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International Year of Forests must bring paradigm change in global forest policies

3rd February 2011

A paradigm shift in global forest management is needed to halt tropical deforestation, said Global Witness at the start of the UN’s International Year of Forests. The status quo effectively legalises the destruction of natural forests by logging operations, subsidised by tax-dollars.  Without efforts to overturn this, international action to prevent irreversible climate change will founder and the livelihoods of over a billion forest-dependent people will be at risk.

Over half of the world’s forests have already disappeared, and just 23 per cent of what remains is defined ‘intact’ – unaffected by significant human activity. Home to many indigenous cultures and the planet’s richest biodiversity, forests also act as natural carbon stores which are crucial in fighting climate change.

“It is absurd that while the world debates ways to prevent forest loss, it is World Bank policies and national development budgets that are often driving forest destruction,” said Tom Picken of Global Witness. “Far from aiming to slow deforestation, these policies are actively driving legalised logging deeper into the world’s forests.”

Whilst the threat posed to forests by illegal logging is well-known, much of the damage is done as part of perfectly legal operations whose projects are often tied to international aid. Logging industry claims that these activities provide much-needed development to poor countries do not stand up to scrutiny. Global Witness’s research in Cambodia and the Congo-Basin has shown that promised benefits consistently fail to materialise, with unemployment rife, aid projects abandoned and local facilities in disrepair once the loggers have moved on. In Cameroon, the vast majority of the benefits of this devastating industry are shared amongst fewer than 20 predominantly European companies.

“The current paradigm has failed spectacularly – it’s a false economy of catastrophic proportions which allows a powerful few to cash in on our collective future, underwritten by tax-dollars,” said Picken.

Voluntary certification schemes supposed to guarantee the responsible sourcing of timber have failed to measure up. Schemes such as those administered by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) effectively rubber-stamp logging operations as ‘sustainable’ whether or not they occur in natural forests. 82 per cent of FSC operations in the tropics occur in natural forests, bringing into question the true sustainability of this timber.

International plans to tackle deforestation include a proposal known as ‘Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’ – or REDD whereby rich countries pay developing countries to reduce deforestation; the proposal could see over US$30 billion per year flow into some of the world’s poorest countries.  This scheme could provide a way to tackle deforestation, but only if it prevents any subsidies for logging, and includes effective safeguards which protect biodiversity, ensure forest community rights are upheld and prevent corruption.  Any further finance must be benchmarked against progress in these areas.

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 Contact: Tom Picken, +44 (0)7810 558247, tpicken@globalwitness.org; Oliver Courtney +44(0) 7739249962, ocourtney@globalwitness.org.