Are European forests the first to be protected by a Legally Binding Agreement? – Daniela Tináková

Signatories of FOREST EUROPE, countries within the European continent and the EU, took one step closer to adopting a Legally Binding Agreement (LBA) on Sustainable Forest Management. The Expert Level Meeting (ELM) which took place in Bratislava (Slovak Republic) on 5-6 of December 2018 resulted in adoption of the Ministerial Decision draft text. As an observer to the process IFSA was invited to participate in the meeting.

As is often the case when stakes are high – the baseline for protection and management of Europe’s forests may be at stake – it takes a long time to reach an agreement. Serious talks about an LBA started almost a decade ago. The signatories and the observers represent a wide range of interests in the forests, such as biodiversity protection, timber harvest, ownership rights, all within a great many distinctive European cultures of forest appreciation and management.

The importance of this meeting was underlined by the long list of dignitaries present. The ELM was opened by co-chairman Mr. Boris Greguška followed by a welcome speech delivered by Mr. Jaroslav Regec, the Secretary General of the Office of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of the Slovak Republic. Attendance to the meeting by UNECE and FAO was also highlighted also speeches of the Executive Secretary of the UNECE, Ms. Olga Algayerova and by Deputy Regional Representative of the FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia, Ms. Yuriko Shoji.

After a brief recap of conclusions from the last Roundtable Meeting on the LBA in September 2018 in Bratislava, UNECE and FAO delegates informed participants about the technical information on procedural options for implementation of the Madrid Ministerial Decision. The procedural option C – “New mandate and restart of negotiation under the UN system” was chosen.

There was a heated discussion over the procedural steps and draft text of the Ministerial Decision. It underlines once more the importance of this hot topic and the ambition of many signatories to reach an agreement. Delegates exchanged their opinions on whether the current approach is the right one, if the LBA would really have an added value. Some environmental protection organisations suggest a focus on improved application of the global Conference on Biodiversity instead of a European LBA. Those with an interest in the timber industry might be wary of any new agreement limiting their current levels of harvest. Another topic up for debate was which organisation – FAO or UNECE would be the leading organisation for further negotiations. Some of the delegates insisted upon deciding for concrete deadlines of certain actions as well as procedural steps to be set as soon as possible. In their opinion another postponing of these decisions might question the usefulness and effectiveness of the whole thing.

The ELM´s Agenda 3 – Implementation of the Madrid Extraordinary Ministerial Decision resulted in adoption of the Ministerial Decision text draft. The Minister of the Agriculture and Rural Development of the Slovak Republic will submit the document to the ministers in charge of forests under FOREST EUROPE. Reactions will be collected over the next three months. The approved decision will be then disseminated by Slovak minister to the respective organisations in order to facilitate the negotiations on the LBA. The UNECE was confirmed by the ELM to be the leader in servicing the negotiations on the LBA jointly with support of FAO.

The Agenda 4 consisted of introduction to the Work Programme implementation and progress by experts from the Liaison Unit Bratislava, which represents the current seat of FOREST EUROPE in the Slovak Republic. Conclusions of the workshop “Enhancing the long-term competitiveness of the forest sector in a green economy”, which was organized in May 2018, were presented. The necessity was highlighted for policies focusing on a stable and predictable operational environment, and for a bioeconomy development depending on forests taking into account the changing climatic conditions. The Portuguese delegate reminded all present that proper attention should be also paid to non-wood forest products, which are often of higher importance than timber and gave an example of the cork harvest in Portugal.

Two external speakers were invited to give a presentation about activities of their organisations related to the topic. Ms. Sointu Raisanen from The European Region for Innovation in Agriculture, Food and Forestry (ERIAFF) represented the Regional council of North Karelia. Ms. Raisanen introduced the organisation as well as its activities. Ms. Ingrid Kriššáková from the Slovak National Forestry Centre also presented their projects based on rural development of forest and agriculture-dependent regions.

Another topic of the agenda was the role of sustainable forest management in a green economy. Participants got familiar with past and upcoming activities of the expert group. An active discussion on this topic is a sign that promotion of green jobs and education is a question of immediate interest for the delegates. Delegates appreciated the proposal of Sweden to host the next meeting in order to search synergies between the work which should result in a joint product. They aim to collect best practices from countries and use valuable experience and knowledge in employment for the forestry sector.

Forest monitoring and reporting matters were presented by Mr. Rastislav Raši. Mr. Raši talked also about the challenges of data collection and report creation.

During the discussions under the agenda, participants agreed to be careful when proposing and establishing new projects to not duplicate the work and to be focused on the new issues which were not properly taken care of.

The Expert Level Meeting in Bratislava was very precisely organised, active and a fruitful event. It was obvious, that protection and sustainable use of European forests is in the centre of interest in all the signatory countries. They have strong will to exchange views and experiences in order to build a functional tool for securing sustainable forest management. Isn´t that the good predisposition for better future of natural resources? During the next ministerial meeting in 2020, we shall know if indeed Europe will be the first continent to have a Legally Binding Agreement on forests.

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