Creating Visibility for Forests Worldwide

2012•01•18 Jan McAlpine United Nations Forum on Forests Secretariat

As the International Year of Forests 2011 draws to a close in February 2012, the Director of United Nations (UN) Forum on Forests Secretariat, Ms. Jan L. McAlpine, shares her thoughts about an eventful year. Thanks to the Year, she says a clear message has been conveyed that “all 7 billion people on earth have their economic, spiritual and physical health tied to forests”.

In an interview with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) News, Ms. McAlpine talks about the highlights of the year and the work of the Secretariat promoting the management, conservation and sustainable development of forests around the world. She underscores “that people play a critical role in ensuring the well being of the forests that sustain us everyday” and the need for a cross-sectoral and cross-institutional strategy to achieve sustainable development.

When you look back at the International Year of Forests, are you pleased with the year and how the importance of forests has been showcased?

“The International Year of Forests (Forests 2011) is truly a testament to the rising visibility of forests in global policy discussions. Increased awareness of our relationship to forests and trees is reshaping the landscape at the policy level and in the public consciousness. I am most grateful for the support given to the Year by Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, who has pointed out the importance of using Forests 2011 to turn interest in forests into action.

“Throughout history forests have had a direct impact on the lives of forest-dependent communities, but the Year has sent a clear message that we can no longer ignore: all 7 billion people on earth have their economic, spiritual and physical health tied to forests.

“Forests provide livelihoods to more than a quarter of the earth’s population, home for 300 million people around the world and account for a third of wood and non-wood products. Where forests are sustainably managed and utilized, they can contribute significantly to alleviating poverty and creating forest-based enterprises and services.

“I often like to point out that forests are a cornerstone of the entire landscape, including wetlands, agriculture, mountains, drylands, rivers, biodiversity and people. In order to achieve sustainable development, we need to utilize an approach which integrates these diverse parts of the landscape in a cross-sectoral, cross-institutional strategy.”

Do you have any personal highlights from the year that you would like to share?

“Inspiring projects celebrating the Year have come from UN Member States from all corners of the world, driving actions from policy makers to consumers, NGOs, civil society, businesses, youth, and scientific community to promote sustainable forest management.

“One inspiring initiative that stands out as a true highlight is Rwanda’s announcement at the launch of Forests 2011, of its plan for achieving border-to-border landscape restoration. Speaking as an official emissary of President Paul Kagame, H.E. Mr. Stanislas Kamanzi, Minister of Environment and Lands, Rwanda, announced Rwanda’s commitment to achieving country-wide restoration over the next 25 years.

“We’re talking about restoration of degraded soil, water, land and forest resources in small central African country whose environment and people were devastated by civil war in the 1990s. By the year 2015, Rwanda and its partners, which include the UNFF Secretariat, IUCN and GEF, will have designed a plan to achieve sustainable agricultural production, low carbon economic development, adequate water and energy supplies and new opportunities for rural livelihoods. Such a bold commitment to reverse deforestation and forest degradation will no doubt inspire surrounding countries to follow suit.

“Another personal highlight was the unprecedented collaborative spirit that made this year a truly collective effort. The year would not have been possible without the efforts and support of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF).

What kind of message do you hope that people around the world will carry with them as a result of the International Year of Forests?

“The most important message that anyone can take away from Forests 2011 is that people play a critical role in ensuring the well being of the forests that sustain us everyday, from the freshwater we drink, to the clean air that we breathe. Forests are a mirror of evolving human needs, one that is dynamic and ever-changing.

“From mitigating climate change to providing medicine, homes, raw materials and ensuring the livelihoods of billions of people around the world, forests are at the center of our existence.”

“While we often use statistics to convey the magnitude of forests’ significance for humanity, the true value of forests will be understood in the context of the impact they have on the lives of real people. From mitigating climate change to providing medicine, homes, raw materials and ensuring the livelihoods of billions of people around the world, forests are at the center of our existence.”

In your travels this year, have you come across any forest initiatives that you would like to highlight as good practice?

“As I went around the world this year, I was repeatedly confronted with the dynamic relationship of people with their forests. Throughout the year we’ve been focusing on people as a great way to introduce environmental and social issues that brought to light the stories of indigenous peoples and forest dependent communities in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Sao Paulo, Brazil. These are the people who are most marginalized by the world economy. Forests act as a safety net for the rural poor, and thus play a key role in reducing poverty.

“In May, I traveled to New Zealand for the Pacific forestry conference, ANZIF 2011, where I was honoured with a Maori welcome, followed by the official opening by Sir Tumu Te Heuheu, paramount chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa. It was a privilege to be the guest of the New Zealand government and Ngati Tuwharetoa in Rotorua, New Zealand. I got to see firsthand the way people integrated their cultural and spiritual beliefs into their lives, which epitomizes the concept of sustainable development. There, I saw a society that had defined and internalized this concept for hundreds of years.”

Both the International Forest Film Festival and you personally, have been recognized with prestigious awards. Can you share some more details about them?

