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ENV/DEV/2043
9 May 2022
Seventeenth Session, 1st & Virtual Meetings (AM)

Forests ‘Cornerstone of Life on This Planet’, Says General Assembly President, as United Nations Forum Opens Its Session

Home to 80 per cent of all terrestrial species and hailed as “the lungs of the planet” for their ability to generate oxygen, forests hold boundless potential to help solve the most pressing global challenges, speakers in the United Nations Forum on Forests stressed today, as they offered alternatives to the many activities threatening their health, from logging and oil exploration to well-intentioned but ill-conceived conservation efforts.

The Forum’s seventeenth session is taking place online and in-person at United Nations Headquarters from 9 to 13 May.  Throughout the morning, senior Government officials from around the world joined representatives from United Nations entities, the private sector and civil society in a high-level round-table discussion on the theme “United Nations Forum on Forests response to, role in and expectations from forest-related multilateral developments”.

In opening remarks, Abdulla Shahid (Maldives), President of the General Assembly, said forests — and trees outside forests — are a cornerstone of life on this planet, affecting the environment and the climate through multiple pathways, globally and locally.  They serve a multitude of essential functions, from producing and cleansing oxygen, to providing food and shelter, to influencing unique weather patterns and housing unique ecosystems.

However, he said forests are increasingly under threat from deforestation, massive land degradation, unsustainable consumption and production practices and the ongoing climate crisis.  As the world continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, actions must focus on a clear reality:  the health of Earth’s inhabitants is directly linked to the health of the planet.

Forests have a fundamental role to play in this regard, he said, a point on display at the twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26), where 141 countries — accounting for 90 per cent of the world’s forests — signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, agreeing to halt deforestation, and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.

“This is a monumental step for the future of forests,” he said.  He called for investing in ecosystem-based adaptation, stressing that land restoration, and the planting of “the right trees at the right place” are low‑technology, low-cost solutions to mitigate climate change.

Going forward, he said the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the United Nations Strategic Plan for Forests all offer the best tool-kits for protecting the planet.  Countries must work in harmony to achieve coherence and coordination across the environmental agendas, including the Rio Conventions on biodiversity, climate change and desertification.

Most importantly, he called for inclusive solutions that recognize the rights of indigenous landowners and farmers, and local communities who play a central role in land-based mitigation options.  With that in mind, he announced the holding of a high-level event on “Moment for Nature” in July to chart a way forward in delivering impactful changes for all.

In a virtual presentation, Collen Vixen Kelapile (Botswana), President of the Economic and Social Council, said there are growing expectations for forests and other nature-based solutions within and beyond the United Nations system, demonstrated most recently in the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration.  These developments have created unique opportunities to advance implementation of the United Nations Strategic Plan for Forests 2030 and its global forest goals.

As part of the Economic and Social Council system, the Forum should effectively engage in setting the global agenda on forests, he said.  Its contribution to the Council’s high-level political forum on sustainable development in July will send a strong signal on the critical importance of forests in building a resilient future.  The organ also stands ready to support the Forum in preparing for the midterm review of the international arrangement on forests.

“The call to halt deforestation and its drivers have been loud and clear,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, in a statement delivered by Maria Francesca Spatolisano, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs.  Stressing that the world loses 10 million hectares of forest area each year, he said that as home to 80 per cent of terrestrial species, forests play a key role in preventing biodiversity loss.  The Forum has an important responsibility to respond to new developments and play a stronger role in global policy setting, galvanizing efforts to combat deforestation and land degradation.

In other business today, the Forum elected Miriam Mac Intosh (Suriname) as Chair of the seventeenth session, by acclamation, with Musah Abu-Juam (Ghana) and Tomasz Markiewicz (Poland) as Vice-Chairs, and Javad Momeni (Iran) as Rapporteur.  The Forum also approved its agenda (document E/CN.18/2022/1) and organization of work.

Juliette Biao, Director of the Forum Secretariat, introduced its notes (documents E/CN.18/2022/2 and E/CN.18/2022/7) related to “Policy discussions on the implementation of the United Nations Strategic Plan for Forests, 2017-2030” and “Challenges faced by countries, strategies adopted and recovery measures taken by countries to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on forests and the forest sector”.

The Forum on Forests will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 10 May, to continue its seventeenth session.

