Dialogue on Forests, Governance and Climate

Speech by Stephen O'Brien to the Dialogue on Forests, Governance and Climate Change.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Sir Stephen O’Brien

Ladies and gentlemen - it is a pleasure to contribute to today’s Dialogue on Forests, Governance and Climate Change. From Dr Arvind Khare’s summary, it sounds as if it was a lively debate.

Before I add a few words of my own, I wish to reiterate the warm welcome extended this morning by my colleague, Greg Barker, Minister of State in the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change. I know that many of you have travelled very great distances to be here, and I am grateful for all of the effort that has gone into making the Dialogue a success.

Today’s Dialogue comes at a key time with the launch last week by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon of the International Year of “Forests for People”. This year, of all years, will give us the opportunity to demonstrate how forests matter - domestically and internationally.

The discussions today and the new report launched by the Rights and Resources Initiative, are yet further evidence of the importance of forests - not just to the people who live in and around them - but to all of us.

Arvind’s summary points to (a) the need to focus on what is really happening on the ground and base our decision on that reality; (b) that forest governance is key, and (c) we need to fill some of these gaps before the next climate meeting in Durban.

The Dialogue sets us two challenges as we move into 2011.

First, can we find new ways to reconcile the many competing demands on forests - for wood, for food, for fuel, as well as for biodiversity and reduced emissions from deforestation.  

And second, as forests and forest land increase in value, how to ensure that poor, forest-dependent indigenous and local communities are not at risk of losing out?

Communities successfully manage forests in many places. In Guatemala, as the Director General Juan Manuel Torres Rojo of Mexico is aware, the Peten is the largest area of sustainably certified tropical forests managed by communities in the world. They - the Peten-dwellers - have clear rights over valuable forest resources - wood, ornamental leaves, fruits, gums - and they trade these with international business partners. Because the forest has a daily value, the communities also protect the forest’s biodiversity from fire, illegal logging and deforestation.

And they protect the carbon it stores, with management practices that are preserving the forest’s potential to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere.

The Peten-dwellers form part of a huge “corridor” of forest communities stretching from Central America down to the Amazon, who have organised together to take advantage of the benefits forests can provide, including from the scheme for Reduced Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation - REDD+

But protecting forests where rights over resources are insecure or unclear is a risky business. 

I come from a private sector background my self, and was in the manufacturing industry before becoming a politician. I was born in Tanzania and raised in Kenya so I know that clear property rights provide certainty for enterprises and poor communities in developing countries. This is important when it comes to accessing finance or making investments that generate returns over the long run - and forests will generate significant returns if they are well managed and under secure tenure.

The Dialogue today has covered important issues about risks. I would like to focus our attention jointly on tackling the underlying causes of risk.  That way we can sustain progress. 

There are three key areas on which we need jointly to focus our attention.

One is improving the way forests are governed, to bring greater opportunities for those that depend on forest resources for a living.

For example, in Nepal 40% of households are members of well organised forest user groups and, as a result, have increased their incomes by over 50% over the past 5 years.

The UK has supported this effort. Sustained commitment over two decades by the Government of Nepal and the user groups has also been critical to success.

The second area of focus must be legal systems: it is only when forest laws are coherent, clear and publicly disclosed that they can be understood by all. But they will only be complied with, if all stakeholders understand what laws mean for them. 

If compliance with forest laws is independently monitored, with mechanisms for resolving disputes, this creates conditions that are good not just for forest communities, but also for business.

In Indonesia the UK is supporting independent forest monitoring or “legality assurance” by civil society as well as government.

If the laws that regulate the use and clearance of forests are not clear, then it is difficult to establish projects or enterprises to sell forest carbon, timber or tourism. This constrains livelihood opportunities. It leads to illegal logging and forest clearance. It means governments, local as well as national, lose out on revenues and taxes from legal forest enterprises.

A recent report by Chatham House shows that as illegal logging reduced $6.5 billion tax revenue was saved in countries with cash-strapped exchequers where forest governance has improved. Reduced illegal logging has also reduced greenhouse carbon emissions.

The UK has been in the vanguard of efforts to build forest governance. We are working in Ghana, Liberia, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia to help them strengthen their forest governance. We are looking to expand our support further.

This is because improving forest governance is a cost effective way of cutting greenhouse gases. At a cost of £2 or less per tonne of carbon, it is one of the cheapest methods. Forest governance will be the keystone to delivering all kinds of benefits from forests - including, as my colleague Greg Barker from DECC indicated this morning, successful reductions in emissions from deforestation and degradation.

This brings me to the third area where we all need urgently to be focusing attention - trade.  In 2011 progress on forest issues will not just be about development policy or about forest nations it will also, crucially, be about trade. Consumers will play a role. Buyers’ markets are changing and demanding standards. They wish to be confident that the products they buy are legal; that they are not produced using dodgy and damaging practices; that they do not undermine the rights and livelihoods of indigenous and local communities; and that they are sustainable and do not drive deforestation.

To this end, the UK is working, not just with the timber trade, but also international companies investing in paper, palm oil, soy, beef and leather, to review the business practices that drive deforestation.

The new European Illegal Timber Regulation that recently came into force in December makes first sale in the EU of timber that has been illegally harvested elsewhere, an offence.

The UK is supporting Indonesia to develop a Timber Legality Assurance System -TLAS - that will reduce the risks that any timber it exports is illegal. The palm oil sector is looking at what lessons it can apply from this approach.

By tackling underlying causes we “safeguard” the livelihoods of local communities who depend on forests for their food, fodder, fuel, wood and medicines.

We also ensure that investments, domestic as much as foreign, whether in agriculture or forest conservation or REDD+, are based on the principles and standards of sound business.

Not  risky business.

We are far from the forests here. Dialogue brings those of us with a stake in forests together, to freely exchange views and information, and build understanding across different parties. 

Today’s event is part of an ongoing Dialogue that will allow us to focus on all the areas which require urgent attention, if we are to protect the world’s forests and improve the livelihoods of communities that rely on forests.

I’ll end here, and thank you all again for your contributions. I’m looking forward to a successful 2011 - the International Year of Forests for People - something this Dialogue has been all about.

Thank you.

Updates to this page

Published 9 February 2011