United Nations Forum on Forests: “Reforestation is not a simple story of win-win"

Headshot of Daniela Kleinschmit, Professor of Forest and Environmental Policy and incoming President of the International Union of Forest Research Organisations IUFRO

Interview with Daniela Kleinschmit, Professor of Forest and Environmental Policy and incoming President of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations IUFRO.

Ms Kleinschmit, this week’s United Nations Forum on Forests in New York (UNFF19) will discuss issues of international forest governance, i.e. how states and international organizations can find good rules for the use and conservation of global forests. An important source of impetus will be a report prepared by an international team of forest scientists under your leadership, which you will present in New York on Friday. What messages do you have for the United Nations?

To date, the effectiveness of international forest policy has often been measured by the deforestation rate, which means it is measured by how much forest area we lose every year – which, by the way, we are continuously. However, a key message of our report is that we are making it too easy for ourselves if we always use deforestation as an indicator. Of course, it is important to know this figure, but its significance is limited. Instead, we suggest measuring the success of forest policy using other factors, such as the preservation of biodiversity or the socially equitable use of forests. Forests provide an extremely large number of ecosystem services: They provide wood, they store CO2, they are habitats for many species, they contribute to food security and water quality and, of course, they also provide space for spirituality, culture and recreation. These are just some of the important functions of forests that policymakers need to consider.

In our report we also criticize the climate narrative, which takes up a lot of space in the area of forest governance. Because forests are an important store of CO2, reforestation is often falsely sold as a simple story of win-win, along the lines of: plant a tree and save the world – or at least the climate. However, this suggests that we don’t need to worry too much about our emissions. We could simply offset our CO2 emissions by planting forests somewhere. We encounter this idea again and again in everyday life, and sometimes it becomes particularly absurd: one advert advertised that a tree would be planted when you buy a car tire! This idea is also supported in international forest policy, no doubt also because compensation through new forests is politically more attractive than the demand to reduce consumption. Our report makes it clear that there are no simple win-win solutions in international forest policy. It is important to bear in mind that in many cases the land on which trees are planted is already being used by people in other ways to earn a living.

Why has there been no international forest governance to date that also takes social justice, food security and other aspects into account?

Firstly, international forest governance is extremely complex because forests are the subject of politics in so many places and so many old and new players are involved. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, forest policy was still primarily the subject of international agreements between states. The United Nations deals with forest issues in various areas, such as the Paris Climate Agreement or the Convention on Biological Diversity. However, in addition to states, companies, NGOs and other stakeholders are now increasingly involved in forest policy, making it more complex.

With regard to the socially equitable use of forests, power issues and financial interests play a major role, which we also address in our report. The use of forests as carbon sinks and the trade in CO2 certificates often leads to a perspective that prioritizes short-term profits. However, the long-term sustainability of forests and the effects on the well-being of people who live in the immediate vicinity of forests and are dependent on them are lost sight of. The voices of these people, particularly in the Global South, have not yet been heard loudly enough internationally. In our report, we therefore ask who is actually authorized to define what is and what is not a forest policy problem. For example, who decides whether a piece of forest is considered ‘degraded’ and should therefore be restored? The local population on the ground may see things differently and set different priorities. We discuss these existing power asymmetries in our report.

What impact do you hope to have when you present your report on forest governance at the United Nations Forum on Forests in York?

A lot has happened since the last review on international forest governance was published in 2010. The United Nations has therefore asked us – that is the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) —  for a follow-up report summarizing the developments of the past 14 years. I would be delighted if our report were to contribute to international forest policy focusing less on simple figures – for example on deforestation or afforestation. Such quantitative results may be nice to present, but they say little or nothing in terms of quality. Instead, we should take greater account of people’s needs, especially those who are already vulnerable and particularly at risk from crises: Who gains from forest policy action – and who loses? We should take a clearer look at the effects of political decisions, especially those that are not intended but are nevertheless accepted.

You will become the new President of IUFRO in June. What goals have you set yourself for the office?

The IUFRO is an organization that is more than a hundred years old and has grown historically, bringing together many different scientists from a wide range of disciplines, from practical silviculture to social science research on forest policy. Our members come from all parts of the world, but this also presents a challenge: while researchers from Europe and North America are very present, I would like to see much more active participation from other regions, such as South America and Africa. This is the prerequisite for developing a better understanding of the issues and scientific problems of other regions of the world. It will therefore be a major task to achieve the active participation of researchers from the global South in particular and from countries that have been underrepresented to date.

We must also take into account the fact that forest governance has become highly regionalized when it comes to dialogue with policymakers. This means that, in addition to the international level, IUFRO must also increasingly interact with policymakers at the regional level. This will enable us to offer much more targeted science-based information for forest governance in different regions of the world. This will also allow us to take account of the different forest policy priorities in the various regions.

Overview of facts:

  • Dr Daniela Kleinschmit has been Professor of Forest and Environmental Policy at the University of Freiburg since 2014. From 2021 to March 2024, she was also Vice Rector for Sustainability and Internationalization at the University. She is currently Vice President of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO). At the upcoming IUFRO World Congress(23 to 29 June 2024 in Stockholm), she will be appointed as the association’s new president. Kleinschmit is also Principal Investigator of the Cluster of Excellence initiative ‘Future Forests: Adapting complex social-ecological forest systems to global change’. For more information about it and the Freiburg Excellence Strategy as a whole can be found here.
  • The report “International Forest Governance: A Critical Review of Trends, Drawbacks, and New Approaches” will be presented at the 19th session of the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF19) on 10 May. The report is available here.

Find more information on the University of Freiburg website.