“In September this year the German Forest Association presented me with the Fernow Award at a commemorative event in the historic town hall of Aachen. The award was in recognition of the work of the UNFF Secretariat and our activities related to the Year, as well my own three decades of work in environmental, trade and social issues. The award recognizes outstanding achievements in international forest issues and is reflective of the success of the Secretariat and the promising paradigm shift that we’ve facilitated on behalf of forests.

“When Lisa Samford, Executive Director of Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival (JHWFF), and I conceived of the first ever International Forest Film Festival, we never anticipated the response we would receive: 165 film submissions from over 30 countries. It was with Samford’s creativity and the tremendous support of JHWFF that we were able to bring forest issues to a global audience through the powerful medium of film.

“The winner of Best of Festival, “The Queen of Trees”, is one I always come back to when I consider my favorites. The film offers an intimate portrait of the symbiotic relationship between a sycamore fig tree and the fig wasp. It is a tale of sacrifice and rebirth from within the microcosm of a single tree, whose influence is felt throughout the African bush, impacting hundreds of other plant life, animals and people.”

“I would also single out “Hope in a Changing Climate” about a barren landscape in China’s Loess Plateau that is brought back to life. The film has been instrumental in shaping the way people think about their role in land management and its benefits.

“On 5 June, the International Forest Film Festival was awarded the International Association for Environmental Communication’s (AICA) prize in the category “Communicating with citizens improves the environment.” I was invited to CinemAmbiente, Europe’s leading environmental film festival, to accept the prize which was previously awarded to Participant Production for Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

There is also an ongoing art contest for children carried out in partnership with the Gabarron Foundation, what are your hopes with these efforts?

“Our Secretariat’s collaboration with the Gabarron Foundation and Queen Sofia’s Children’s Art Museum in Spain for the 2011 International Children’s Art Contest is a unique opportunity to communicate a message of hope for forests, by looking at them through the eyes of children. The theme is “Celebrate the Forests,” and we believe that art, and especially children’s art, is an important medium to reflect this vision.

“The artwork from this contest will undoubtedly help to inspire children and adults alike to conserve forests for present and future generations. Winners will be announced in February 2012.”

Can you tell us a little bit about the Forest Heroes Programme and Awards?

“From an oyster fisherman’s discovery of the positive role of forests in maintaining clean water for his oyster beds to two young girl scouts mounting a campaign that requires the source of palm oil for girl-scout cookies be only from sustainable sources, global actions have reshaped the way we think about forests.

“The International Year of Forests is all about people’s actions to present the bigger picture of what forests have to offer. We launched the first International Forest Heroes Programme and Awards to identify and honor the countless individuals, who are dedicating their lives to nurturing forests in quiet and distinctly heroic ways.

“The Secretariat received ninety nominations from forty-one different countries across five geographic regions: Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and North America. Fifteen finalists were short-listed for the for the award, and five winners — one from each region — will be announced at the International Year of Forests 2011 closing ceremony in February 2012 at UN Headquarters in NY.”

When working to promote the management, conservation and sustainable development of forests around the world; what do you find rewarding and where do you see main challenges? What are your hopes for the future of forests and is there any message that you would like to convey to UN Member States?

“One of the key challenges is figuring out how to integrate poverty alleviation and food security in the way we treat policy and address issues on forests. You’ve probably heard us state, on several occasions, the overwhelming fact: 1.6 billion people rely on forests for their livelihoods, food and multitude of wood and non-wood products they provide. We are constantly rediscovering the extent to which forests contribute to national development, poverty reduction and food security. What is missing is a cross-sectoral, 360-degree perspective on forests, one that factors in the simple truth that forest priorities will always come down to the crucial relationship between forests and people.

“Strategies to enhance the contributions of the world’s forests to social development, livelihoods and poverty eradication are vital at a time when unsustainable practices and economic crises continue to threaten healthy forests and the people who depend upon them. Yet, sustainable forest management is not “one size fits all.” It is a multilayered and evolving concept, carried out through diverse methods and strategies. As the Year comes to a close, the challenge will be to go beyond business as usual and develop a plan of action for a sustainable future for all.”


The UN Forum on Forests Secretariat is a world body with a facilitative and catalyzing role in engaging and strengthening cross-sectoral linkages with various partners within the UN system, and outside. Since its creation in 2000, the UNFF has promoted a 360-degree perspective of all things forests, recognizing the need to widen the debate on forests well beyond the deforestation and aforestation, to a broader sense of its economic, environmental and social values.

Copyright UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) News. All rights reserved.


Jan McAlpine

DirectorUnited Nations Forum on Forests Secretariat

Jan McAlpine was appointed by the UN Secretary-General in November 2008 to head the Secretariat of the United Nations Forum on Forests Secretariat, based at UN Headquarters in New York, and serve as its Director. She served previously as the Senior Advisor and lead for Forests in the US Department of State in Washington, DC and before that with the Environmental Protection Agency and at the White House, first with the President’s Council on Sustainable Development and then in the Office of the US Trade Representative as a negotiator on issues relating to international forest and timber trade.