There are encouraging examples of improved forest governance. These include steps forward in increasing transparency, enhancing law enforcement and establishing demand-side measures to curb illegal logging. However, progress is too slow to significantly reduce deforestation, as shown by the fact that the average annual rate of natural forest loss between 2014 and 2017 was 42 percent higher than in the previous decade.

Such is the conclusion of an assessment of Goal 10 of the New York Declaration on Forests(NYDF), which recognizes the link between governance and deforestation and commits endorsers to “strengthen forest governance, transparency and the rule of law, while also empowering communities and recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, especially those pertaining to their lands and resources.”

The NYDF Assessment Partners, including the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), have evaluated progress across eight indicators of forest governance, the focus of one of 10 goals contained in the declaration. The NYDF launched in 2014 and is backed by 190 governments, corporations, NGOs and indigenous people’s organizations that aim at halting natural forest loss by 2030.

“Improvements fall short of what is needed to address the vast governance challenges that continue to allow deforestation and inhibit efforts to improve forest conservation and management,” says Ingrid Shulte, the coordinator of the NYDF Assessment Partners and a co-author on the report.

The document breaks down the three main areas of concern: rule of law and forest-related crime; transparency, participation and access to justice; and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.

LAWS: FROM PAPER TO REALITY

National laws to protect forests are either insufficient, contradictory or poorly enforced by ill-equipped local institutions. The assessment notes that much tropical deforestation is illegal, particularly in areas where commercial agriculture is driving tree loss.

“In two thirds of major timber-producing countries and all of the countries that are the largest tropical producers of palm oil, soy and beef there is significant risk of one or – in most cases – multiple forest-related laws being broken in the production of these commodities,” points out the document. Indonesia and Brazil, for example, are the two largest producers of commodities that put forests at risk and the countries with the highest forest loss.

Countries that account for almost half of the global tropical forest area have strengthened their laws and policies to tackle illegal logging, but this is not enough, found the NYDF Assessment Partners.

“Most countries suffer from major inconsistencies within forest legislation or with legislation governing the sectors that drive deforestation, while some also lack of political will to implement these laws,” the assessment notes. Corruption in and around forests is also rife.

The risk of illegal logging is higher in tropical countries but also remains a problem in other parts of the world. According to the report, 20 percent of the logging in Russia is estimated to be illegal, as was one quarter of the logging in Romania – home of some of Europe’s oldest forests – from 1990 to 2011.

“In other developed countries, such as Canada, most logging is legal but often unsustainable, threatening carbon sinks and indigenous peoples’ rights,” says the assessment.

THE COST OF POOR GOVERNANCE

Agricultural and timber supply chains have an important role to play in ensuring the protection and sustainable management of forests, as does international cooperation among enforcement agencies. Governments and companies, for example, have started adopting policies to eliminate deforestation from the supply chains of palm oil and soy, among other commodities.

Demand-side regulations that ban the sale and import of illegally harvested timber into markets such as the U.S., Europe and Australia have scored some notable successes, and emerging economies in Asia have also begun to adopt similar legislation.

China, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Vietnam have taken promising steps, but assessment points out that the laws in these countries “suffer from potential loopholes and weak enforcement mechanisms.”

Good forest governance enables the implementation of laws and policies to tackle deforestation, as well as participatory, informed decision-making. And this matters because weak governance comes at a cost for people and the planet.

“Lost revenues from tax evasion, the loss of ecosystem functions, and conflicts with forest communities are estimated to cause more than USD 17 billion in economic losses per year,” says the assessment.

AN OPAQUE SECTOR

What good is making forest-related information available in countries if the people it concerns the most cannot understand it or use it to improve policies and practices? The assessment says that information is often unavailable in formats or languages that are accessible to vulnerable groups, governments can and do refuse access to information by citing reasons such as national interest, and few governments release data proactively.

“An increasing number of countries are adopting laws giving citizens the right to access forest-related information. However, the forest sector overall remains relatively opaque,” points out the assessment.

Similar obstacles stand in the way of participatory processes. Again, most countries have consultation processes on forest-related policies and projects, but they are often “overly technical and not linked to concrete decision-making, and governments are not required to take comments provided by stakeholders into account.”

Women and other vulnerable groups take the shorter end of the stick. Not only are they less likely to be involved in decision-making on forest-related matters, but they also have less access to proper justice and land and forest tenure rights.

The report says that judicial and administrative remedies are often too costly and slow to provide effective legal protection, and even informal grievance mechanisms are frequently out of reach for the most vulnerable groups.

Another matter of concern is the lack of transparency and poor traceability in agricultural commodity supply chains, which makes it difficult to monitor corporate commitments to tackle deforestation. “Many companies remain reluctant to share data, and the information they provide is often vague, incomplete, or buried in sustainability reports,” states the assessment.

On the bright side, a small group of large companies, including Unilever and Nestlé, has started disclosing supply chain information, particularly in the palm oil sector.

COMMUNITIES’ RIGHTS

Indigenous peoples and local communities manage at least 17 percent of the total carbon stored in the forests of 64 assessed countries, equal to 33 times the global energy emissions of 2017. Yet, it is estimated that 33 to 39 percent of land occupied or used by these groups has not been legally recognized by governments, putting forests and livelihoods at risk.

“Weak recognition of tenure rights, failure to respect the principle of free, prior and informed consent, and growing demand for land have led to an increase in land conflicts and growing dangers for communities defending their land rights,” says the assessment, noting that communities increasingly face criminalization for protecting their rights.

For example, only 16 out of 60 countries examined by the assessment team legally required companies to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of communities. This is especially concerning, given that geospatial data shows 93 to 99 percent of concessions in emerging markets to be in inhabited areas.

According to the authors, vulnerable communities need secure land tenure, but also technical know-how, business capacity, market access and strong organization to be able to commercially benefit from forests goods and services.

“Support for strengthening forest-dependent community organizations has resulted in rapid gains in development and access to markets and finance,” says the assessment, further mentioning that governments could step up efforts to support rural organizations through enabling legal and policy frameworks.

Population growth, together with unsustainable production and consumption models, are increasing the pressure on the world’s forests. Laws can be enhanced, institutions strengthened, land rights secured and voices heard. Forest governance can be improved, but to reduce deforestation, it will have to be improved more quickly.

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