Forests are immensely important, both to society and the environment: they play a vital role in enriching the natural resources that support life on earth; millions of people are wholly or largely dependent on forest resources for their livelihoods; and, increasingly, we are coming to learn of their role in combating climate change. In short, we are all highly dependent on their existence and survival.
The seven partner NGOs working on Making the Forest Sector Transparent know only too well that no-one is as dependent on these precious assets as the poorest and most vulnerable.
Despite widespread recognition of the immense importance of public forests, this has not protected the world's public forests from aggressive destruction on an enormous scale.
The forest sector has suffered from years of poor management and a lack of accountable governance. In many forest-rich-but-economically-poor developing countries -- where governance is often weak and problems of law enforcement and revenue distribution are systemic -- corruption and poor law enforcement have been exploited by governments and unscrupulous big businesses in greedy pursuit in their own commercial interests.
Policy processes have been dominated by an elite group of powerful individuals or corporations looking to exploit the forests for their own personal gain and mismanagement of public forests to feed an international commodity market has led to unsustainable forest use and practices.
The international donor community has spent tens of billions of dollars since the late 1980s trying to reduce deforestation and harness forests for economic growth in developing countries. These investments have consistently promoted industrial export-orientated timber production as the means to kick-start the economies of forest-rich developing countries. The reality, however, is that in virtually every country where this has been tried, practices such as illegal logging and trading of timber have become rife, with few lasting social or economic benefits for forest-dependent communities.
Rather than pro-poor economic development, we have seen: environmental and social destruction on a massive scale; vast revenue loss for forest-rich developing countries (whose economies are highly dependent on forest resources); exacerbation of poverty; human rights abuses; and -- too often -- full scale timber-fuelled war.
In all of this, it is the poor and vulnerable forest-dependent communities who stand to suffer the most, as their needs are entirely neglected and their voices go unheard. For more, download Global Witness' report "Vested Interests"
Making the Forest Sector Transparent is a four year project that supports civil society groups in forest-rich countries to engage with policy makers and advocate for accountable forest sector governance.
In all four pilot countries of this project, local campaign groups have identified that industrial scale logging has failed to deliver social or environmental development objectives. Those involved in this project believe the world cannot afford to put these global assets at risk and that alternatives to the logging paradigm that generate sustainable economies at the local level, whilst mitigating the worst effects of climate change, must be found.
As identified in the UK Government's 2005 White Paper, 'Making Governance Work for the Poor' -- the impetus for the funding for Making the Forest Sector Transparent -- transparency is key to the demand side of good governance. Strengthening the ability of ordinary people to access and analyse information will help to reorient forest policy towards their needs.
The project takes a people-centred approach to assessing the level of public access to information through designing and piloting a transparency report card. Using this methodology, the project will be able to as a assess the scale of the problem; assess the extent to which efforts to improve transparency in the forest sector are working; identify cases of good practice by some governments; and explore possibilities for extension and replication of good practices.
Through repeating the report card annually, and expanding to more countries, the project will lay the global ground-rules for a shift in power towards increased access to information and to decision-making for those whose lives most directly depend on forests.