The carpet was worn, slightly frayed up near the podium and there was a subtle smell of mildew in the air. Looking around the windowless room I realized that the next two hours were going to be a complete waste of time – for me, my staff, the consultant who had flown in from London, the forest department officials and the 10 or so industry representatives.
This was Cambodia in early 2000, the beginning of the global recognition that the illegal logging of tropical forests was devastating landscapes and communities from Brazil to the Congo to Southeast Asia. Despite the clamor from NGOs, the mumbling of governments and the expressions of concern from industry, the policy and market incentives for change were just not there. In the absence of such incentives, business as usual would continue.
Flash forward 10 years and things could not be more different. The 3rd annual Forests, Markets, Policy and Practice International Conference, sponsored by the USAID/TNC-led Responsible Asia Forestry and Trade (RAFT) Program, was under way. The venue was a ballroom in an upscale hotel in the Central Business District of Beijing. Assembled were 400 or more people representing forest managers, brand name retailers and everybody else along the global supply chain that turns majestic tropical hardwoods into your dining room table.
Throughout two days of presentations, case studies, panel discussions and tea break chats, two main points became clear — policies designed to prohibit illegally logged forestry products from the global marketplace are taking effect, and consumer sentiment is shifting in favor of “green products.”
Companies that respond to these changes will be well positioned to ride the global recovery. Those who can’t will be shut out of the high-value markets of the U.S., the EU and possibly other Asia-Pacific countries, including Australia, China and Japan.
We often talk about market approaches in which the interests of business align with those of conservationists. Rarely do such approaches have the potential to fundamentally change the dialogue and shift, at a global level, land-use practices. But that’s exactly what’s happening.
While there is a long way to go, there are lessons to be learned from what’s happening in the forest products industry, and those lessons can be applied in the fishing, agricultural and mining industries, as well as other sectors embracing globalization.
The first lesson is that achieving sustainable outcomes takes a well-coordinated approach that targets consumers, government officials and corporate actors. The second is that it will take time for the necessary incentives to align. The third is that is can indeed be done. It has been a long road from Phnom Penh to Beijing, but the way forward is clear.
(Image 1: Jack Hurd. Image credit: TNC. Image 2: Conservancy partners at the The 3rd annual Forests, Markets, Policy and Practice International Conference. Image credit: TNC. )