Averting “Natural” Disaster in Our Forests

Written by Cole Genge on . Posted in Learn

A mountain stream’s gurgling and the soft voice of Kao Sisompou, a village forester from Lao People’s Democratic Republic, reverberated off the 300-year-old stone walls of the San Jose ruins. I was seated in the middle of a long nave in what had once been a majestic Spanish church in Antigua, Guatemala, and I reflected on the juxtaposition of setting and the speech’s subject. In a church that had been saved from destruction, I was party to a discussion of the world’s disappearing forests, which are in bad need of rescue.

Around me were representatives of government, industry and civil society groups from nearly every continent on the planet. We were gathered for the International Tropical Timber Organization’s 47th session, hosted by Guatemala in this Central American setting.

I watched the faces of people in the audience and could see they were interested. We were watching “Climate of Consensus: The Future of Responsible Asia Forestry and Trade,” a 20-minute-long film highlighting several success stories from the Responsible Asia Forestry and Trade (RAFT) program, which works across eight countries in southeast Asia. (You can watch the film in two parts from this post.)

Seated next to me was a distinguished panel representing the US Department of State, USAID, the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry and TRAFFIC — a RAFT-implementing partner organization. Together, we were showing how RAFT established a partnership that spanned the entire timber supply chain. From the forest to the factory to the showroom floor, RAFT works to guarantee discerning timber consumers — like yourself — with a legal, sustainable and humanely produced end product.

I turned my thoughts back to the movie in front of me and could see a new story unfolding, one about reduced impact logging at a forest concession in East Kalimantan, Indonesia.

The puttering sound of a two-stroke engine echoed off the 3-foot-thick church walls and I recalled a hallway conversation earlier in the day with a new friend from the Guatemalan Forest Industry Association.

With a sense of guilt, she said that Guatemala is quickly losing its forests, largely due to illegal logging. Unlike Southeast Asia, where the drivers of deforestation are quick access to highly lucrative timber sales in the international market, Guatemalan deforestation is fueled by a need for cheap firewood and domestic building material.

In Asia Pacific, RAFT has made a lasting impact with timber certification (1.3 million hectares have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and an additional 2 million hectares have been third-party verified). The program has also made significant gains in policy with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the 10-country economic community ratifying timber chain of custody legislation which will become mandatory for each of the member nations in 2015.

RAFT also helped strengthen regional networks and institutions and supported the revival of trade dialogues between China and Indonesia that had been dormant for nearly a decade. It also contributed to climate change abatement and the reduction of CO2 emissions through the establishment of a learning network in support of bolstering international climate change discussions and the approach of climate- and forest-friendly sustainable development known as REDD+, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (plus conservation and sustainable forestry techniques).

According to my colleague in Guatemala, the drivers of climate change in her country are local and fueled by a demand for low prices and a disregard for environmental impacts. As I sit in a 300-year old church that was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1773 and restored in 1940 as a conference hall for a fancy hotel, I wonder: does the Guatemalan forest need its own equivalent of an earthquake before we restore it back to its original glory?

Our experience in Asia and the Pacific has taught us that collaborative efforts to address the causes of deforestation across the timber supply chain, while linking policy with forest management practice, are fundamental ingredients for addressing complex forest issues in Asia, Central America and beyond. Earthquakes can’t be avoided, but deforestation is one “natural” disaster that we can avert.

Cole Genge has worked for The Nature Conservancy for seven years. After focusing on forestry and forest carbon under the Parks in Peril project in Bolivia, he embarked on a four-year stint as Deputy Chief of Party of the USAID-funded, TNC-led RAFT program. Cole is leaving the Conservancy for Santiago, Chile, to join the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization´s Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, where he will remain deeply involved in forestry issues across his home region.

Photo by: Wikimedia Commons user chensiyuan (San Jose cathedral, Antigua, Guatemala, 2009) Used under a Creative Commons license.

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