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Southeast Asia's Forest Fires

Published by CNN Interactive on 2000-01-01

In the tropical forests of the developing world, the burning season rarely ends. And while the fires rage--consuming 30 million acres annually--the global and local bureaucrats entrusted with protecting the earth's biodiversity fiddle away opportunities to develop an effective program to implement sustainable forest management. Last week, in the wake of tragic fires in Indonesia, many of them wailed that they lacked a meaningful forestry convention to strengthen their hand in combatting environmental disasters. Their complaint would have been more credible were it not for the fact that 52 international agreements on the environment, and scores more of national laws, already exist--some dating back to the beginning of the century when "environment" was simply a noun, not a movement with a powerful hierarchy and special priorities.

Sustainable forest management has not been among those priorities, notwithstanding all those flashy pop concerts in support of Brazilian rainforests. It's far more fashionable in the environmental community to rail against automobile emissions and industrial pollution. Wildlife conservation is an even sexier cause. The international environmental movement is dominated by well-funded groups lodged in the North where deforestation isn't exactly a pressing issue--which may explain why the whole business of sustainable forest management has received less than top billing in the chancelleries of power where environmentalists break bread with policy-makers.

Even at major United Nations conferences such as the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, forestry has received short shrift. Developing countries, anxious to accelerate their economic growth and adamant about "national sovereignty," have resisted calls from the industrialized nations to control their clear-cutting and logging practices; some 60 percent of the world's 8 billion acres of forests are in the developing world. And so the world's diplomats have continued doing what diplomats generally do most: they have agreed to keep talking--at elaborate meetings hosted regularly by rich countries. Next week, for example, diplomats will gather in New York to rechristen the international effort to adopt a forestry convention. What was, since 1995, the impotent Intergovernmental Panel on Forests, is scheduled to become the Intergovermental Forum on Forests. New identity, identical prospects.

Does that mean that unlike, say, "climate change" (which will be debated at an international conference in Kyoto, Japan, in December), sustainable forest management is doomed to stay off the global environmental agenda? Will the issue only grab international attention when major fires flare? The sorry record of the international community certainly suggests so, but here are some points that both diplomats and environmentalists might do well to consider:

_ Deforestation isn't only an ecological issue. Some 70 percent of people living in the 127 countries of the developing world rely on wood for fuel. That is because, 50 years after the rich countries started transferring large amounts of cash and technology to promote "development" in poor countries, energy is still in short supply in developing nations. Unless the root cause of underdevelopment--crippling poverty--is addressed through wider education, better health-care and accelerated job creation especially in rural areas, environmental degradation will deepen. Deforestation should a high priority for those engaged in sustainable human development issues.

_ Deforestation in developing countries will eventually affect the global economy. The international trade in forest products is currently around $115 billion annually. Forests in countries such as Indonesia are cleared by big corporations in order to plant pulpwood and palm oil trees, but such clearing is rarely the result of proper land-use policies. Tage Michaelsen, a Dane who advises the U.N. on forestry, contends that deforestation means "disinvestment in land, and lowering of land values in the long run." In many parts of the world, there's a shortage of timber that can be attributed to the unsustainable rate of logging in the last two decades. Reforestation, on the other hand, promotes indigenous agriculture and employment in rural regions. One Southeast Asian plywood entrepreneur, in a questionable conversion-on-the Road-to-Damascus, has even declared himself an environmentalist, funneling large sums of money into prestigious American scientific organizations possibly in the hope of buying into good karma. Developing countries may realize large revenues in the short run, but their deforestation practices are clearly short-sighted. They need to develop thoughtful land-use programs, and put in place adequate monitoring and reporting procedures.

_ International resolutions on the environment cannot be effectively implemented unless the sustainable development constituency is broadened. This means that global organizations and local authorities must invite more nongovernmental groups, indigenous people, and scientists, to participate in the formulation of environmental and developmental policies. Much too often, warm fuzzy concepts such as "sustainable development" which sound good in the chambers of diplomacy don't resonate too well at the grassroots because everyday people just don't understand their relevance. "Good environmental protection should be synonymous with people's economic well-being," says Dr. Steve Howard of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). "We're not saying, 'Don't start plantations.' Just regulate them so that we don't destroy nature's bounty. You've got to get people to believe that environmental protection is in their self-interest." Unfortunately, world leaders mouth comforting words at international parleys about global economic progress but seldom focus on local environmental protection once they return home.

The inadequacies of world leaders and global bureaucracies on forestry and related environmental questions have not, happily, meant that no progress is being achieved in sustainable forest management. The not-for profit WWF, for example, has launched a program to establish a network of protected areas covering at least 10 percent of the world's forests in the next three years. Some 20 countries--but not Indonesia or Brazil--have signed on to this program, with the Sakha Republic committing itself to protecting an astonishing 70,000 square kilometers, or 25 percent of its forested area. A few other groups such as the Rainforest Alliance and Conservation International are also actively engaged in forest preservation.

But these are organizations headquartered in the industrialized countries of the West. Their good will, enthusiasm and energy are often perceived in poor countries as flowing from a modern-day equivalent of missionary zeal. Some of these Western environmentalists are even dismissed by their developing-country counterparts as "greentroopers." The real effort on sustainable forest management must come from developing countries themselves. They, after all, have the biggest stake in ensuring that the burning season is contained.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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