Rio Summit may `ignore` forests, warn scientists

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Forests have barely been mentioned in the draft of the international agreement to be made at the Rio+20 Earth Summit later this year (20-22 June), the body that represents 15,000 of the world's forest researchers has complained.

Forests provide resources essential to the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people, but only one paragraph is devoted to forests in the 'zero draft' — the document that forms the basis of negotiations between governments leading up to the signing of an agreement at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Brazil.

Highlighting the issue last month (28 February), the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) criticised the International Council for Science (ICSU), which co-led the official input of the international scientific and technological community into the Rio+20 process.

'An explicit reference to forests is only made three times in the entire [ICSU] document,' said Michael Kleine, deputy executive director of IUFRO.

While he said he agreed with much of the content of ICSU's submission, 'the importance of forests is only mentioned in the context of biodiversity conservation'.

'This is too narrow by far and does not cover the real value of the wide spectrum of goods and services that forests provide,' he said.

IUFRO held a three-month consultation last year with its 650 member institutions, which yielded a position statement that was submitted to ICSU for inclusion in the Rio+20 process. IUFRO also contributed to the input into the Rio+20 negotiations through the Collaborative Partnership on Forests, a technical advisory body to the UN Forum on Forests.

'We would have expected [in ICSU's submission] at least some language referring to the role of forests in future human wellbeing, the transition to the green economy in terms of energy and the role of forests,' Kleine said.

Louis Verchot, principal scientist at the Centre for International Forestry Research in Indonesia, echoed the criticism.

'The absence of forests from this year's agenda is remarkable,' he said in a blog post (14 February). 'Policymakers must recognise that forests are essential to all of the major challenges that are on the table for this meeting.'

Peter Bates, science officer at ICSU, which held regional workshops around the world to reach consensus on what should be submitted to Rio+20, said the organisation had taken a strategic approach to its submission.

'Our focus was to get to the overarching issues,' he said, adding that ICSU had chosen to focus on points that might specifically influence the two key themes of the conference — the green economy and creating an institutional framework for sustainable development.

 'We were encouraged to think about issues that are new and emerging, that were not dealt with at the original conference 20 years ago,' he said, although he acknowledged that some issues that were covered in detail at the Earth Summit in 1992 are now in need of reassessment.

'The issue is not how many times a topic is mentioned but the quality of the language and the rigour of the commitments — and, at the moment, it [the Zero Draft] is very, very weak. It very rarely goes beyond recognising that there is a problem. The next stage is to work on the hard language and the accountability,' he said.

With the window for input by non-government groups now closed, IUFRO has urged its members to promote its position through other avenues, saying that 'it will now only be possible to further highlight forest and forest science issues through personal attendance at … meetings'.

The two key scientific meetings at which it is hoping to deliver its message are the Planet Under Pressure conference in London this month (26–29 March) and the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development, to be held in Brazil just before the Rio+20 meeting.

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