Seeing the Forest for the Trees: An Interview with the UN Forum on Forests’ Jan McAlpine

Jan McAlpine is Director of the United Nations Division on Forests and head of the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) Secretariat in support of all 193 countries in the United Nations.  The UNFF works to bring about the conservation, management and sustainable development of all types of forests. This includes a focus on the entire landscape—on people, soils, water, drylands, climate and biodiversity, to name a few.  Ms. McAlpine was appointed to head the Secretariat in November 2008.

In February of 2012, Ms. McAlpine visited Yale for the annual conference of the Yale Chapter of the International Society of Tropical Foresters, where she delivered the keynote address. She took a few minutes to sit down with Liliana Dávila-Stern, FES ’13, and Rachel Kramer, FES ’12, who interviewed Ms. McAlpine on behalf of Sage.

Ms. McAlpine gave the keynote address at this year's ISTF Conference. (Photo courtesy of Austin Lord)

Sage Magazine: What are the main challenges in shaping international discourse around landscape-level restoration?

Jan McAlpine: First of all, I think there are two issues that have to be addressed. One is that we have to start working on a landscape level, which is not just about forests or reforestation. It’s actually the entire landscape, physical and human. So if you want to think of the large-scale landscape, it includes wetlands, mountains, agriculture, forests—the whole landscape and all it includes.

The second issue is that there has to be major rethinking of the ways institutions work at all levels—from local to regional, State, multi-lateral, inter-governmental, and private sector—to be able to respond in a different way and to be able to work across sectors and across institutions in a vastly different way than has ever been done.

In your question is the word “discourse.” I would say, enough with the discourse. We now move to actually implementing and taking action, because we really know what the building blocks are and now what we have to do is move to the actual action.

Could you identify one or two main barriers to working across scales in this way?

Money, money, and political will.

What specific policies, programs or messages is UNFF advocating to facilitate the design and implementation of restoration programs that support rural livelihoods and benefit local stakeholders?

UNFF is made up of all of 193 countries in the United Nations, so, essentially, there are no simple answers to your question. The UNFF discusses policies and approaches and concepts that they agree should be implemented to achieve sustainable forest management, but from the standpoint of the UNFF, some of the key messages they’ve underscored is that number one, this has to happen in a different structure and number two, it needs to be developed and created and designed locally—and that means within countries.

The one unique thing about forests versus any other resource is that trees and the forest are actually owned by the people in each country. Yes, the climate benefits are the world’s, but unlike air which moves across borders or water which moves across borders or fish which swim into EEZs (exclusive economic zones) or whatever the issue, trees originally belong to one person, or one community, and exist within one Government’s domain.

At Rio, the first sustainable development conference, the forest principle says that the ownership of forests and the decisions on forests should be determined by the countries themselves. UNFF has reinforced this in other ways, by basically saying that not only is the ownership with these peoples, but if you want to solve the issue, it really requires engagement and ownership.  That’s what we’ve heard in this conference already, over and over from different perspectives. The solution has to come from within and it can’t be determined top-down. I think those are the things I’d highlight.

What role do you envision restoration will play in achieving international climate change mitigation goals? 

Well, I won’t agree to restrict it to mitigation. I frankly think that misses the crucial point. I think that – and this is my personal view, not that of the Forum – climate change discussions in the context of the UNFCCC have tried to address this in a very big silo. Even the nascent developing concept of Reduced Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation{REDD), which took years and years to develop,  and which brought forests finally into the discussion of climate change in a substantive way, has been focused only on the carbon value of forests. Only recently has the concept of the broader functions of forests been slightly integrated into the Convention concept with donor guidance (REDD+), and yet the focus remains, by and large, only on the values for climate. I don’t mean that climate is not important, but as I said in my remarks last night, we don’t believe we can achieve our sustainability objectives, including climate change, unless we approach these and other topics from a broader perspective. From my point of view I think the evidence bears out that many, many countries and experts believe it cannot happen in isolation.

What have your impressions been of this year’s ISTF conference, and what role do you think student-initiated dialogues can play in fostering change?

First of all, this is the first conference I’ve been to at Yale, so I can’t actually compare it to past ones. But I have to say, this is an enormously powerful conference. Normally, I don’t have time to go to conferences other than to speak and disappear. The time constraints of the position I’m in are so busy, however after looking at the agenda and after carving out some other things, and because it’s close to New York where I live, it was a meeting I wanted to attend in its entirety. And so I’ve been absolutely delighted because frankly every single presentation I’ve heard, I’ve learned a lot from, but in addition it’s been “Aha! Yes!?”, which was a great experience. To really find out that the research being done by students and researchers and scientists and private sector and NGOs around the world really does reinforce what the UNFF has been saying and what I was thinking and what I tried to capture in my personal remarks in the keynote last night was gratifying. Especially as I am neither a scientist nor a Forester, it was reassuring to see that there is this community of people from very different expertise and dimensions who are actually all thinking in very similar ways and so the whole motion and forward movement of this conference and this discussion is extremely powerful. I hope that what happens is it’s populated worldwide.

The featured image is courtesy of Anthony Clark. 

Rachel Kramer (MESc 2012) is a Doris Duke Conservation Fellow at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies whose research focuses on the social ecology of conservation and development. She is currently Co-chair of the Yale Chapter of the International Society of Tropical Foresters. This spring, Rachel will be assisting the Fiji Mission to the UN on REDD+ policy issues and opportunities. Prior to coming to Yale, Rachel worked with the Climate Change, Deforestation and Agriculture Project at National Wildlife Federation and served three years in the Peace Corps in Madagascar in the environmental protection sector. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Conservation Ecology from Brandeis University.

Liliana Dávila (MEM 2013) is a student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Before coming to Yale, she served as the Climate and Forest Coordinator at WWF Mexico. Liliana has over 5 years of international experience, working on issues such as REDD+, sustainable forest management, climate change state action plans, sustainable consumption and production and community based eco-tourism. Her areas of expertise include helping the Mexican Government build–up its REDD+ National Strategy, ensuring effective implementation and accurate financial management of projects around climate change, working with governments, UN agencies, and NGO´s of Latin America, developing communications strategies for projects, and fundraising. She has provided technical assistance through international development projects in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru.


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