At the end of UNFF1 (first session of United Nations Forum on Forests) in June 2001, NGOs and Indigenous Peoples Organizations (IPOs) decided that the real test for the UNFF would be in 2002 when the new Forum would address substantive issues instead of process and operational questions. The time came and UNFF2 was held. However, after two weeks of listening to rhetorical statements by governmental delegates and the usual deadlocks over trade and a Forest Convention, civil society organisations and indigenous peoples are totally disillusioned and have little or no expectations that the Forum will move beyond the stagnated and polarised dialogue that hindered the end of the previous Intergovernmental Forum on Forests' process.
NGOs and IPOs were also extremely disappointed by the 'Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue' held parallel to the meeting. Prior to UNFF 2, NGOs had volunteered to promote a genuinely participatory process and requested co-Chairing by a 'Major Group' representative to ensure that issues raised by NGOs and IPOs would be brought to the plenary. The suggestion was rebuffed and the stodgy meeting that ensued stimulated little real debate. The resulting Chairman's report omitted any mention of the main concerns NGOs and IPOs had raised, just as they had feared. The commitments to Major Group participation made at Rio have proven worthless.
At the end of this session, the UNFF has failed to produce anything new or concrete and its only output --the ministerial message to the World Summit on Sustainable Development-- is weak. NGOs and IPOs are of the view that the ministerial declaration is simply "not worthy of a world summit." Furthermore, it was the negotiation of that message that bogged down the whole meeting with governments haggling over and watering down its contents right up until the day before the Ministerial session. Regrettably, the lowest common demoninator ruled the day and the statement contains nothing of substance and simply reiterates government commitments made ten years ago at Rio. The statement does not even mention the urgent need to tackle the underlying causes of deforesation and forest degradation!
Moreover, the message contains worrying elements that may mean bad news for forest peoples. The need to increase "enforcement" of forest and protected areas laws is stressed without any cautionary note --despite repeated concerns raised that often laws deny the rights of local people and that consequently such statements must be qualified to ensure that laws are consistent with the respect of local peoples' human rights.
Some of the discussions were bizarre. At one stage, New Zealand claimed that felling natural forest to establish plantations could not be construed as "deforestation" or "forest conversion" and that the assertion in the Secretary General's paper, which reports that half of all plantations have been established at the expense of natural forests, was not objective! Thankfully, the intervention was roundly rejected by the chair and by most delegates (NGOs were on the verge of walking out until they were sure this ridiculous and outrageous intervention had been rebuffed). In the end, the final text does at least stress that plantations should not be established at the expense of forests and biodiversity and that forest restoration must take account of land tenure and resource rights. Those are about the only positive points in the whole set of documents!
NGOs and IPOs all agree that the second session has been a dismal failure because the discussion has lacked focus and delegates have slipped back into the old vices of negotiating text --instead of making commitments to practical action-orientated steps to promote implementation of international agreements on forests and forest peoples.
NGOs and IPOs are so disappointed with UNFF 2 that they face a dilemma about further engagement with this backward looking Forum. All NGOs will be returning and consulting with their constituencies about strategy and the cost/benefits of spending further time and money on the UNFF. If some do decide to continue participating, it is certain this will be on the strict understanding that things must radically change.
It is time for the UNFF to wake up and move with the times if it is to at least have any credibility. This Forum must realize that its mandate is to make things happen to protect the Earth's vanishing forests. If this does not happen, then it will be the UNFF that will vanish into oblivion.
Article based on information from: Preliminary Report by the Forest Peoples Programme on UNFF 2, New York, 15 March 2002.