Timber Line: The UN Labors to Encourage Reverence for Forests, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Mar

Forests II=

Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours.  Herman Hesse

When great trees fall in forests, small things recoil into silence, their senses eroded beyond fear.  Maya Angelou

When trees burn, they leave the smell of heartbreak in the air.  Jodi Thomas

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. William Blake

To come in contact with the tree you have to put your hand on it and the word will not help you to touch it.  Jiddu Krishnamurti

And see the peaceful trees extend, their myriad leaves in leisured dance— they bear the weight of sky and cloud upon the fountain of their veins.  Kathleen Raine

The UN took up some important issues this week, including the economic and social benefits of Universal Health Care, the need to fulfill our participation promises from the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, and the implementation challenges of “biometrics” technology in securing national borders and positively identifying “foreign terrorist fighters” and other members of terror movements.

The biometrics event, organized by the ever- thoughtful UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, was particularly instructive as expert after expert wrestled with how to balance the technological benefits with the human rights pitfalls.  How do manage the “secret sharing” of this technology with intelligence and law-enforcement officials across borders while ensuring that rights of privacy and freedom from politicized applications are duly protected.  As is so often the case in such matters, we were left with an unfulfilling formula with many more concrete assurances regarding the counter-terror functionality of biometrics than regarding its own potential for rights abuses.

While some in this policy space would diminish its relevance, this is actually a pervasive problem at the UN.  We can prod and cajole, we can institutionalize our normative concerns and “turn up the heat” on serially-offending states.  But at the end of the day, it remains easier to “sell” governments (and other stakeholders to be sure) on the benefits of technology than on the vigilance required to ensure that such technology is not “repurposed” to political or economic goals inconsistent with Charter obligations to uphold human rights let alone the people-centered promises we have made to global constituents on sustainable development and a healthy environment.

Part of this dilemma is courtesy of a modern mind-set that “trusts” technology more than the motives of governments or even other human beings.  We have certainly adjusted our collective policy work to accommodate the language and thought-processes of technology and, on that basis, assumed that technology will more or less “sell itself” to an audience perhaps much too eager to embrace its benefits without bothering to assess, and then recover, what we might otherwise be in danger of losing.

Some of this disconnect was in evidence at this week’s International Day of Forests event, a precursor to May’s Forum on Forests to be held at UN Headquarters.   We eagerly anticipated this event, in part, based on our understanding of the important role that forests play worldwide in absorbing and storing carbon, but also the degree to which the lack of healthy forests (due to disease or deforestation) is itself a significant contributor to climate risks.  Thanks to UN reports and local agents of change, we know that healthy forests have direct implications for water, soil quality and other quality-of-life issues in rural areas.  Thanks to Green Map and others, we also know of the multiple benefits of trees in urban areas, including energy conservation, CO2 reduction, storm-water capture and pollutant removal, as well as traffic calming and crash reduction, healthier walking and cycling, even “an enhanced sense of well-being and conviviality brought by singing birds and shaded sidewalks.”

Some of these topics were mentioned, mostly in passing, at an event that (even with the presence of eco-engaged children) created little “buzz” among the scarce audience in the ECOSOC chamber. From a purely policy level, there were several missed opportunities to drive this discussion further.  Among those “misses” was a focus on the role of forests in maintaining our dangerously shrinking biodiversity, not only as habitats for individual species but in preserving the symbiotic bonds between species, bonds increasingly threatened by our habituated carbon loading and resource exploitation. Moreover, there was no mention of the rights and implications of respecting “land tenure,” even by the representative from the Food and Agriculture Administration (FAO) which is largely credited with placing land tenure issues squarely on the UN’s agenda in the first place.

Tenure issues are critical to healthy forests, as “insecure tenure rights” courtesy of corrupt government or corporate entities creates conditions conducive to “conflict and environmental degradation.”  The arbitrary separation of people (including indigenous peoples) from their forests and other lands also has grave stewardship implications, inasmuch as the persons “closest” to the land, persons who understand best the rhythms and relations that keep forests and other ecosystems healthy are no longer able to render those sustainable services.   As tenure rights are violated, often with impunity and despite official promises to the contrary, natural resources are more likely to be exploited and promises for eco-protection and restoration are more likely to go by the wayside.

As part of the International Day event, a representative from China’s “Shelterbelt” Program shared an ambitious, forest-focused government program (started in 1978) to protect communities and agriculture from “dusty wind, desertification, water erosion and soil loss.”  As technologically impressive as this project has been, more poignant for me was the testimony of young people who have successfully “localized” the protection and expansion of forests and trees, planting and caring for life forms that might well outlive them, recognizing their many benefits — well beyond the commercial and the technical — for the abundance and health that they (and many millions of others) hope to enjoy.

And in the process, perhaps helping us to revive a bit of the “romance” of the forest as well, a romance well-represented in the quotes at the beginning of this post, odes to trees that inspire awe as well as offer protection from flooding and pollution, trees that offer “long thoughts” as well as long shade, trees that “bear the weight of sky and cloud” as well as the weight of the millions of people and countless species under stress relying on them for sustenance and shelter. To be able to touch the trees that themselves touch the sky, trees which hold secrets long–forgotten or ignored by humans more anxious to use modern tools to exploit the “green thing that stands in our way,” this can be a life-changing, even “romantic” experience that can enrich and sustain forest protection commitments over many years.

I have been so fortunate to touch so many threatened “great trees” – the majestic redwoods on both sides of San Francisco, the Cedars of Lebanon that once fostered mighty ships, the tangled web of vegetation in the Panamanian rain forest, the Black Pines of Japan interspersed with bamboo, the brilliant fall Maples of New Hampshire, the Sycamores of sub-Saharan Africa, the Cypress of Robeson County, North Carolina.  These and other trees inspire awe even as more and more of them are isolated both from their own kind and from the deeper forests which were once their incubators.

It has been said that we have done to the forests what we have done to each other – degrading their inherent dignity and disrespecting connections that are crucial to our common existence.  Through greed and indifference, through careless fires and the endless whining of chain saws, we have caused our share of “heartbreak” among the trees. The promises of technology notwithstanding, we will not survive our current climate threats without millions of local commitments to larger and healthier forests, nor will we end poverty and protect the languages and cultures that remain most directly “in touch” with the canopies on which we all depend.

Let us then be about the urgent business of revering, protecting and above all, planting.

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