Manuel Rodriguez Becerra

Chair of UN forests forum wants talk turned to action

By: Steven Ambrus. EcoAméricas | May 2005

Manuel Rodríguez Becerra chairs this year’s U.N. Forum on Forests (UNFF), which was slated to convene this month in New York. The forum, established in October 2000, is the world’s top policy body on forests, bringing together hundreds of government, multilateral and non-governmental representatives. This year’s session was expected to be testy due to discontent over the international community’s failure to meet goals spelled out by two former UN bodies—the International Panel on Forests (IPF) and the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF), which set forest policy from 1995-2000. But Rodríguez appears prepared for the challenge. As general manager of Colombia’s former environmental policy-making body, Inderena, from 1990-93 and as Colombia’s first environment minister in 1994, he played a prominent role in designing the country’s environmental institutions and has written widely about environmental policy. And in 1995 and 1997, he served as chairman of the IFF. Rodríguez talked to EcoAméricas correspondent Steven Ambrus in Bogotá about the forum, Latin American forests and palm plantations.

What do you see as the Forum’s key issues this year?

The biggest criticism of the Forum is that it is a talk shop without action. Critics allege a lack of international cooperation. They talk about a failure to transfer funds and technology to the developing world and help forest communities eradicate poverty through sustainable management. Some of these criticisms are valid. If we don’t advance in negotiating effective international agreements, we will face a serious loss of credibility, and forest issues will drop to a second tier of importance. A treaty is only worthwhile if there is political commitment and it has teeth. Some conventions, like the 1987 Montreal Protocol [on protecting the ozone layer] have had that force. Most are quite ineffective. Many forestry goals can be achieved by other means. [But] up to now, there hasn’t been a single international agreement, whether legally binding or not, that has been backed by the political commitment needed to reduce deforestation rates, restore degraded forests or recognize the rights of traditional forest communities. Such agreements would send a very positive signal. When there’s a high-level agreement, governments feel pressure from their citizens. And multilateral institutions could deny funds to governments that don’t fulfill their promises.

What else needs to be done?

In 2001, the UN established the Collaborative Partnership on Forests to support the work of the Forum and increase cooperation and coordination on forest issues. The Partnership has 14 members, including the World Bank, the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN). It needs to be strengthened because these are the institutions with the financial, human and technical capability to put the Forum’s policies into action. One possibility among many is to create a fund to assist the various organizations’ projects.

Overall, what is the state of Latin American forests?

It’s difficult to say because there isn’t any reliable data in Latin America about forest destruction. Colombia, for example, continually has changed its estimates. There’s also a problem of interpretation. You can have satellite images of forest cover, but they don’t tell you about the health of the forest and the extent of species extinction. Still, I think the most dramatic case is Haiti, which is completely deforested. It is a sad example of what could happen in the rest of the continent if deforestation patterns continue.

Are there countries you would single out for effective forest policy?

Costa Rica has developed interesting economic incentives, including watershed conservation payments and carbon sequestration. This was a country that was extremely deforested, with only 20% of its forest cover left. Now it expects to have half its territory reforested in the not-too-distant future, in part because of a booming ecotourism business.

How about using forests to fight poverty?

The idea of forests as a panacea for poverty is fashionable, but has little scientific basis. It really depends on the kind of forest. There are forests that serve that purpose and others that don’t, like those situated on steep slopes where sustainable production is almost impossible. What’s crucial is the legal recognition of the rights of traditional communities to the forests and their products, whether that be sustainably harvested wood, medicines, resins etcetera.

Should forest conservation, regeneration or monoculture projects be allowed to earn carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)?

Many favor including natural forests in the CDM, believing [sales of greenhouse gas-reduction credits] would reward their conservation and keep them safe. I’m also in favor. But there’s a big debate as to whether mature primary forests capture CO2. And they’re not included in the CDM. The CDM’s executive board has yet to approve a single forestry project. But regenerating forests is a promising prospect, and new-growth forests have their role. Still, monocultures should never replace primary or natural forests, though it is better in terms of biodiversity to have monoculture—which in some cases can reproduce the structure of a secondary forest—than to leave the land as pasture.

Concerning monoculture, what about the African palm plantations in Colombia that have generated such controversy—especially in Chocó? (See Centerpiece—this issue.)

What’s happening in Chocó is terrible. Apart from the displacement of communities, there is significant destruction of primary forest and loss of fauna. But most palm cultivation in Colombia occurs in places already highly altered by agriculture and cattle ranching. And studies show there is plenty of land for expanding palm [cultivation] without destroying natural forest. The ideal is organic production and “polyculture” that uses agro-forestry to grow other crops like fruits, plantains and cacao within fragments of still-existing forest. Plantations have many advantages over pasture and cropland. If well designed, they can also prevent erosion and preserve watersheds.