The world’s forests are today under unprecedented strain, with deforestation and forest degradation both widespread and accelerating in most parts of the world. These phenomena are driven by a wide variety of factors, from rapidly expanding consumer demand and the growth of urban areas, to rural poverty, agricultural expansion and unsustainable extractive practices. Their consequences are similarly diverse – forest destruction poses dire threats not only to the existence of remaining forest areas themselves, but to the economies and human livelihoods that depend on them and to the ecological benefits they provide – including the now universally recognized role that forests play in the fight against climate change.
Forest laws around the world have evolved dramatically in recent years in response to these pressures, and to new ways of thinking about forests expressed in documents such as the Rio Forest Principles, Agenda 21, the Biodiversity Convention, and the 2003 World Bank Forest Strategy and Policy. National level reforms reflect a move away from narrow regulatory approaches focused primarily on government management and policing of forests as economic resources. Instead, national forest policies increasingly recognize the multiple interests at stake, giving greater attention to environmental and social values, to sustainable forest management and planning, to the rights and roles of local communities and private land owners, to public participation and oversight and to greater transparency and accountability in forest exploitation, law enforcement and other governance issues. Forest law has also rapidly evolved to reflect growing international obligations pertaining to environment and trade, on issues such as climate change, intellectual property rights, genetically modified organisms, timber certification and the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Bank provides support for a wide array of national, regional and global initiatives, including investment projects that directly promote forest conservation and sustainable use, as well as projects in other sectors that have potentially profound implications for forests. The Bank has also played a leading role in global efforts to combat illegality and corruption in the forest sector through the Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (FLEG) program. It has helped enhance the contribution of forests to climate change mitigation through initiatives such as the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) and the Bio-Carbon Fund.
The Environmental and International Law Unit of the World Bank’s Legal Vice Presidency with its team of forest and environmental law specialists participates actively in the Bank’s forest initiatives by conducting research, advising on best practices, drafting opinions, reviewing legislative proposals and formulating and supervising forest-related operations in which legal and policy reform is a key feature. In addition, the unit provides advice on the application of all the Bank’s safeguard policies in forest-related operations, in particular OP/BP 4.36 on Forests.