Take Forests Off of the Chopping Block at the WTO

In just a few days, the world's trade ministers will be gathering in Seattle for the Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO). What is the environmental agenda of the U.S. for this meeting? Vice President Gore announced this week that the U.S. would promote, in the future, an environmental assessment of the impact of trade agreements. Gore also mentioned fisheries subsidies, agriculture, and environmental technology. But Gore said nothing about forests.

The reason why Vice President Gore did not mention forests is because a key element of the U.S. government's agenda for the Seattle meeting is an agreement to increase trade in forest products that may very well increase unsustainable logging in some of the world's most sensitive and biologically diverse forests and threaten vital forest protection measures. For these reasons, the agreement has been named by those outside of the government the "Global Free Logging Agreement."

According to the World Resources Institute, nearly one-half of the world's original forest cover is gone. Of the remaining original forests, most is severely degraded, while only 22 percent remains as large tracts of relatively undisturbed primary or "frontier" forests. Every hour, at least 4,500 acres of tropical forests fall to chain saws, machetes, flames, or bulldozers, and another four plant or animal species die out, most in the tropics. Now is the time to increase protections for our forests, not to increase logging and forest destruction.

Every leading environmental group opposes this proposal, called "Advanced Tariff Liberalization," as do 48 bi-partisan members of Congress, seven U.S. Senators, 22 Washington State Legislators, 4 Seattle City Council members and over 500 organizations and individuals from around the world. In response to this opposition, the Administration has put forward nothing, absolutely nothing to mitigate the impact of the ATL -- not even a flimsy environmental "side agreement" like they used to dress up NAFTA.

The Administration's defense of their proposal, when asked, is that they did a study concluding that the impact of wood products tariff elimination on forests would be minimal. This study, however, has not convinced the timber companies. A press release from the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA) says that the wood products agreement is the "last opportunity" for the U.S. logging industry to "operate on a level playing field internationally." The Seattle WTO meeting is "critical" for the logging industry, they say.

In fact, the Administration's study shows that there is a lot to be concerned about. The study concludes that the ATL will increase logging in Chile, Indonesia and Malaysia, home to some of the world's most endangered and biologically rich forests. Perhaps as important is that the study doesn't attempt to assess the specific impacts on forests and biodiversity in Indonesia, Malaysia, Chile, or elsewhere. How could it? The study was finished in just a few months.

The WTO presents a lot to be concerned about. But just looking at forests, it is embarrassing that our government's agenda is to promote more logging in some the world's most sensitive forests and not feel responsibility to propose any mitigation at all. On the contrary, the Administration is proposing to discuss ways to reduce mitigations that already exist such as eco-labeling or certification programs, green procurement laws such as those requiring recycled content in paper, bans on the export of raw logs and laws to protect forests from invasive species. Even Home Depot recognizes that some sensitive forests shouldn't be logged. How ironic: Home Depot acts to reduce their negative impact on the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, while the U.S. government is pushing more logging in these same forests. Shame on you, Uncle Sam.

Mr. Vice President: Please Speak Up for Forests at the WTO. Also, please call Vice President Al Gore's office to ask that the Vice President personally intervene to insure that the influence of the U.S. at the WTO is used to protect global forests, not destroy them. The number is (202)456-1111 or email vicepresident@whitehouse.gov