Who among our politicians will save our forests? Most leaders sense the long-term significance of forests to their people. Forests help define the 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 eight leading industrialised nations (G8) meet in Okinawa, Japan, from 21st to 23rd July. Japan is, of course, a nation that loves its forests. Unfortunately, multinational companies from Japan and other members of the G8 are still very active in destroying ancient forests inside and outside their own borders.
In 1987, in Italy, the G7 'underlined' its 'own responsibility' towards tropical forests. 1n 1989, in France, the G7 called for 'adoption of sustainable forest management practices, with a view to preserving the scale of the world's forests'. They realised 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 G8 met in the United States. It declared 'we are determined to take action to increase forests, while protecting existing ones'. In the UK, in 1991, the G8 'remained concerned'. At the Tokyo meeting in 1993, members wanted '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, at Birmingham in the United Kingdom, in May 1998, this pious succession of soundbites without commitment yielded the G8 'Action Programme 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 8000 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 destabilised
Perhaps the G8 should 'stop meeting like this'! Its Action Plan was as tentative as forest destruction is final. It committed the G8 to greater information sharing to help develop counter measures to illegal logging. Yet 80% 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 ITTO (International Tropical Timber Organisation). 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 G8 action. Are timber trade lobbies becoming more powerful than Governments?
As well as implementing the Action Plan, G8 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 G8 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, logistical 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 one hundred years ago, for example, Theodore Roosevelt played a key role in creating the US 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 Giuliano Amato, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Jean Chretien, Bill Clinton, Yoshiro Mori, Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Schroeder live up to their obligations?
Sadruddin Aga Khan
The above article appeared in the International Herald Tribune of 19th July, 2000.