1 February 2000



NEW YORK, 31 January (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette"s address today in New York to the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF):

I would like to thank the Co-chairmen of the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests for their kind invitation to address this fourth session of the Forum. You meet at an important moment not only for the future of forests, but also for our overall quest to make the much-needed transition to sustainable development. This meeting can help get that effort off to a good start in the new millennium. You can help make a decisive turn away from "business as usual".

The verdict on business as usual is in: it is not likely to lead to sustainable development in the near future. That was the conclusion of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) recent "Global Environment Outlook 2000" report. Despite some encouraging trends and new approaches, from a global perspective, progress is too slow. Environmental problems and unsustainable practices remain deeply embedded in the socio-economic fabric of nations in all parts of the world. Governance structures for the environment and related issues remain weak. The not-at-all surprising result is that the environment has continued to deteriorate during the past decade -- notwithstanding the popular and political momentum generated by the Earth Summit in Rio, and notwithstanding new and legally binding international conventions on key issues such as biodiversity, desertification and climate change.

Scientists may have concluded that global warming is a fact of life. But governments and many other key actors are only gradually warming to the idea, much less the practice, of sustainable development. Some are actively hostile to it. Despite some expressions of goodwill, they are not yet convinced that it is possible to reconcile environment and development, economy and ecology, the needs of today with those of tomorrow.

That is where your work comes in. And that is why I hope that even as you negotiate the finer points of sustainable forest management and discuss the value of traditional forest-related knowledge, you will keep the largest possible picture in mind. To those who look at environmental problems in isolation from each other, or who see only obstacles littering our path, your deliberations can be an example -- in process and outcome alike.

The world has long recognized that forests provide an array of economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits. So it is quite natural that the alarming rates of deforestation and, in turn, the loss of these benefits, have made forests a high priority on national, regional and global policy and political agendas. Those negotiations have travelled a rather rocky road. At first, government positions were highly polarized along the North-South axis. Emotional and even violent confrontations have occurred on forest lands themselves. Despite such tensions, negotiators managed to produce an agreement on "forest principles" at Rio in 1992. More recently, nations have stepped across the political and economic divide to build confidence and to foster consensus.

One reason for this more constructive atmosphere has been the co-chairmanship of the IFF process by representatives of a developing and developed country. Let me take this opportunity to thank Ambassador Bagher Asadi of Iran and Ambassador Ilkka Ristimaki of Finland for their dedicated efforts to nurture deliberations on many complex and sensitive issues.

United Nations agencies have also reached out beyond their traditional turfs and thematic areas to establish a high-level interagency task force on forests. David Harcharik, Deputy Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), merits our recognition for his able chairmanship of this task force. The secondment of experts and other in-kind support from the multilateral agencies who are members of the task force has enabled us to rapidly assemble a Secretariat team to facilitate your work. Last, but far from least, the involvement of non-governmental organizations has greatly enriched this Forum’s work.

The result is a new perspective on forests and new approaches to the sustainable management of all types of forests. You have avoided formulating an overly academic and precise definition of sustainable forest management, but rather have chosen to be flexible in light of national and regional realities. You have cultivated an understanding that forests should no longer be considered solely as "nature’s wood factories", but rather as living ecosystems providing diverse environmental benefits and other services. And you have emphasized the value of traditional forest-related knowledge. Taken together, these aspects of your work have generated political and scientific momentum for forest conservation and sustainable forest management. Many countries, both developing and developed, are formulating or updating their national forest programmes. The implementation of those plans is now among our highest priorities. The great strides we have made in diagnosing the problems and understanding the issues must now be matched by action. It is time for a more aggressive course of treatment.

The consensus on forest issues that has been reached thus far is an important achievement, especially considering the distance that had to be travelled when negotiators first got down to work. You must now go further and consolidate that consensus in some kind of permanent institutional arrangement. Ad hoc arrangements, such as the IFF and its predecessor, the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests, have been vitally important, but ad hoc arrangements are not enough to maintain momentum towards sustainable forest management. Nor do they reflect the significance of forest issues within the wider international environment and development agendas. Indeed, the state of the world’s forest and other wooded lands is intimately connected with human well-being in the broadest sense, not only in forest-rich countries but in those that are forest-poor; not only in rural areas but in cities and towns. This fact creates several requirements for whatever future institutional arrangements you decide upon.

Any such arrangement must, for example, ensure wide participation for the many groups with legitimate interests in forest issues. A process that is open, transparent and inclusive will enable you to move ahead on the basis of a shared vision and agenda.

It must also be able to create synergies among the multitude of instruments and institutions that are involved with forest issues. There are literally dozens of organizations and dozens of agreements that have important connections with your work, and you should seek to take advantage of the various comparative strengths that already exist.

Future institutional arrangements must also be of sufficient strength and status to project the authority and commitment needed to implement sustainable forest management and, not least, mobilize resources -- financing and technology -- for the task.

Your decisions on these arrangements and mechanisms will have implications far beyond the forest sector. Indeed, the forest sector is not only a key component of sustainable development, it is in important respects a microcosm of sustainable development. Like sustainable development as a whole, forest issues are very complex. They are politically sensitive. They involve cross-sectoral policy harmonization at the national, regional and global levels. They require long-term political commitment. For those at work in other key areas, your actions can serve as a model.

That is a heavy responsibility for you to bear. But nobody ever claimed that finding the path of sustainable development would be easy. It requires innovation and imagination -- not only scientific and technological, but political as well. Entrenched interests will have to change their ways. Antagonists will have to compromise. We must all recognize, in this as in so many other issues, that the collective interest is the national interest. Indeed, safeguarding the world’s forests and the global environment is a quintessential global challenge. As we look to the future -- at a future replete with peace and security challenges, the persistence of poverty and discrimination -- the continuing crisis of the global environment may yet prove to be the biggest challenge of all.

I began my talk by sounding rather grim. Let me conclude on a more optimistic note. I do so not only because I am an optimist, but because we have learned that doom scenarios -- such as forecasting an imminent collapse of the earth's environment -- do not inspire people or governments to change their ways and can even be politically counter-productive. Moreover, the big picture I asked you to keep in mind also includes reasons for hope.

International cooperation continues to intensify. Public participation has expanded, including new guarantees for public access to information. Legal frameworks, economic instruments, environmentally sound technologies and cleaner production processes have been developed and applied.

Major private-sector enterprises are becoming more and more engaged on the side of sustainability, not just as a matter of good public relations, but of good business; just this month, the Ford Motor Company has dropped its involvement in a coalition opposed to the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, saying it wanted "to be a leader in the second industrial revolution -- the clean revolution".

And in several developing countries, the rate of environmental degradation has been slower than that experienced by industrial countries when they were at a similar stage of economic development.

Experts agree the next few decades will be decisive. We should not wait for a major calamity, public health crisis or even war over water to focus our minds. We have the tools now to secure our future. Do we have the will? Let us show that we do. For the sake of the world’s forests, of all people around the world who depend on them for economic and environmental well-being and for all other sectors concerned with sustainable development, I wish you success in your deliberations.

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