A Comparison of the Three Rio Conventions and the Forest Principles for Potential Synergies: Food for Thought

Ruth Greenspan Bell

The purpose of this paper is to examine articles and principles contained in the three Rio Conventions and the Forest Principles. The four relatively recent instruments form a important unit for study. They have considerable A Comparison of the Three Rio Conventions overlap in terms of the content of the issues they address, some of the purposes they intend to achieve, and in many of the ways in which they approach their respective goals. Can domestic implementation of the four instruments can be facilitated by harmonizing their requirements, with particular emphasis on reporting, assessment and monitoring obligations. This examination is part of an increasing international focus on the implementation phase of the numerous international agreements that have been put into place in the past few years.

This paper argues that two main points. One, there is a great deal that is reinforcing among the agreements in their substantive requirements and goals. Efforts toward accomplishing the various goals can be mutually consistent. Much could be gained by emphasizing implementation activities that are mutually reinforcing. This is particularly so with respect to activities that build national capacity and resolve. Two, some attention should be given to the subject of eliminating redundancy and overlap in reporting and related obligations, and thereby capturing some efficiencies. But the United Nations should approach this effort with caution. There has not been a conclusive empirical study of this issue. However, available evidence shows that reporting under other important international instruments does not take place with any degree of consistency. Because reporting is seen from an international perspective as a major compliance tool, it would be well to know the reasons for low reporting, and to assess how important reporting really is in encouraging or supporting implementation activities. This is a particularly sensitive question in resource-poor countries. Decisionmakers must weigh these answers against the burden that harmonization efforts will place on countries with limited resources, and decide whether the effort will divert attention away from tangible implementation activities. These are not easy questions to resolve.

The first part of this paper is a short review of the four agreements under scrutiny. The paper will then identify articles and principles that are overlapping, complimentary and/or actually or potentially mutually reinforcing. The goal is to identify potentials for synergy and increased efficiency in the implementation of these important agreements. Therefore, the paper will analyze the advantages and disadvantages of focusing on overlapping and reinforcing principles, as a way of facilitating implementation and achieving compliance with the goals of the four agreements. The entire discussion is heavily influenced by the assumption that the primary purpose of collecting information obtained through reporting is to assist implementation.

Overview of the four instruments

These agreements have a high potential for complementarity in their substantive aspects. The common concerns and interconnected facets of the environmental issues addressed by each of these agreements are the habitats and eco systems, principally forests, that serve multiple roles in a complex global society. These habitats support diverse biological resources. They provide for the "social, economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual human needs of present and future generations. They also offer natural means to mitigate the impacts on the environment of various human activities that increase the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. The threats to forests, habitats and eco-systems are rooted in a variety of human activities, as well as "natural" threats such as drought, fires, pests and diseases. Human impacts range from meeting subsistence needs (e.g. providing energy sources for cooking and heating), to agricultural practices, through a wide assortment of other activities related to meeting the needs of human development. Two of the instruments, Desertification and Forestry, specifically address aspects of the impacts of unsustainable and detrimental practices, and drought on forest, eco-system or habitat management. The Biodiversity Agreement preserves habitats and eco systems to maintain biological diversity. The Climate Convention is not specifically directed at the problem of threats to forests, habitats or eco systems, and in fact is directed toward a much wider range of human activities. However, the impacts of climate change include substantial impacts on biological diversity, and the availability of forests plays or can play an important role in remedying the human activities that alter the composition of the global atmosphere.

For these reasons, actions taken in furtherance of the objectives of the Biodiversity and Desertification Conventions, the Forest Principles and some aspects of the Climate Convention achieve complementary purposes. The Biodiversity Convention directs steps to establish cooperation with other bodies dealing with similar matters. These connections are explicit in the Desertification Convention in two important cross-linking references.

Reinforcing provisions and approaches

Examination of the instruments shows very similar approaches toward their global environmental goals. The preambles of each of the agreements acknowledges in one way or another the complex physical, biological, political, social, cultural and economic factors that are at the root of the issues they seek to address, and the scientific uncertainties in either diagnosing or remedying the identified problems, or both. This recognition is preface to the next area that forms common ground among the four agreements, concerted long-term action on a number of social, legal and scientific fronts. Each of these agreements implicitly or explicitly recognizes that it is only possible to achieve its goals by setting in motion a complex, multi-year process with a variety of interactive approaches and activities.

