Antoni's Wire Service

Date: Thu, 22 Apr 1999 12:59:27 -0300
From: Antoni Wysocki
To: Antoni's Wire Service
Subject: World Forest Commission reports


On Monday, April 18 a high profile panel, which included in its roster such notables as the head of the UN Environment Program and a former Prime Minister of Sweden, released its findings on the state of the globe's forests. In its report 'Our Forests...Our Future' the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development acknowledged that the situation is already very grave and without radical change will soon be beyond help. However, the Commission also emphasised that it is not yet too late to halt and even reverse the devestation of the better part of the planet's remaining forests.

Refreshingly, in a sharp departure from the neoliberal approach which has become characteristic of other development agents such as the World Bank and the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the Forest Commission does not envisage a significant expansion of the role of transnational firms. To the contrary 'Our Forests' enjoins greater intervention by the public sector - and on behalf of citizens, not business enterprises. Thus Emil Salim, one of the co-chairs of the Commission, notes : "We estimate that one billion of the world's poorest people in about 30 heavily deforested countries would be alleviated from poverty if given government support for managing neighboring public forest land and sharing the benefits within their communities." 'Our Forests' outlines several measures intended to ensure that forest-dwellers themselves are able to shape the agenda of their governments.

While commendable such an orientation is open to challenge as quixotic. For one, the US has already revealed that it will press for liberalisation of wood products at the World Trade Organization negotiations in Seattle this fall; if successful this will further reduce the scope of government action on forests permitted under WTO disciplines. For another, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) routinely sanction the clearing of forest to make room for cashcropping agribusiness which can obtain the foreign exchange necessary for nations to pay off their foreign debt. Some might question the extent to which the people-empowering protocols proposed by the Forest Commission will have meaning in many of the target states, such as those in the Saharan region, given the degree of political oppression in these countries.

Apparently anticipating these difficulties the Commission stresses the need to "get the price of forests right." A chill went through me on first seeing this phrase as it is an infamous slogan of the Structural Adjustment Programs of the IMF. However, the precept appears to be understood in very different ways by the twain : to the IMF it implies removing subsidies to domestic production and tariffs on foreign items so as to destroy import-substitution in the developing world and reduce these countries to exporters of raw materials; to the Commission the phrase means assessing forests at their true (monetary) value rather than merely for their timber yield.

The Commission proposes to accomplish this by adopting a comparator akin to the "Genuine Progress Index" being pioneered in Nova Scotia by Ron Colman (and internationally by New Zealander Marilyn Waring.) The proposed "Forest Capital Index" would take into account the multiplicity of benefits provided by standing woodlands : climate regulation; provision of biodiversity; preservation of soil integrity and so on.

Understood in this way it would be obvious to policymakers that the reckless cutting of forests is simply uneconomic and therefore contrary their interests. Presumably this would increase political will to oppose the transnational corporations and institutions which see the natural world as insignificant until liquidated as market capital for international trade. Said institutions could hardly be expected to simply roll over and play dead on this issue - particularly as it would set a precedent for the treatment of other renewable resources - but at the least a Forest Capital Index would strengthen the hand of sustainability proponents.

Ultimately I am opposed to reducing all things - especially biota - to money equivalents. Nonetheless I feel that we are such a pass that urgent action is required if we are merely to survive beyond the next few decades. Under these circumstances I support the introduction of this kind of intermediary regime where money - the only language that power speaks - is used as the medium to convey the concept that humanity is destroying the earth. If this allows us to ameliorate the destruction we will thus obtain precious time in which to strive for a more thoroughgoing transformation in values.