Progress in Research on Tropical Forests -- Five Years After Rio
An interview with Jeffrey A. Sayer(CIFOR)
Q: Five years after the adoption of the much publicised Forest Principles at the UNCED conference in Rio, has there been significant progress in research on tropical forests?
A: A number of initiatives came out of Rio, most of which had built in scientific support mechanisms. The Climate Change Convention had its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Biodiversity Convention invested heavily in producing its "Global Biodiversity Assessment". However, the forestry debate at Rio was so politicised that science was given a rather low profile. Some developing countries feared that "science" would mean a lot of finger pointing by northern activist groups with a very preservationist agenda. Many of the NGOs felt that science would result in an agenda dominated by the interests of the timber industry. Even in the post Rio period, the forest debate has been highly emotional and driven more by special interest groups.
One of the first things we did at CIFOR was to bring together a group of scientists, politicians, international negotiators and NGOs to discuss the information needs for implementing the Rio decisions on forests. This resulted in a paper presented at the FAO Ministerial meeting on forests in 1995. Since then, science has gradually achieved greater prominence in the discussions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF). The report of the Panel that was presented to the special session of the UN General Assembly in New York in June contains a specific recommendation on strengthening and giving greater coherence to scientific efforts to understand the world's forest problems. So, at the political level we have made good progress. Now we need to translate this into greatly increased activity on the ground. CIFOR's own research has drawn on partners throughout both the developing and the developed world. This research is yielding new information which is feeding into the intergovernmental process already. I think we have got off to a good start but the intensity of effort on international strategic research on forests is still inadequate in relation to the magnitude of the problems.
Q: How best can a centre such as CIFOR contribute towards the enormous challenges facing tropical forests and forest dependent people?
A: We have tried to articulate the answer to that question in our strategic plan and our medium term plan. The strategic plan in particular was the result of a very great deal of thought and interaction with numerous partners. One of the advantages we have is that because of the Rio processes the world is reassessing its forest agenda. There is a very large number of processes going on to identify problems and look for solutions. CIFOR has to be very well connected with these efforts because they provide us with a unique input to our priority setting and, even more importantly, a very effective delivery mechanism for our products. In particular, the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests has identified a number of areas where new information is needed. This recognition comes from an intergovernmental activity and it therefore has international legitimacy. The IPF wants more information on the underlying causes of deforestation. It wants to know how biodiversity conservation needs can be reconciled with forest development. It is creating a demand for cost effective criteria and indicators to assess forest conditions. It is re-examining the institutional arrangements for managing forests and has great interest in the role of the private sector and local communities. All of these things, and many others on CIFOR's current research agenda, are topics where CIFOR is producing new information. We can channel this information into the deliberations of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and it will thereby get diffused very quickly back to decision makers.
Q: In many respects, CIFOR's constituencies, both international and national, lie outside the CGIAR system and its NARS partners. How do you see CIFOR serving the needs of the CGIAR as well as the global forestry community?
A: It is true that the people we meet at International Centers Week and at the global fora are not the same scientists that we are working with on a day to day basis. The forestry research community has been rather inward looking, and links between it and agriculture have been weak. Interestingly, this is less the case in Latin America where research is often conducted in institutes with a natural resources focus rather than a pure agriculture or forestry focus. At the moment, we are very well positioned with the forest research community. We have benefited greatly from our links with the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) and with FAO and its regional bodies. There are undoubted benefits to CIFOR having stronger links with the agricultural research community although this will not be with the commodity-oriented agronomists. Perhaps the agriculturalists also need to make a move toward seeing their research in a broader natural resource context. A key role of CIFOR could be to bridge this gap and to have one foot in each camp.
Q: What is the specific role of CIFOR in relation to intergovernmental agencies such as FAO, ITTO, IPF, etc?
A: As I said earlier, we have got off to a very good start with all the important international actors dealing with forests. We have always had excellent relations with FAO. We have a number of shared activities and a good flow of information with their staff in Rome. We recently formed a strategic alliance with the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) in Yokohama to develop CIFOR's research forest in East Kalimantan as a large-scale model of science based sustainable forest management. Our policy dialogue on "forest science and sustainability" in 1994 provided us with a platform which gave us excellent access to the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests. We have subsequently been very involved with the IPF and its various intersessional activities. CIFOR made substantial contributions on the work on criteria and indicators and on the need for new approaches to science which was the subject of an intersessional meeting sponsored by Japan in 1996. The results of the Rio+5 Special Session of the UN General Assembly will certainly influence the way we move forward over the next few years.
Q: CIFOR is approaching its fifth year as a CGIAR Center. Has your vision of forestry research needs and priorities changed significantly during this period?
A: Yes. We set out to be a "learning institution" and we have learned a great deal in the first five years. We no longer believe in "silver bullet" type technical solutions to the world's forest problems. What is needed is to pull together science from a diversity of disciplines and approaches to give a more in depth and holistic understanding of forest systems. This means that within CIFOR we have to maximise the interaction between all the different scientific groups. Our thinking is that the activities of each of our ten projects have to be valid in their own right. At the same time, they must contribute to an "enabling environment" which provides context and support for the other nine projects. In other words, we are committed to vertically integrated research as it has been described in the CGIAR debates on its eco-regional foci. This vertical integration means that we must have a large proportion of our scientists active in focal locations in the three tropical regions. We expect that new insights and understanding will come out of the in-depth analysis of the problems of these representative locations. Another thing that has become very clear in the last few years is that we can benefit enormously by exploiting the synergies between CIFOR's work and the work of the other CGIAR centers operating on the agricultural side of the forest frontier. Our work at the CGIAR ecoregional sites in Mbalmayo in Cameroon and Pucallpa in Peru shows great promise in this direction.
Professor Jeffrey A. Sayer is Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)