There are few losses more profound than a forest laid waste and vanished.
Who among our politicians will save our forests? Most leaders sense the long-term significance of forests to their people. Forests help define a nation, its past, its culture, its land. Trees are planted by politicians and others as symbols of hope for the future, as well as perhaps out of guilt.
All over the world, old trees are venerated, respected, celebrated -- often literally propped up. Stories are kept alive through trees that can far outlive people.
How tragic then that our political leaders are generally so much better at planting ceremonial trees than they are at saving the forests of nations. Perhaps a ban should be put on political-tree planting until the forests are truly protected.
The heads of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations meet in Okinawa July 21-23. Japan is, of course, a nation that loves it forests. Unfortunately, multinational companies from Japan and other members of the G-8 are still very active in destroying ancient forests inside and outside their own borders.
In 1987, in Italy, the Group of Seven "underlined" its "own responsibility" toward tropical forests. In 1989, in France, the G-7 called for the "adoption of sustainable forest management practices, with a view to preserving the scale of the world's forests." They realized that destroying forests was threatening our atmosphere as well as the fruits of evolution -- the huge reservoir of the world's species and genetic resources, which are mostly dependent on them.
In 1990, as the Amazon region burned, the G-8 met in the United States. It declared "we are determined to take action to increase forests, while protecting existing ones." In the Britain, in 1991, the G-8 "remained concerned."
At the Tokyo meeting in 1993, members wanted an "international agreement" to protect forests, while in 1997, in Denver, they called on "all countries" to "eliminate illegal logging." Forests, they noted, "continue to be destroyed and degraded at alarming rates."
Finally, in May 1988 at Birmingham, Britain, this pious succession of sound bites without commitment yielded the G-8 "Action Program on Forests," with a pledge to report back on progress in 2000.
This reminds me of so many U.N. resolutions, consistently voted but seldom implemented.
So here we are. Four-fifths of the forest area that was present 8,000 years ago has been cleared or significantly altered by human beings. The loss continues. Since the Denver summit, an area the size of Germany has been destroyed.
Most terrestrial biodiversity resides in forests, and many of these species are put at risk as industrial logging companies penetrate further and further into the world's ancient forest. Moreover, millions of forest-dwelling peoples are threatened and the climate is being destabilized.
Perhaps the G-8 should "stop meeting like this!" Its Action Plan was as tentative as forest destruction is final. It committed the G-8 to greater information sharing to help develop countermeasures to illegal logging. Yet 80 percent of the logging in the Amazon is now estimated to be illegal. Sadly, similar scenarios are being repeated on other continents.
The plan further calls on states to assist in market transparency for the work of the International Tropical Timber Organization. Yet ITTO members are already committed to sustainable management of their forests by 2000 -- a task almost every one is failing in.
International political action necessarily involves institutions and incremental processes. But the continuing erasing of the world's ancient forests demands more specific and direct G-8 action. Are timber trade lobbies becoming more powerful than governments?
As well as implementing the Action Plan, G-8 nations should set an example by taking some straightforward actions themselves. This would show they really mean business. They should stop buying illegally logged timber: They are the main market. Governments should make this their own procurement policy.
They should say "no" to any aid projects that destroy ancient forests -- believe it or not, it still goes on. And they could prevent trading of illegal timber within their jurisdictions by using their police forces and customs to arrest those involved -- particularly as the perpetrators so often appear to be able to act with virtual impunity in the producer nations.
On the positive side, all G-8 states could simply commit only to buy timber from certified forests -- such as those carrying the mark of the Forest Stewardship Council. And they could provide funds, logistic support and training to help other nations battling to stop illegal logging.
Insecure leaders like to build their own monuments, just to make sure they are not forgotten. Great politicians have no need of monuments: Their achievements live on in the culture, health and education of societies.
Around 100 years ago, for example, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt played a key role in creating the U.S. national forest lands system and literally helped turn the tide of destruction in North America.
Who among our contemporary leaders will have the vision to save the world's remaining ancient forests? What greater legacy could one aspire to leave future generations than this unique natural heritage -- the oldest and richest resource sustaining life on Earth.
Will G-8 leaders Giuliano Amato, Tony Blair, Jean Chretien, Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac, Yoshiro Mori, Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Schroeder live up to their obligations?
Sadruddin Aga Khan is currently charge de mission to the secretary general of the United Nations.
The Japan Times: July 17, 2000