The Role of Forests within the Frame of a «Green Economy»

Article, 11.07.2013

«The traditional Forest Sector is undervalued in numerous Countries»

Discussion with Jürgen Blaser, forest expert at the SDC’s Global Programme on Climate Change, Doctor of Natural Sciences, Graduate Engineer in Forestry from the Zurich Federal Institute of Technology (EPFZ), and Professor of International Forestry at the Bern University of Applied Sciences.

Viktor Sivets (on the left), head of the State Forest Resources Agency of Ukraine, talking with the regional head environment for the Carpathian Region and Jane Macalpine, Director of the United Nations Forum on Forests (on the right), at the Lviv Forum 2012.

An international conference on the development of a green economy for the forests in the countries of Eastern Europe, Northern Asia, and Central Asia took place in September 2012 in Lviv, Ukraine. Organized under the auspices of the United Nations Forum on Forests and in collaboration with the Swiss cooperation office in Kiev, it brought together 130 experts from 34 countries, mainly from Eastern Europe. The discussions resulted in a Declaration proposing a certain number of concrete measures.

Mr. Blaser, you were the initiator behind this conference. How did this project come to life?

For more than 20 years, forests and forest resources have played a crucial role in the SDCs cooperation programme with Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Within an integrated rural development portfolio, forests play an important role in the economic strategy of transition countries, e.g., through their timber resources, and in local strategies to alleviate poverty, be it in terms of employment, source of energy (fuel wood), or source of food. In the wider development concept of a «green economy», forests occupy centre stage since their resources are abundant, renewable, and accessible.

Most importantly, their sustainable use is carbon neutral. Forests perform a core role in Switzerland’s overall strategy in climate-change policy: they can mitigate climate change and reduce vulnerabilities regarding the negative effect of global warming. For this reason, and in close collaboration with the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), the SDC supports international efforts to promote the role of forests as a driver of development and green growth. The countries in Eastern Europe, Northern Asia, and Central Asia all have great potential to exploit forests in such a wider development context.

Within the efforts of the international community, for example through UN organizations, Switzerland has taken a lead role in promoting forests within the green economy. Few donor countries can match Switzerland’s active and dynamic development portfolio in economic-transition countries. This makes it a natural leader to show how forests can develop a green economy in those countries. The partnership between Switzerland and Ukraine is based on a multi-year collaboration in Ukraine’s forest sector. It lays emphasis on increasing the status of forest goods and services in the country’s Carpathian mountain forests.

Why did you choose Lviv, a provincial city in Ukraine, as venue for the organization of this meeting? Were you surprised by the number and the high level of the participants?

We were not really surprised that the response was so big. There is great demand from professionals all over the region to acquire knowledge on new and emerging topics, such as the green economy. There is great hope in initiatives that extend beyond the conventional limits and set new contexts for the forest sector. Traditionally it has been a closed sector – somehow retarded and living in the past. Thus the interest was huge. We wanted to attract as many participants from the target countries, as well as from countries outside Eastern Europe, Northern Asia, and Central Asia, to increase understanding for the region’s decision-making processes. The decision to host this event in Lviv was not made randomly. We wished to place the Forum in a setting close to a natural environment where things happen. We needed to break the stereotypes of having all important events in capitals. Besides, this way we were able to organize three different thematic field excursions to the Carpathian Mountains, which would not have been possible from Kiev.

We worked with FORZA, an experienced NGO from West Ukraine which attended to the logistics. It’s worth mentioning here that FORZA was initially an SDC creation to implement the Ukrainian-Swiss forest project. The fact that FORZA still exists today without SDC support, as an NGO and implementation partner for national and international projects, is an important point that cannot be underscored enough.

In the brochure entitled «The Lviv Forum on Forests in a Green Economy», in which the results of the conference are presented, what risks are mentioned and what solutions do you recommend?

