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Outcome of the 13th session of the Committee on Forestry (COFO 1997)

Mafa E. Chipeta
Forestry Policy and Planning Division, FAO, Rome

The FAO Committee on Forestry (COFO) - the highest statutory body of the Organization dealing with forestry matters - held its 13th session between 10 and 13 March of this year; it was attended by nearly 100 member countries, many represented at head of forestry administration level. In spite of its inter-governmental nature, COFO reaffirmed its desire to see a more active role for the private sector and other non-governmental interest groups in the work of FAO in forestry. The private sector can only benefit from interacting with COFO and other statutory bodies because the views exchanged among governments in these fora can influence the regulatory or supportive interventions which governments adopt in their countries.

Issues arising out of COFO that could be of interest to the private sector can be listed under three headings:

· FAO programme and its priorities;

· criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management; and

· private sector involvement or participation in the activities of COFO or FAO Regional Forestry Commissions.

FAO programme and its priorities

The 12th session of COFO in 1995 was preceded by a meeting of the private sector which contributed to preparations for the main session of COFO and that of Ministers responsible for forestry. The report of that private sector meeting makes it very clear that the private sector shares society's general commitment to achieving sustainable forest management. The entire FAO programme of work proposals discussed at the 1997 session is directed at this objective and, therefore, should be of interest to you; FAO would welcome your views on it. In March of this year, COFO itself made specific suggestions for FAO's work and proposed definite priorities, of which the following are highlights for your attention:

· Forest resources assessment is essential in monitoring availability of forest raw materials;

· Outlook studies and statistics can provide the private sector with a basis for identifying future development opportunities and in drawing attention to issues that can effect their realization; (The GFSS launched at the behest of your Committee is an integral part of the FAO outlook analysis work.)

· National forest programmes originally started as Tropical Forest Action Programmes and now exist in many countries as a framework for forestry development activities, including those with investment potential;

· Criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management provide an internationally agreed basis for assessing progress towards sustainability goals.

Among other activities of interest to the private sector which COFO also highlighted are non-wood forest products, plantations and fuelwood. In certain other fields, COFO considered that other international organizations had comparative advantage over FAO; included among these is the field of trade and marketing. FAO is nevertheless requested to maintain some activity in this area.

Criteria and indicators

Many initiatives have been going since UNCED to develop criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management. Inter-governmental dialogue has focused on agreeing upon criteria and indicators at the national level which can be applied to all types of forests. In parallel with these inter-governmental initiatives there has been a process driven more by environmental NGOs and the private sector to apply criteria and indicators at the management unit level and use them in certifying internationally-traded forest products for sustainability of origin. At its 1997 session, COFO focused on the inter-governmental processes but did not lose sight on issues and opportunities related to management-site application of criteria and indicators and associated trade certification.

Setting standards and procedures for assessing progress towards sustainable forestry will remain on the sector agenda for a long time and the private sector will be affected by decisions on this topic. The private sector can only gain from making its views based on practical experience adequately heard in fora where decisions or proposals are made. Its most important role would be to contribute to consensus-building around balanced standards which recognize conservation as well as economic and social objectives for forestry development.

Private sector participation in COFO and other FAO statutory fora

Officials who attend COFO and related FAO committees appreciate the importance of all interest groups being involved in forestry dialogue and activities. Paragraph 19 of the COFO report, contains the Committee's recommendation that its own meetings, programmes and activities, as well as those of Regional Forestry Commissions, should be open to and involve representatives of NGOs and the private sector. Furthermore, the Committee has, in paragraph 34, asked that contacts with the private sector through this Advisory Committee on Paper and Wood Products be enhanced.

The Advisory Committee may wish to propose ways for this to take effect, for example, to consider several approaches:

· to hold ACPWP meetings back-to-back with sessions of COFO or of Regional Forestry Commission sessions; (For example, the next session of the Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission, in February 1998, will discuss the outlook for forestry in that region - a subject like this needs a private sector perspective.)

· to be included in the official member delegations to FAO committee sessions (a practice some NGOs already benefit from); and

· to fully brief government delegations on private sector views where the expected agenda of statutory-body meetings are of particular interest to it.