Saving the forests for last – in the hope, at last, of saving the forests

The Sustainable Development Goals, which nations are set to negotiate soon, must not only mention saving the world's forests, but also explain how to do this, says Duncan Macqueen.

31 January 2014
The post-2015 development agenda must recognise that the fates of forests and people are entwined. Credit: Duncan Macqueen

The post-2015 development agenda must recognise that the fates of forests and people are entwined. Copyright, Duncan Macqueen

A cocktail of planetary proportions – and indeed significance – will be on the table next week in New York. Government representatives will meet there to soak up the opinions of selected speakers on equality and equity, gender, conflict, the rule of law, governance – oh, and the future of oceans, forests and biodiversity!

Their mission, as members of the eighth and last meeting of the Open Working Group on the future Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is to help shape a report that will feed into intergovernmental negotiations in September – when the SDGs for all nations to adopt will be set in stone (albeit not legally binding stone).

How could anyone take stock of this heady mix of seemingly disparate topics? The answer lies in the fact that these topics are not as unrelated as they seem.

Forests connect

Foresters have long known that equitable and secure property rights (including between men and women) are the basic foundation of good forest governance, the rule of law, and the key to protecting forests and biodiversity.

Halting deforestation and forest degradation requires the mobilisation of hundreds of millions of local people who live in and around forests – giving them the rights, incentives and the knowledge, skills and resources to restore and manage those forests sustainably.

Those who have listened to the view of indigenous, family and community forest peoples – have concluded that the future of forests very much depends on investing in locally controlled forestry. Alternative approaches that strip away local control are a recipe for conflict and forest loss.

The SDGs, however they are framed, need to make the links between forests, biodiversity, governance, equity and avoiding conflict. The Open Working Group's consideration of all these issues together makes good sense.

Getting forests into the goals

But how best to insert such ideas into the SDGs? This is the question assessed in the Technical Support Team's issues brief on forests, which lays out the ground for the Open Working Group.

For some, such as the civil society organisations that produced the Bonn Declaration in 2011, the best way to do this would be to have a stand-alone goal on healthy forests.

For others, such as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's High Level Panel of eminent persons, it would make more sense to integrate the sustainable management of ALL natural resources into one goal.

Yet others, such as the Campaign for Peoples Goals for Sustainable Development, air concerns over the resource-centric nature of such goals and are pushing for a much stronger emphasis on justice and the rights of local forest people.

For many, it will be the definition of targets and indicators – rather than the goals they serve – that will be decisive in making the links described above.

For that reason, whatever emerges in the Open Working Group’' summary report, it will be essential for everyone with an interest in forests – especially those from the global South – to actively engage with and review its contents.

Marrying goals and national priorities

IIED is facilitating a process, designed to enable that kind of active engagement. It will focus on helping to install forest-related targets and indicators that directly contribute towards notional goal areas in the post-2015 development framework, covering the multiple ways in which forests contribute to climate, resilience, job creation, livelihoods and poverty reduction.

Our approach aims to strengthen country capacity to adapt and apply the framework in ways that are driven by national priorities.

The end of the stock taking by the Open Working Group is at hand. But that does not mean that this is the last stand for those championing the importance of forests. The door for engagement will be open a while longer yet – and IIED wants to help interested parties to make sure that the SDGs not only mention saving the forests, but also explain how to do it.

Duncan Macqueen is Principal Researcher in the Forest Team at the International Institute for Environment and Development. (

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