High-Level Round Table

The Forum held a high-level round‑table discussion on “United Nations Forum on Forests response to, role in and expectations from forest-related multilateral developments”.  Moderated by Juliette Biao, Director of the Forum Secretariat, it featured presentations by:  Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary, Convention on Biological Diversity; Jyotsna Puri, Associate Vice‑President, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); Andrew Steer, President and Chief Executive Officer, Bezos Earth Fund; Anne Nuorgam (Finland), Chair, Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; María Alexandra Moreira López, Secretary-General of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization; and Jayathma Wickramanayake, United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Youth.

Ms. BIAO, opening the panel, said forests are critical to the ecological integrity of the planet.  They provided essential services that supported health and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic and have been high on the agenda of many multilateral conferences.  Drawing attention to the link between the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and target 1.1 of the United Nations Strategic Plan for Forests, she said today’s round table will provide an opportunity for delegates to share their views on different but complimentary questions to improve the state of the world’s forests.

Ms. ESPINOSA, asked by the moderator how UNFCCC and the Forum can work together to support countries in turning the tide on deforestation, said forests are in danger.  Climate change causes forest loss and degradation, which, in turn, leads to the loss of ecosystems and carbon sinks, and worsens the impact of climate change.  The effects of this cycle are felt in countless areas, notably in terms of health, biodiversity, land and water.  In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlined the threat and emphasized the urgency of action.  She called for sustained support and international cooperation to implement the REDD+ initiative — formally called the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation and Developing Countries-Plus — which will be “absolutely essential” for States to have any chance of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C by the end of the twenty-first century.  A stronger collaborative approach is needed to make that happen.  “The pursuit of collaborative solutions must be strengthened now more than ever,” she said.

Ms. MREMA, similarly asked how †he Convention on Biological Diversity and the Forum can work together to help countries turn the tide on deforestation, said the world over the last three decades has lost 420 million hectares of forests.  With that loss, the planet is losing biodiversity, eroding people’s livelihoods and failing to deploy a natural climate solution to the problem, which increases the risks of pathogens passing from animals to humans.  The post-2020 global biodiversity framework, which is under negotiation, highlights the need to care for forests through integrated land use, planning and conservation.  Highlighting ways the Convention and the Forum can coordinate their support to countries, she said they can help Governments strengthen their policy frameworks, access finance and — importantly — involve indigenous peoples and local communities in all such efforts.  In particular, they can support Governments with the best data available in their efforts to strengthen national policy frameworks and redesign their biodiversity action plans.

Ms PURI, asked how IFAD can work with the Forum to help countries create sustainable food systems that do not damage forests or degrade land, underscored the importance of recognizing the huge opportunity that exists with small-scale food producers, who are a critical part of the overall food system.  “We have solutions that are feasible, that can help us reach vulnerable communities,” she insisted.  Small-scale farmers — those working on two hectares of land or less — produce one third of the world’s food on less than one quarter of its cropland.  Rural and small-scale producers, and indigenous peoples, are integral to preserving forests, she said, as they use biodiversity in ways that are symbiotic with the overall food system needs.  These communities are the most vulnerable to climate change, yet they have received less than 2 per cent of global climate finance galvanized over the years.  Indigenous peoples received less than 1 per cent of that funding, she stressed, noting that IFAD projects feature the use of agroecology and agroforestry.

Mr. STEER, asked about how to engage the philanthropic sector in efforts to turn the tide on deforestation, said the Bezos Earth Institute allocates $10 billion in grants to be spent in 10 years on nature and climate.  At the twenty-sixth United Nations Climate Change Conference, it committed $3 billion to be spent on nature:  $1 billion to conserve, $1 billion to restore and $1 billion to reform food systems.  First, it must be recognized that, “so far, we have failed”, he said.  Unless efforts start with that recognition, they will not succeed.  However, success is possible.  He pointed to World Resource Institute data that some countries have reduced deforestation, including Indonesia, which reduced it by 25 per cent.  “Policies do matter,” he said, stressing that deforestation is decreasing in South-East Asia thanks to a combination of good government policies, as well as engagement with the private sector, small-holders, manufacturers, retailers, citizens and a host of other stakeholders.  He called for evaluating the entire value chain to determine where solutions are most needed.  The Bezos Earth Fund invested $60 million in remote sensing, allowing Governments to see where trees are falling — and growing.  It also committed $50 million in direct support to indigenous peoples and local communities.  Noting that voluntary carbon markets have an important role to play, he said the Fund is working to establish standards for the supply and demand sides and hopes to partner with the United Nations in that endeavour.  He urged the Forum to emphasize big, practical ideas, not necessarily big frameworks.

