report would help guide ITTO to see where the organisation is at, as ITTO works towards achieving its ITTA objectives”.

Previously, the ITTO had published a report on the progress of meeting ITTA sustainable management objectives every ten years. Many participating nations and industry members viewed this report as having an important role in maintaining interest and engagement in meeting the established objectives.

However Mr Keong wondered “would the status report give such a negative picture on SFM in tropical countries, that decision makers and politicians in the donor countries would raise their hands and say, since there is limited progress, why should we give more money to ITTO?”

On the other hand, Mr Keong allowed that this view may be too cynical and the failure to move forward with the report may be simply a matter of other priorities taking precedence as there is limited funds. (A view which seems more realistic as the status report was dropped from the work plan because no donor agency was willing to pledge financial support, not because producers were unwilling to be assessed).

Mr Keong also ended on an encouraging note. He urged donors to contribute towards the publication of a new ITTO status review, for which “CSAG would be more than willing to work with ITTO members, council and the donor community to carry out the status assessment”, in order to “know how far we have come, so we can chart where and how far we need to go to meet our SFM goals for the common good”.

Mr Keong has good reason to highlight continuing reports of malpractice from the likes of EIA which, alongside the evidence of still high tropical deforestation rates, strongly imply that ITTO has largely failed to achieve its founding objectives.

Over the last 30 years, ITTO has suffered, at times, from poor leadership, management failures, and a lack of strategic long-term thinking. But it is too easy just to lay the blame at the door of the international organisation which is itself a member organisation, comprising the governments of both tropical timber producer and consumer countries. Ultimately, it is these members that are at fault.

Producer governments have largely failed to deliver against the public commitments made to sustainable forest management in the ITTA over thirty years ago. Consumer governments are at fault for becoming largely disengaged from the process of actively supporting sustainable management of natural tropical forest for timber at an early stage, taking fright at the criticism from western environmental groups and their own domestic wood industries, and as a result starving ITTO of funds. This at a time when support for tropical forestry is, apparently, at the top the political agenda judging by the regular pronouncements of western leaders as a key component of the response to the climate emergency.

Against this background, Mr Keong’s call for donor governments to pledge a relatively small amount of money now for preparation of a report to provide a full, independent appraisal of how far the movement towards sustainable forest management has progressed in the ten years since the last report in 2010 seems timely.

During this period, there have been major developments, through initiatives such as FLEGT, the widespread introduction of Timber Legality Assurance Systems in producer countries and due diligence requirements in consumer countries, preparations for REDD, moratorium’s on forest conversion in some countries, changes in forest certification systems like FSC and PEFC, and new innovative forms of forest monitoring through use of remote sensing. There have also been widespread reports of devastating forest fires and illegal logging in countries.

Now is the time to take stock. For ITTO a new SFM status report would be an opportunity to work out where it’s priorities should lie and the contribution that it can make on the ground and in the broader policy arena. The current director-general Gerhard Dieterle, who it was agreed at the ITTO meeting will end his term of office during 2021, has put in place some of the key building blocks to turn ITTO into a more effective organisation. He has attempted to streamline the Japanese headquarters and central administration, and to ensure that the disparate range of on-ground forest projects managed by ITTO are better co-ordinated to deliver against specific strategic goals.

A new status report would be of enormous value to any incoming director-general seeking to build on this solid foundation and who will be challenged to encourage much greater positive engagement in ITTO by producer and consumer governments alike.

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