Ten action areas have been identified and are illustrated by a set of activities to demonstrate how forests can be embedded within a wider green economy approach. They are meant to give a strategic framework to the decision-makers of the countries in the region, based on their particular situations, to tackle one or several of the 10 action areas with the potential to play a major role in green economy development.

The action areas can focus on a country or a specific region where forests offer untold potential. Politically, the action points could play a major role in forest sector reforms, i.e., from forests as a limited resource to their role on a broader socio-economic development agenda. Many forest services in Eastern Europe already need such new ideas solely for survival. In many countries, the traditional forest sector is underfinanced, undervalued, and prone to disappear (with all the consequences on the ecological and macro-economic side). Thus Green Economy can be the driver for a more balanced and sustainable rural development agenda.

Do you believe that things will change thanks to this programme?

We did not expect to solve all the problems with this event. However, the first step in that direction is to define the burning issues as precisely as possible and to propose possible actions. We applied a participatory approach, collecting ideas along with the solutions suggested by the participants. The 10 key messages of the Lviv Forum represent the output of discussions among participants, and are not a finished solution package delivered by outsiders. I believe this was appreciated. Now local governments need to implement concrete activities based on recommended actions. Implementation might be the biggest challenge!

You have been working hand-in-hand with the Federal Office for the environment, in particular with the Forest Division, and with the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO). How did your collaboration with these two Federal bodies unfold? Can we speak of a “whole of government approach”?

Indeed, in the international forestry context, we are used to working hand-in-hand as Federal Offices (SDC, SECO, and FOEN). Besides our coordination in positioning Switzerland in the international forest policy agenda, we have joined in organizing global initiatives such as Forests and Decentralization. Thus the «Lviv Forum on Forests and Green Economy» is a logical follow-up within such a «whole government approach». For Lviv, we had the United Nation Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE/FAO) as a strong UN partner on our side. UNECE is also based in Switzerland (Geneva).

Nonetheless, it took a lot of commitment and persistence to lead such a complex process to the end. It is self-evident that the event’s success should be attributed not only to the Swiss role as a funder and co-organizer, but also as a role model. However, the Swiss institutions also seemed to be the trigger for such a big response to the event. Thus, we can say with the necessary modesty that the Lviv Event was a significant success for Switzerland at the international level.

The fact that the Declaration of Lviv was echoed at the 10th UN Forum on Forests held in Istanbul in April 2013, notably with the participation of the Forest Division of the Federal Office for the Environment, shows the importance attached to this Declaration. What progress, if any, was made in Istanbul in terms of Lviv?

More than 780 participants attended the global meeting of the United Nations Forum on Forests and several dozen ministers in charge of forestry were among them. Within that mega-event, the Ukrainian-Swiss side event was a success. It attracted more than 60 people from several dozen countries and international organizations. Among others, the world’s largest forested country, Russia, participated with high ranking officials from the Federal Forest Agency at our side event. The topic finally influenced the main decision-making agenda of the Forum, and Green Economy was recognized as an important means for financing sustainable forest management.

Do you believe that Switzerland will be able to continue playing a leading role in this vital sector in the future as well? What do you deem to be the conditions necessary for this momentum not to be lost?

Switzerland, beyond its small size and modest forest resources (e.g., Russia has a forest area 540 times larger than Switzerland) is respected in international circles and our opinion on a variety of issues relating to forests is well appreciated. Our own history has shown that forests need to be valued not just for their timber. The broader role that forests can play in society is well recognized in our country, and we can contribute with our experience to countries that lack a development paradigm similar to ours. Therefore, it is of vital interest for us to stay active and continue playing a leading role on the international forestry scene.

10 key messages from the Lviv Forum on forests in a green economy

  • Capture the true value of forests
  • Use all resources efficiently
  • Be energy wise
  • Make jobs decent and green
  • Address threats to forests
  • Define governance principles and stick to them
  • Update skills
  • Innovate and build partnerships
  • Cooperate across boundaries
  • Make the case for the forest sector’s role in the green economy

Each of them is outfitted with a set of possible actions to be applied.