Ms. NUORGAM, asked about strengthening indigenous peoples’ involvement in global efforts to halt deforestation, drew attention to the negative impact of conservation efforts on their rights to lands, resources and traditional livelihoods.  Noting that commitments are emerging to designate 30 per cent of all land and sea areas as protected by 2030, she said a great deal of these territories are forests.  Indigenous peoples have developed “incredible” land management systems that maintain biological diversity and sustain their livelihoods.  However, the dominant model of conservation — premised on the idea that human activities are alien to nature — threatens their existence.  The establishment of national parks often has led to the displacement of indigenous peoples from their ancestral territories, relegating them to homelessness and designating hunting and gathering as criminal activities.  This model is in direct violation of their rights.  “It is unwise, ineffective and counterproductive to fighting climate change and biodiversity loss,” she stressed.  Indigenous peoples support conservation, however decisions on conservation areas must be undertaken with their consent and involvement.  She called for the development of guidelines or guiding principles, stressing that States are already identifying potential territories for conservation that will allow them to meet the 30 per cent goal.

Ms. MOREIRA LÓPEZ, asked for ideas on strengthening the involvement of regional organizations in efforts to turn the tide on deforestation, highlighted the importance of the means of implementation outlined in the Strategic Plan for Forests, notably in the areas of science, technology and innovation.  The diminished public resources available for such efforts, due to COVID-19, along with a drop in international cooperation for the environment, pose a problem for countries in the Amazon, she said, pointing out that international funds designated the eight countries in the Amazon as middle-income, and thus, ineligible for funding.  She underscored the importance of investment and cooperation in the region, noting that, in 2021, the eight countries of the Amazon approved four management instruments, including a memorandum of understanding on forest fire management.  Their forest programme is in line with the six global forest goals and prioritizes the restoration of degraded areas and forest monitoring.  Noting that the actions of intergovernmental organizations must complement national efforts, she said the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization would like to work with the Global Forest Financing Facilitation Network.

Ms. WICKRAMANAYAKE, asked about how to tap the power of young people to help turn the tide on deforestation, said young people — especially women and girls — will be disproportionately impacted by climate change.  In her visits around the world, she said young people “are not just passively standing by” waiting for Governments to act.  They are sharing their experiences and expertise, and tackling environmental challenges at the community, country and global levels.  Young entrepreneurs and indigenous youth are already bringing solutions forward.  She drew attention to the World Forestry Congress, where young people presented a Youth Call for Action, prepared by 600 young people and organizations worldwide, covering such areas as education, gender equality and decent jobs within the forest sector.  She encouraged Governments, the United Nations, the scientific community, academia, the private sector and other stakeholders across multiple disciplines to support young people in unlocking their potential and creating a healthy planet for all.

Interactive Dialogue

In the ensuing interactive dialogue, participants — taking the floor at United Nations Headquarters and speaking virtually from regions across the globe — stressed that forests are under pressure from a host of threats, from fires, drought and storms to conflict and clashes among groups vying for resources.  Many underscored the importance of reducing forest loss and improving sustainable forest management, with several pointing to updated national forest management strategies and making recommendations for the Forum.

Against that backdrop, France’s delegate, speaking for the European Union in its capacity as observer, condemned the Russian Federation’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine as a flagrant violation of international law carrying “dramatic” human and environmental consequences for the region.  He called on the United Nations Fund for Forests to adopt measures for sustainable supply chains and on the Global Forest Financing Facilitation Network to help countries design strategies for forest management and ecosystem restoration.

Many pointed to national efforts to blunt deforestation and land degradation.  The representative of Romania, associating himself with the European Union, said his country has controlled illegal logging by ensuring the full traceability of its wood products.  It also supports small forest owners through a budget for forest guarding and pest control activities.  Noting that Romania is home to forests of outstanding universal value, as designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), he said some 70,000 hectares are protected under law.  “We have to take science-based decisions,” he said.

The representative of Ukraine said her country had significantly improved the transparency of forest-related decisions, however, all treaties were violated when the Russian Federation attacked her country on 24 February.  Almost 3 million hectares in Ukraine — 20 per cent of the country — are enduring military actions.  Hence, it is no longer possible to conduct any forest‑related activities.

