The UNFF: Set up to Fail?


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In April 2007, delegates from around the world will gather in New York for the seventh session of the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF). Their agenda includes adopting a work program for the next eight years, and agreeing on a non-legally binding instrument on forests. For many, the meeting may be the UNFF’s last chance to demonstrate its value as a forum for addressing the many and varied threats facing the world’s forests.

But according to a new book by David Humphreys, we should temper our hopes for a significant outcome in New York. In LogJam: Deforestation and the Crisis of Global Governance (Earthscan), Humphreys argues that the UNFF and other intergovernmental efforts to address deforestation are doomed to failure without fundamental change in the international economic order.

According to Humphreys, ’neoliberalism’ is the key ideological force that drives excessive forest exploitation. By shaping the rules of international trade and investment, and allowing corporate interests to hold sway over publicly-accountable institutions, neoliberalism constrains any effort to arrest deforestation through policy reform. For example, the European Union’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance, and Trade Action Plan is limited to voluntary bilateral licensing schemes for fear of transgressing World Trade Organization rules. Efforts by the World Bank to promote forest conservation are undermined by its support for the neoliberal paradigm of deregulation, privatization, and structural adjustment in indebted tropical forest countries. Humphreys admires market-based initiatives that fill gaps left by the public sector, such as the Forest Stewardship Council. But he rejects the overall strategy of relying on innovations that effectively privatize governance within a neoliberal policy environment.

Logjam includes chapters on the UNFF and its two UN precursors, the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests and the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests. The book provides chronologies of meetings and summaries of resolutions, and explains why governments have not agreed to a legally binding forest convention. Humphreys is critical of UNFF ’multistakeholder dialogues’ as a vehicle for civil society and other groups to influence negotiations, and he faults the poor performance of member governments on reporting and implementation. Humphreys says that so far the UNFF has failed to provide leadership and direction to other forest-related institutions. Delegates’ attention to remedying any of these weaknesses would be welcome.

The book concludes on an optimistic note. Humphreys articulates a vision for the “democratization of globalization” that includes new institutions for asserting public control over private economic activities. And he sees signs of progress toward realizing that vision. In the meantime, Logjam provides sobering airplane reading for delegates en route to New York.

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Further reading

If you would like to purchase the book, you can visit:

You could also request a pdf file of the book’s Preface and chapter on the UNFF by email from