An analysis of forests in the emerging SDGs framework

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By Umberto Sconfienza, Tilburg Law School

Umberto forests 150The UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals has concluded its work with its final report, which contains 17 proposed global goals and 169 associated targets. As we reflect on 18 months of hard work it is clear that some of the topics that were discussed during the input-phase were ultimately sidelined in the final document. This was particularly the case for forests, whose contributions towards sustainable development are well known and documented: watershed protection, mitigation of climate change, biodiversity protection, cultural benefits for indigenous communities, firewood and non-wood forest products such as fruits and game for the local communities.

Given the constant reminder that the final output had to be concise and the goals “limited in number”, it was hardly surprising that more aspirational and overarching themes such as poverty eradication and gender equality were given priority and that forests did not “enjoy” a goal on their own. With a stand-alone goal looking unlikely in the final framework (to be decided by September 2015), the forest community has been supporting a mainstream approach, which would distribute targets related to forest management and forest products across the whole SDGs framework.

Could the mainstream approach produce a meaningful post-2015 outcome for forests?

The answer to this question largely depends on how we “cut” the concept of forest. If we define a forest as a complex terrestrial ecosystem in which trees are the dominant life-form, then we could be addressing forest problems when a target specifically refers to forests (narrow reading) and when, for example, a target refers more generally to terrestrial ecosystems (broad reading). The idea behind reading targets broadly is that even if forests are not explicitly mainstreamed into the SDGs framework, at least some of the elements that make them so valuable for sustainable development could. This kind of conceptual analysis is needed  to understand whether and how - directly or indirectly - forests have been mainstreamed into the SDGs framework.

With the freshly released outcome document , the Co-Chairs decided to take a middle of the road approach towards this issue:

  1. Forests are explicitly addressed within the proposed goal 15 - “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss” - through two targets: one structural and one Mode of Implementation (MoI) target.
  2. Within the same goal, forests are implicitly addressed (broad reading) through at least two other targets, pertaining to biodiversity protection and the trafficking of protected species. The proposed goal 15 is so far not overcrowded with a vast array of environmental issues, which is what would have happened if proposed goal 14 concerning oceans, seas, and marine resources and goal 15 were to form just one “ecosystems” goal. Forests, although not mainstreamed, are not completely marginalized either.

The forest target under proposed goal 15 reads “by 2020, promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests, and increase afforestation and reforestation by x% globally”. At the 8th session of the OWG, states reiterated numerous times that sustainable forest management (SFM) was a good framework to administer and regulate forests. Even though SFM is a poorly defined concept which basically states that forests have to be managed according to the principle of sustainable development (1) , some consensus regarding what SFM involves started to emerge at the  UN Forum of Forests (UNFF) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). SFM covers the seven thematic areas:

  • extent of forest resources
  • forest biological diversity
  • forest health and vitality
  • productive functions of forest resources
  • protective functions of forest resources
  • socio-economic functions of forests
  • legal, policy and institutional framework

“Implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests by 2020” certainly does not have the virtue of clarity and, unless one is well-versed in forestry issues, one cannot really know what it means. Even granted that some technicalities might be allowed at the target level and that targets appeal to people already acquainted with the forest sector, some efforts should have been made  to translate the language for a wider audience of practitioners that might work at the fringes of forestry issues. What the OWG might have done - and in my opinion should have done - was to unpack those seven dimensions of SFM and distribute them across the framework.  The OWG tried to keep the output slim according to the mandate that the goals have to be concise and limited in number, on the other side, it seems that the OWG forgot why a non-binding agenda built around Goals, Targets and Indicators (GTI) is so valuable in the first place: To catalyze action. But there is not just one recipe to catalyze actions that works seamlessly throughout all the GTI levels of the framework.  

Targets need be specific above all, and clearly indicate the actions to be taken. The forest sector, apart from a handful of big names, is characterized by a multitude of various small organizations working directly with local communities. By unpacking SFM and providing more detailed targets, the OWG would have allowed “on the ground” organizations to easily recognize the forest targets as theirs as well. This would have had obvious benefits: for one thing, it would have been consistent with the idea of a truly integrated agenda in which disparate small organizations distribute their expertise according to where it is needed the most; moreover, if more organizations express their achievement – or shortcomings - in terms of proximity to specific targets, the monitoring and evaluation of the goals will be made easier.


(1) The Non-Legally Binding Instruments on All Types of Forests clearly states that sustainable forest management is “a dynamic and evolving concept”.

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