The Vice‑Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, noting that the 268,000 hectares of tropical and wet forests in the Congo Basin are described as “the lungs of the world”, said her country hosts 60 per cent of them and shares 100,000 hectares with Congo.  Hydric ecosystems in the forests provide rain to Ethiopia and Uganda.  Measures taken by the Democratic Republic of the Congo — such as the suspension of illegal concessions and the export of lumber — saved 3.4 million hectares of forest cover.  The Government also aims to plant 1 billion hectares of trees, a goal that is 65 per cent achieved.  She called for greater access to funding and “frank” discussions on carbon markets, so that the price per ton of carbon respects all services provided by forests.

The representative of Bangladesh similarly said that to commemorate founding father Sheikh Mujib Rahman, his country planted 10 million trees, complementing efforts to cover 24 per cent of its landmass by 2024.  More broadly, he called for “high commitments” by the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People in 2022.  In the transition to sustainable consumption and production patterns, the transfer of technologies from the global North to the global South must be ensured through triangular cooperation, he added.

Across the Americas, Peru’s delegate highlighted a programme that grants credits to small farmers to develop forest management and livestock breeding.  Noting that 80 per cent of Peru is covered by forests, pastor land, scrubland and protected areas, he said the national strategy for forest ecosystem restoration aims to improve 1.7 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.  The representative of the United States described a new executive order which aims to safeguard mature and old growth forests on federal lands, combat deforestation and use nature-based solutions to fight climate change.  Costa Rica’s delegate similarly pointed to the creation of a robust national park service and an environmental service payment programme, which helped his country conserve and reforest its forest areas.  “Today, we have more forest than we did in the past,” he affirmed, noting that its constant efforts over the years have aligned with those of its partners and small producers.  He said 68 per cent of its farmers have less than 20 hectares to work on so decisions made must take such matters into account.  He called for better funding, training and surveillance so that all practices are effective.

Some delegates made recommendations for the Forum, with the Russian Federation’s representative noting that the subsidiary body’s scientific component is insufficiently developed.  He called for highlighting science cooperation as a cross-cutting issue and expanding communications in all six official United Nations languages, which will foster cooperation.  He also supported the formation of an open-ended working group to create a forest mechanism and the creation of an expert group to review the Forum’s work.

The representative of Argentina, meanwhile, highlighted the importance of the Forum’s contribution to other multilateral processes, stressing that “we must promote consistency and complementarity with other dimensions of sustainable development”, and avoid the duplication of efforts.  She noted that Goal 15 will be the focus of the Economic and Social Council’s high-level political forum.

The representative of Australia said the Forum should have an open discussion on technical underpinnings and definitions related to forests, land-use and supply chains.  He recommended defining the terms “forest” and “deforestation”, “monitoring and classifying deforestation” and “providing for land uses associated with cyclical forest loss and re-growth”.  He welcomed that these conversations will be broad ranging across several forums and might require technical assistance from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

For many, financing was a cross-cutting issue.  Cameroon’s representative, speaking for the Central African Commission on Forests, voiced concern over the lack of financing for countries in the Congo Basin.  He called for greater stakeholder commitment, cooperation and coherence, pointing out that the Congo Basin Forest Partnership requested $1 billion at COP26.  “We want to see a rapid and effective response by the international community,” he insisted, as well as the creation of an information system to guarantee the transparency, legality and traceability of products.

The Minister for Forest Economy of Congo similarly called for the provision of financing for forest management projects.  Noting that the Congo River Basin is “number one” for carbon sequestration, with a deforestation rate of less than 1 per cent, she urged the Forum to encourage countries to ensure sustainable management.  “We need to harmonize our policies in the Congo Basin,” to ensure forest management in all production activities.

In closing remarks, Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said the round table highlighted the many ways forests can accelerate the fight against climate change and protect biodiversity.  Participants also heard how those who depend on forests the most include the most vulnerable — from the poorest of the poor, to women, local and indigenous communities.  At a time when the services of forests are being called upon to serve sustainable development, the Forum’s role has never been more important.

“Now, more than ever, we need to take decisive action to support the sustainable management of our forests,” he said, so they can fulfil their potential to restore the health of the planet.  He called on Governments, international organizations and other stakeholders to work together to meet the global forest goals and the forest-related Sustainable Development Goals.  Advances in science, technology and innovation mean the tools already exist for such a pursuit.  However, capacity-building and technical collaboration are needed so that all countries can access them.  He called for collaborative efforts to prevent forest loss and land degradation by 2030, urging the Forum to play a stronger role in that regard.  The mid-term review of the International Arrangement on Forests will offer an opportunity for it to pave the way forward.

Also speaking were representatives of Greece and Malaysia.

For information media. Not an official record.