Wed, 09 Jul 2003

Preservation of Asia's forests: A global hurdle

Takeshi Toma, Senior Scientist,, Greg Clough, Communications Specialist Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor,

"Think global, act local" is an oft-heard marketing catchphrase. But it applies just as well to a recent joint Japanese-Indonesian initiative to improve sustainable forest management in Asia.

Governments across Asia face many challenges in their forestry sectors. These include combating illegal forest activities, controlling forest fires, and rehabilitating degraded forest lands. Crucial to solving these problems is greater cooperation across the region and, ultimately, around the world.

An important step in this direction was the establishment of the Asia Forest Partnership (AFP) at last year's World Summit on Sustainable Development. AFP delegates from more than 10 countries are meeting in Yogyakarta this week to examine the kinds of regional and global actions -- rather than purely national initiatives -- needed to preserve Indonesia's remaining tropical rainforests.

This is good news not just for Indonesia but for the world, which derive enormous benefits from having pristine rainforests to provide a habitat for rare species and absorb immense amounts of carbon dioxide, thus slowing down global warming.

Forests help us in so many ways. They keep our water clean and provide soil nutrients and forage for crops and livestock. They also help to reduce soil erosion, pollinate plants and provide protection from the elements.

Forests are the most diverse ecosystems on land, holding the vast majority of the world's terrestrial species. Indonesia's forests alone hold 11 percent of the world's plant species, 10 percent of its animal species and 16 percent of its bird species.

But these forests are also an important source of livelihood. Timber, pulpwood, firewood, fodder, meat, cash crops, fish and medicinal plants from the forest help sustain hundreds of millions of the world's rural poor -- many of whom live in Asia. Yet only a fraction of known animal and plant species have been examined for potential medicinal, agricultural or industrial value. Meanwhile the world's forests are falling down around us.

Certainly, considerable work on sustainable forest management is underway in Asia. Governments, international organizations, non governmental organizations, industry and other stakeholders are now making major contributions. Yet serious obstacles continue to hamper efforts by governments, business and civil society in Asia to achieve sustainable management and conservation of forests. As a result the extent and quality of forests continue to decline, opportunities for poverty alleviation are lost, and economic growth is slowed down.

One of the biggest obstacles has been the poor flow of information between stakeholders. All too often forestry departments, NGOs and donors implement worthwhile projects but fail to share their findings with each other. Efforts to improve communications and information sharing will need to be looked at very closely by AFP delegates this week in Yogyakarta. This is the single most important action of any cooperative effort to overcome trans-national problems.

The Ministry of Forestry has undertaken a number of positive steps to combat some of the problems faced in the forest sector. It is trying to reduce the over capacity in the timber industry that puts so much pressure on forests and encourages illegal logging. It is implementing social forestry measures to allow local communities greater say in how their forests are managed. And it has banned the export of logs.

But the causes of many of the problems in the forest sector often take place beyond the reach of the government. This is why multilateral initiatives like AFP are so important, as are bilateral initiatives such as the recent joint announcement by Indonesia and Japan to fight the entry of illegal logs from Indonesia. Similar agreements have also been signed with the United Kingdom and China.

China imports some 27 percent of Indonesia's timber output, with Japan importing 22 percent and the U.S. 9 percent. Where there is demand there will always be supply -- legal or otherwise. In Indonesia's case, it is estimated more than three times the government's allowable cut per year is exported to other countries.

It may seem unfair to blame the importing countries. After all, how are they to know if the timber they buy is legal or not? Sorry, in this age of digital technology, databases and spy-in- the-sky handycams, that argument just doesn't wash. It is the responsibility of the importers, especially those in the developed world, to make it their business to know where their timber comes from. Just as it is the responsibility of consumers in developed countries to be more environmentally aware in their shopping purchases.

Inter-government measures such as AFP will help this process in a number of ways. These include developing systems for verifying Indonesian timber products imported into Japan. Such measures might involve monitoring forest harvesting through satellite imagery and implementing timber tracking systems and timber product certification schemes. And to ensure consumers are more enlightened, AFP will work with both industry and NGOs to promote public awareness programs.

At the hometown end of the global-local spectrum, governments themselves will have to work closely with their own constituencies. They will need to encourage greater involvement of civil society in monitoring efforts to curb illegal practices. They will particularly need to improve forest law enforcement.

It would be naive to think measures such as these are going to solve Indonesia's forest problems overnight. And it would be arrogant to suggest other countries can do the job for Indonesia. The key word is "partnership".

With AFP's 14 government partners from around the world and the close involvement of organizations like the Bogor-based Center for International Forestry Research and The Nature Conservancy in the U.S., we are finally seeing forest problems tackled from both sides of the equation -- from the point of demand and from the source of supply.

But national, regional and international concerns are not focused only on the trade in illegally cut timber and other forest products. Governments and NGOs are concerned about a range of forest issues. These include the spread of fire in previously fire resistant areas, the invasion of exotic pests that impede natural regeneration, the use of harmful logging practices, and the need to restore degraded lands to productivity and conservation value.

Overcoming these problems is going to require an enormous cooperative effort. Governments will need to work together in sharing satellite information on fires, sharing skills in implementing reduced impact logging strategies, and learning from each other about how to best restore degraded lands and manage secondary forests.

Although it is only early days yet, multilateral and bilateral approaches to help deal with the Indonesia's forest problems may well become a model for dealing with forests problems elsewhere, such as in the Thailand and the Philippines. It is too much to expect developing countries to solve these problems on their own, especially when developed nations are often complicit in causing the problems in the first place. Thinking globally, acting locally may just be the solution.