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Forests and climate change: the intelligence test for humanity

My impressions from the IUCN World Conservation Congress
Barcelona, 5-14 October 2008

Peter Volker
Forestry Tasmania

IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges by supporting scientific research; managing field projects all over the world; and bringing governments, NGOs, the UN, international conventions and companies together to develop policy, laws and best practice” (see

Peter Volker attended the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Spain.

Attendance at a Congress of some 8,000 people is quite a daunting experience, especially when you know only a handful of people, but the reward is meeting new people, discussing issues of common interest and learning about problems and solutions. The congress was organised into two components: a "Forum" and a "Members' Assembly".  The Forum went from Sunday to Thursday and consisted of thematic Knowledge Cafes, Alliance Workshops and other presentations.  The Cafes and Workshops were interactive sessions, so that people could share ideas and experiences.  There were over 200 in the four days, so there was no hope of getting to them all and sometimes there were clashes between those I wanted to attend.  The Members' Assembly was held over the last four days; this is the formal part of the Congress for election of office bearers, discussion of motions and adoption of the working programme for the next 4 years.

The forum was organised into a number of “Journeys” which helped to focus specialists, like me, into a programme of workshops and seminars.  Obviously I concentrated on the Forest Journey and there were other Journeys on Water, Marine, Biodiversity, Futures, Sustainable Industries and Threatened Species.  Each Journey had its own “pavilion” which quickly became a meeting place for those interested in the same topic.

Some of the main themes that came out of the forest related presentations included:

Communication and consultation with local communities: There was a number of presentations that related to community involvement in decision making about forest exploitation and development.  These were not restricted to developing countries; I went to presentations which included USA and British examples. The Forest Dialogue, based at Yale University, operates on a world basis and is seeking to address significant barriers to adoption of sustainable forest management.  In particular, it is seeking to address social conflict, environmental costs and economic benefits of Intensively Managed Plantation Forests (IMPF) in communities around the world.  So far they have held dialogue sessions in Riau, Indonesia, Guanxi, China and Vitoria, Brazil (see

Forests and Climate Change: This is obviously a hot topic around the world, probably more so for developing countries that need to develop alternative sources of income if forest exploitation is to be brought under control.  The new buzz phrase is Forest Landscape Restoration and much of this involves the use of plantations on cleared agricultural land as well as reforestation of logged areas. This is being coordinated by IUCN through the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration (see Sustainable harvesting and reforestation is seen as a viable solution to this issue and it struck me that, somehow, Australia seems to be floundering with this issue as much as any other country in the world. The World Bank is spending US$600M per year on forestry, mostly plantation developments.  We were told that an additional 20 to 25 million hectares of plantations are needed by 2025 to meet world demand for forest produce and to combat climate change.

Payment for Carbon and other Ecosystem Services: Many presenters made the point that carbon only accounts for 20 to 50% of the value of forests compared with all the other ecosystem services (ES) they can provide including water, biodiversity, erosion protection, non timber forest products.  In developed countries the carbon value is more important, but in a country like India it was only 3% of the total ES value. The issue is how to value these services and find a way of paying forest owners to provide these services in the same way as carbon is being treated.  Payments for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Destruction (REDD) will only work if the money gets to the communities that rely on the forests for part of their income.

Supporting developing nations and regions:  I was inspired by Governor Barnabus Suebu of the Indonesian Papua Province.  This man has inspired reform of the forestry sector in his province by being one of the first leaders in the world to embrace REDD initiatives.  He has applied governance reform to achieve this through decentralised forest management, transparent procurement and revenue management and increasing human capacity at all levels.  Timmy Garnett of Sierra Leone said the tackling of deforestation and climate change was an “intelligence test for humanity”.  He pointed out that impoverished people surround the vast majority of forest rich areas.  As long as they are so poor they are focussed on surviving and maintaining their livelihood – they will break every law to survive.  He said there are not enough economic incentives for rewarding good behaviour and people need to be empowered and rewarded for managing resources.  Wealthier nations have contributed to these issues, how can they support change?

Lessons for Australia
So what lessons are there in this for Australia?  Are we capable of passing the intelligence test for humanity?

It is clear to me that Australia could be a model for the rest of the world.  We have the intelligence and the resources to achieve this but do we have the will to reform?  Firstly, we have to get away from the attitude that reduction in harvesting from native forests is a good thing – as a nation we have to do our share of contributing to meeting world demand for forest produce.  Secondly, we have to get away from the ridiculous notion that afforestation on cleared land is a bad thing.  It was made clear that plantations are part of the solution to world wood demand as well as restoration of ecosystem services in degraded landscapes.  It is clear that where the primary purpose of plantations is ecosystem restoration we have to look at innovative designs including multi-species trees and understorey.  

Perhaps one thing we don’t do so well is communication and involvement with local communities.  This is partly attributable to our society’s attitude to land tenure where the individual or organisation that has tenure over the land considers it their right to manage that land without reference to neighbours, wider community or the nation.  However, on the other hand, the wider community also needs to acknowledge that it may have to recognise the contribution that these landowners make.  This is a difficult task to resolve and requires cultural and economic change.  However, we can be inspired by places such as West Papua, Costa Rica and Ghana that have achieved considerable reform.  Part of the success has been finding ways to reward landowners directly through payment for the ecosystem services they provide.  The difficulty is finding a mechanism to value the service, determining who benefits and pays and how the payments are distributed.

Issues of climate change, forest governance, impoverished communities are the major concerns of the developing world.  It’s easy for us, in a rich country like Australia, to lose sight of this.  It’s very easy for us to be concerned about illegal logging, but we have to recognise that controlling such activities is not simple and may do significant harm to individuals and communities who might rely on it as their only source of income.  It is clear that rich nations, such as ours, must help to solve these problems by encouraging good governance and alternative income streams for forest communities so that sustainable forest management is rewarded more than deforestation.  It is also important that Australia contributes a fair share of its own resources to meeting internal needs for forest products.  As one speaker said, “It’s simple and inexpensive to declare a conservation reserve but it’s far more difficult and expensive to manage it.”  An integrated approach to forest management can have benefits for wood supply, biodiversity conservation and provision of ecosystem services.  We certainly need to be more intelligent about our approach to these issues.