Volume Four Number One Late Winter 2000
The World Trade Organization (WTO) has put the forests of the world on the chopping block, threatening to fuel the destruction of the planet's remaining forests and posing a major threat to endangered ecosystems, and biodiversity. This threat arises out of existing WTO rules, plus a proposed "Global Free-Logging Agreement" that would greatly expand those rules. While no progress was made on this agreement at the WTO meetings in Seattle, it seems unlikely that this issue has died.
on the streets of Seattle.
The United States, on behalf of the American Forests and Paper Association, has been leading the charge to further liberalize trade in forest products. It is currently spearheading negotiations to eliminate tariffs on forest products. This proposed elimination of tariffs on forest products would result in an increase in consumption and logging at a time when the world's native forests are facing extinction. The proposed "Global Free Logging Agreement" would increase global consumption of paper, pulp and other wood products by 3 to 4%, says industry.
The agreement would also restrict certain pro-environmental government policies, providing the forest products industry with freedom from accountability to national environmental protection laws, including those of the United States. While the federal government negotiates trade agreements and represents the United States in dispute settlement proceedings, the reach of the agreements is not limited to federal law. Once the United States enters into a trade agreement, it has bound the 50 states and local governments and subjected their laws to trade challenges. This elimination of national, state, and local protections will result in a void, leading to mounting deforestation and degradation of the world's forests.
While the existing WTO trade rules are hostile to forest protection and could be devastating to countries' attempts to protect their forests and to limit demand for unsustainable logging, these new negotiations could lead to the dismantling of numerous protections:
1) Raw Log Export Bans - In the face of unsustainable logging rates, the United States and states in the western United States have banned the export of unprocessed (raw) logs from public lands. Such export bans reduce the demand for logging and enable domestic mills to reap the benefits of the logging that is done. WTO rules prohibit such export bans. Japan has threatened to invoke these WTO rules to challenge the export bans for public lands in the west.
2) Green Procurement - Through green procurement, governments use their purchasing power to decrease consumption of products from native and unsustainably managed forests and to increase demand for and use of recycled paper. Recycled content requirements are firmly in place for federal, state, and local government procurement. Under WTO rules, such requirements are vulnerable to challenge on the ground that they discriminate against countries that log native forests. Government procurement preferences for products from sustainably managed forests, under consideration by many local governments, run afoul of WTO rules that prohibit different treatment of products based on the way the product is produced.
3) Eco-labeling and Forest Certification - Eco-labeling enables consumers to identify and purchase environmentally friendly products. Forest certification schemes disclose whether forest products have been produced in a sustainable and environmentally sound manner. Many forests throughout the west have obtained such certifications. WTO rules create obstacles for such "life cycle" eco-labeling because it is based on how the product is produced, not simply on the product's characteristics.
4) Invasive Species Safeguards - Invasive species are the second leading threat to forest biodiversity. The most effective way to prevent bioinvasions of forests is to prevent the entry and spread of invasive species. Yet a ban or other restrictions on imports of wood products apt to harbor invasive pests would collide with restrictive WTO rules that require that regulations be based on definitive proof of a risk from each country, and that they use the least trade restrictive means of achieving the regulatory goal. Scientists have identified numerous pests that have a high risk of being introduced on wood imports that could devastate forests in the western United States.
5) Forest Protection Laws - Many countries have environmental laws that protect forests but impose restrictions on how foreign investors may run their investments. New investor rights threaten to thwart forest protections because they seek money damages from governments that restrict their investments, even if through environmental regulations.
The WTO Should Review and Repair the Damage
Its Rules Cause to Forests
The WTO's threat is magnified by what is not on the table. Trade negotiations are focusing on removing trade barriers, not on protecting forests. The WTO does not develop solutions to environmental threats. The WTO is not deferring to governments or international institutions that are developing forest protection strategies that respond to scientific evidence and political demands. Instead, the WTO is reaching out worldwide to prohibit a vast array of forest protections, without putting other protections into place.
This one-sided rush to establish trade promotion rules that displace forest protections is untenable. Governments have historically had control over the natural resources within their borders. They should retain full authority to protect their forests. The world's forests should not be on a WTO chopping block.
The WTO's accelerated push to negotiate a global free-logging agreement puts the cart before the horse. As leading U.S. environmentalist groups have demanded, it is time to slow down and take stock of the threat that the existing WTO rules pose before increasing their reach and severity. The WTO should review its rules to assess the extent to which they stand in the way of sustainable forest practices that protect native forest habitats. The WTO should then repair the damage its unbalanced rules and biased processes threaten to cause to world forests.
Other Articles About the WTO in this Issue This Is What Democracy Looks Like - The WTO Protests in Seattle What Will Be Next - The WTO's Anti-Environmental Record Top 10 Reasons to Oppose the World Trade Organization