The importance of sustained, long-term commitment is recognized in a variety of ways. It is noted in the frameworks of certain of the agreements that acknowledge building on previous attempts to manage the same global environmental problems. The necessity for looking to the long-term is also recognized through the institution of a number of specific activities. The various agreements memorialize a commitment to gather, assess and share requisite information necessary to move forward in both diagnosis and in remedial phases, to create domestic skills and build problem solving capacity to address the complex scientific and institutional problems, and to provide adequate planning bases. The specifics include research, information exchange including sharing results of technical, scientific and socio-economic research, training and institutional development, national and regional action plans, inventories, and other activities that are aimed at developing effective embedded responses.

Each of these agreements effectively recognizes that progress toward the goals set out in the agreements requires the concerted, joint activity of numerous governmental and societal actors. On the one hand, implementation of international environmental obligations requires governments to respond by creating or strengthening appropriate legislation, regulations, orders and policies. Governments are to develop national action plans, policies and strategies that can provide the framework for increased efforts. Some agreements specify training of decision makers, managers and others, strengthening the skills of government personnel to take necessary actions. A significant role of governments, particularly those in the developed world, is to contribute resources to combat and address the environmental issues identified in the agreements. The instruments distinguish between the available resources and obligations of the developed and developing world.

Actions at the level of governmenalso include the introduction and use of environmental impact assessment. EIA is a means, where relevant, to avoid or minimize the effects of proposed projects on the economy, on public health, on the quality of the environment, on biological diversity and on forests. In the Desertification Convention, the emphasis is on action plans rather than EIA, but the intent appears quite similar. Thus, the Forestry Principles emphasize public involvement in the development, implementation and planning of national forest policies.

EIA and national action plans are also a bridge to identifying and assuring the participation of the second key set of national actors - the various parts of the public. Each agreement notes and encourages the important role of non-government actors in effective development, implementation and planning of national environmental policies and in finding solutions for environmental problems. Related to this is universal acknowledgment of the essential role of wide public awareness and participation in achieving the goals of the agreements. Specific reference is made of making use of the knowledge base of local communities and/or indigenous people. There appear to be two common goals among the agreements in this regard: (1) to increase public understanding and create a citizen base and an informed constituency for environmental change; and (2) to assure adequate private and non-governmental implementation efforts. The instruments reference training at any number of levels for research, information dissemination, data collection, and technology transfer.

Nations that undertake the activities set out above will strengthen their capacity to implement the four instruments under examination by building skills at all levels of society which can be used to transform the obligations from formal requirements into daily routines. This is critical because "what happens at the domestic level is probably more important in explaining the course of development and effects of international commitments."

The barriers to achieving these sensible directives are often political and cultural. On an international level, the institutions supporting the various agreements can coordinate. Sometimes, however, they may view their mandates in ways that put them at odds one with another, despite what appear to be common substantive goals. On a domestic level, in some countries, responsibility for achieving the goals of the agreements may be distributed among ministries and offices that are at cross purposes with one another, or competing for limited resources. In others, economic conditions drive the ministries charged with overseeing forests to be more focused on forests as important sources of national income. The domestic power base of the relevant ministry may derive from using rather than preserving forests and habitats. The decision process for implementing these instruments may be corrupted by inherent conflicts of interest or actual bribery. There may be more mundane institutional problems or resource shortages. Thus, simply using the language of the agreements to find areas of potential synergy only resolves part of the problem of making these agreements fully operative.

For this reason, one way of evaluating the linking and integrating efforts that are currently being considered at the international level is by asking whether taking these actions will facilitate, or impede, activities at the national level. The national level is where actual implementation takes place and where the various instruments put particular emphasis for action. I discuss below some of the factors to consider. In general, decisionmakers must ask about the degree to which activities at the international level can facilitate national efforts, or whether they might actually impede them by drawing off scarce talent and resources.

Reporting Obligations

Oversight and reporting are specific ways to determine whether parties are making progress toward the goals of the international environmental agreements. The utility of reporting and possible reporting synergies among the four instruments are discussed here in two phases: first, a discussion of the role reporting plays in aiding implementation; and second, an analysis of the utility of international efforts to integrate reporting requirements. The three Rio Conventions contain a good number of measures to monitor progress. All three establish a Conference of the Parties (COP). An important purpose of the COP is to examine obligations and assess implementation. The Conventions express the importance of reporting by parties concerning steps taken to implement their obligations, implementation strategies and related matters. Three instruments require parties to submit reports.

Reporting serves implementation goals in a number of ways. For the international community, reported information can provide a warning sign that some type of intervention is warranted. In response, the international community can channel assistance and other support and resources. Adequate representative data can provide guidance to all the parties to the agreement, as well as to the administrative bodies established within the agreement. Results from reporting can pinpoint weak actors. In response, the international community can apply increased diplomatic and peer pressure for compliance, and deliver targeted aid and assistance.

