DG’s Column

Forestry for a sustainable future: Making a difference beyond agreements

A wishlist for outcomes of the XIV World Forestry Congress in Durban.
Planting Gnetum (okok) in Cameroon
Forestry is about people: Ugwono Pauline plants Gnetum (okok) in the village of Minwoho, Cameroon. Ollivier Girard / CIFOR.

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Next week, more than 2,600 forestry experts will travel to the 14th World Forestry Congress in Durban, South Africa.

The WFC is considered the world’s most significant forestry event, organized by FAO every six years together with a host country. At 89 years old, it is also a long-standing tradition within the international community.

The first congress was held in Rome in 1926, and Jakarta hosted the 1978 edition. This year, the WFC will be held in Africa for the first time.

Readers of this blog may wonder what my views might be about a congress so defined by the forestry sector. Would it potentially focus on sector-internal considerations at the expense of broader development priorities? Is it reinforcing the institutional forest silo?

The earlier congresses certainly revolved around the specific subjects of the forestry profession. But since the 1972 conference in Buenos Aires, the themes and aspirations of the congresses have addressed the bigger picture, in line with major international agreements in Stockholm, Rio, New York and (we hope) Paris.

Congress themes have covered integrated development, sustainable development and “forests for people and planet”. And the theme for Durban – “Forests and people: Investing in a sustainable future” – follows suit.


A key section from the 1972 WFC Declaration is still valid and deserves to be repeated (my emphasis):

“The congress believes that the Plan of Action formulated by the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972 will influence forestry development throughout the world in the years to come. Recognizing that in many countries declared forest policies are not in accord with new knowledge, new preoccupations and new aspirations, the congress considers it is now urgent to redefine forest policies in view of these new circumstances. The congress firmly believes that, whatever the political objectives, whatever the form of economic organization, whatever the present pattern of forest land tenure, governments are responsible for planning the continuous flow of the productive, protective and social goods and services from the forest, ensuring that the physical output and environmental benefits of the forests are available for the general welfare of their peoples now and for all time. Since we live in one world, and since the forest resources of the world are unevenly distributed, national policies and plans must take account of the international context.”

So where do we stand today?

The Durban WFC will take place just a few weeks ahead of the UN General Assembly, where we expect that a global development framework with Sustainable Development Goals will be agreed.

We have a unique opportunity to reaffirm that forestry must be firmly placed in that development agenda, and to explain how forestry will contribute to achieving the future we want – and one that our children deserve.


The first outcome from the WFC that I will look for is for all of us involved in forestry to commit to making a real difference on the ground – across all the SDGs and across the globe.

But how can we make that difference?

Forestry institutions are considered to be weakened, public funding for traditional forestry has shrunk and, except for the forests and climate change mitigation agenda, political attention has plummeted.

Attention by media and large parts of the international community is geared toward the mega-processes on climate change, biodiversity, desertification, sustainable development and so on.

Peter Holmgren

How can we contribute to growth, water, energy, food and health from a relatively small power base?

The answer, of course, is to collaborate across sectors – including finding ways to scale up mainstream finance and investment to the land-based sectors. We need to avoid divisions into a myriad of separate indicators and policies, and instead embrace the complexity of real-world situations.

This is the essence of the landscape approach. And contrary to some perceptions, the landscape approach can be the key to strengthening the role of forestry in development.


Second on my wish list for Durban is to spread the word on the landscape approach as a way forward for forestry, and raise enthusiasm for taking forestry out of the forest.

We must take a realistic view on how those differences will be achieved – and by whom. Attention by media and large parts of the international community is geared toward the mega-processes on climate change, biodiversity, desertification, sustainable development and so on.

The message that internationally binding agreements will solve our problems is repeated over and over like a mantra. But what can we truly expect from these processes, bogged down as they are in political struggles, and where the next election in a key country may rewrite the entire agenda?

No, it is in people we must place our hope.

Although not a devout Catholic, I find that the recent “Encyclical letter on care for our common home” by Pope Francis provides inspiring thought and advice in this direction. Although he acknowledges the efforts of the international community, he also notes the lack of progress in the realm of politics and international agreements.

Instead, the potential is in individual choices, in people committing to responsible lifestyles – and in taking action. Solutions from the top won’t succeed unless we follow our moral compass.

So, my third and final thought for Durban is that it is really up to each one of us to walk the talk – and to make the difference that we all want.

I look forward to reinforcing these points in the opening plenary on 7 September.

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Topic(s) :   Community forestry Landscapes Restoration SDGs