Information can also assist non-governmental organizations ("NGOs"), advocacy groups and businesses. Armed with information, these groups can mobilize public awareness. These organizations typically use publicity campaigns, product boycotts, and the full range of activities to pressure government to adhere to their obligations. Their efforts will be successful if there is a mobilized public, governments that respond to pressures and the responses are in some way proportionate or related to the environmental concerns raised. The experience of some countries like the U.S. demonstrates that public opinion counts to stimulate government to act on environmental issues. There also have been dramatic examples of the public influencing governmental decisionmaking, even in difficult circumstances. Concerns about the Soviet Union's failure to share accurate information about the Chernobyl accident mobilized public opinion in Ukraine. This led to the development of activist NGOs and extensive private radiation monitoring, which in turn provided a reality check on the information that the government was providing.

But reporting requirements can also be a double edged sword for implementation efforts. The weaknesses in reporting and relying on reporting to assist implementation are several-fold. First, reporting is a financial and administrative burden for each country which must provide information. The affluent countries with well developed environmental protection infrastructures have an easier time absorbing this burden. Many other countries, with skeletal environmental protection ministries and limited assets, have greater difficulty. In the starkest cases of limited personnel, time spent responding to reporting obligations may reduce the time and resources available for implementation activities or environmental enforcement. Supplementing domestic resources with contributions from the international community may not help. There may only be a small number of environmental professionals in a specific country who have the skills to obtain, process and report information.

What evidence there is in this area suggests that reporting is not meeting expectations. The United States Government Account Office, a well respected independent investigative arm of Congress, took a close look at this issue. Evaluating the reporting and monitoring information provided by parties to the secretariats of eight agreements, the GAO concluded that "many reports are submitted late, or incomplete or are not submitted at all."

Another study was done in 1990 of reporting under the Montreal Protocol. This report was motivated by concerns that compliance with reporting obligations had been problematic. The reasons found for incomplete reporting included lack of financial and technical resources. Consequently, members were urged to inform the Secretariat of difficulties they faced in complying with the reporting requirements with the idea that remedial assistance might be provided. Some NGOs are urging that access to financing under the Protocol be linked to compliance with reporting obligations. This is unlikely to happen because losing access to funds would further reduce the capacity of developing countries to comply with the substantive requirements of the Protocol. Further confirmation of this point is contained in the GAO report. Speaking of the CITES Convention, the GAO said,

"In the case of developing countries, poor reporting appears to be related to the capacity of these countries to comply with the agreement. Many of these countries cannot fully implement CITES or fulfill their reporting obligations because they lack adequate enforcement legislation and sufficient administrative, technical, and financial resources."

The experience with the Montreal Protocol indicates that if required reporting is not taking place, some difficult judgments must be made about how much pressure to apply to obtain information. Decisions must be made about the relative importance of reporting for the implementation progress and about the use of sanctions to enforce reporting requirements. Some questions to ask include: are results from reporting effective in directing international resources to assistance? How closely linked are reporting and the role of NGOs in stimulating national implementation activities?

On the first question, the principal engine for providing support is the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). It would be useful to consider how best to integrate data and information obtained from reporting into the decision process for making GEF funding decisions or other funding efforts.

The relationship of reporting data to NGO activities that support implementation raises other difficult issues. For example, what is serviceable information that can provide a basis for informing environmental lobbying and decisionmaking. Truly useful information is the kind that can help people sort out and establish priorities, and help governments to come to grips with their environmental challenges in practical ways. Undigested information may provide misleading clues for environmental decisionmaking. As an example, when needles and syringes were found on U.S. beaches, the public outcry caused Congress to write laws controlling the disposal of medical equipment. In fact, no relationship was ever shown between the needles on the beaches and risk from disposal of medical equipment. An important objective of the reporting provisions of the various conventions may well be to stimulate domestic NGOs and others to be effective actors in the environmental debate and in the implementation process. If so, reporting must elicit the kinds of information that can facilitate this mission. This will require international decisionmakers to define and shape the kinds of information they insist on. If a harmonization effort is undertaken, it might be advisable to add a component directed to examining what kinds of information are essential to promote the most effective uses of the reported information.

The second issue of importance involves the role of NGOs in domestic processes. If NGOs are playing an important role in stimulating implementation activities, and information obtained through reporting is an important tool for NGO activities, substantial efforts to increase the amount and consistency of reporting will be worth the effort. This would justify international efforts considering and resolving synergies between different reporting schemes. A finding that the role that NGOs play is different might moderate a drive toward extensive reporting, or might impact decisions about the kinds of information that is collected. For example, a decision might be made in favor of a more focused reporting approach that is "user friendly" for NGOs and others. The important point is that reporting has a cost that must be weighed against its potential benefits. This is a particularly important consideration in countries with weak environmental protection institutions. The utility of the information collected must be maximized, particularly if there is a financial and human resource cost to obtaining it. The important question is how best to provide accessible, accurate information about environmental conditions or compliance in ways that facilitates the use of that information for implementation purposes. Considerations such as these might argue for narrowing the areas for reporting. This would be consistent with the evidence that suggests that reporting improvements are more effective when they are focused on obtaining specific data for specific, clear purposes.

The specific issue stimulating this paper is whether the burden of reporting might be diminished by integrating reporting functions among the three Rio Conventions and the Forestry Principles, in view of their very similar purposes. Streamlining or consolidating reporting requirements might assist countries that otherwise face the burden of doing several separate reports. Whether consolidating reporting requirements would contribute to increased implementation activities is a more difficult question.

If little useful reporting is actually taking place, an effort to consolidate reporting obligations could consume a lot of international effort without much real gain. A harmonization effort will itself require many resources - research, meetings, travel and efforts to achieve consensus. With limited human and financial capital available to accomplish the ultimate goals of the various agreements, international decisionmakers must consider whether scarce energies are likely to be consumed in a paper exercise to consolidate reporting. These concerns are likely to be particularly acute if there is little actual reporting or likelihood of reporting. An important criteria is whether the goals of a harmonization effort are closely aligned with implementation. It would also be important to know something about the capacity of countries engaged in the exercise. What is the capacity of countries with limited environmental resources to engage in an international harmonization effort? Will doing so diminish their capacity for domestic implementation activities? The report of the U.S. GAO provided discouraging examples such as "'one person' wildlife departments" that must implement the CITES Convention, as well as perform other tasks.

If these questions are answered in favor of consolidation, great care should be taken to assure that the effectiveness of reporting is not compromised in the case of agreements where information retrieval is either more consistent or is demonstrably tied to implementation. If some agreements have better reporting track records than others, it would be important to know why in order not to undermine their effectiveness.

Some observers suggest that better information collection and sharing through the telecommunications revolution offers new organizational tools and opportunities for stimulating implementation efforts. There are discussions about work on a common "technical" framework for monitoring. These include suggestions for improved systems for sharing technical information, better access to information on the Internet, and the like. There is no doubt that reliable information is the basis of good decision making. Once facilities and individuals are committed to implementing their environmental obligations, they can be assisted by access to information about, for example, environmentaltechnologies and practices. But technology is only a tool. Hard-nosed assessments must be made about the utility of specific information collections for achieving the goals of specific agreements. There will inevitably be a cost to the collection and to the process of making information electronically available. Two reports cited in this paper indicate that information collection is not taking place in many countries. Even where there are adequate systems of information collection, the information is often not integrated into the process of environmental protection. The experience in the former Soviet Union, where a great deal of data was collected (although it was sometimes closely held), demonstrates the enormous difference between data collection and effective environmental and natural resource protection. There need to be clear boundaries and understandings about the purpose of information collection. Otherwise, data collection and review, and technical standardization can consume the energy of the international environmental community, and divert it from the even more difficult task of implementation.

Moreover, as a practical matter, increasingly sophisticated communication tools continue to be more in the reach of the developed world. Although this appears to be changing, in the developing world these tools continue to be available for only a very small number of people. Relying on them as a basis for increasing implementation may not be realistic for parts of the developing world for whom price and access continue to be an issue.

Other approaches to improve reporting include third party reporting, verification and assessment procedures, such as public hearings, environmental monitoring, certification schemes, and environmental audits. Many of these provisions have analogues in the independent reviews, site visits, hearings and complaint procedures contained in arms control, human rights, labor, and trade agreements. Visits to countries and on-site inspections by independent bodies and observers are ways for the international community to monitor the progress of existing agreements. Reviews provide external, independent feed back about the particular strengths and weaknesses of an individual country's compliance regime, and constructive suggestions for improvement. The OECD already does this for member countries and countries seeking admission to the OECD, although these reviews cover the gamut of the country's environmental obligations, domestic and international. Customized examinations can be expensive. They require the acquiescence of the countries who will be opening their doors for inspection and in some cases acquiescence of private enterprises who may have concerns about confidential business information. As an international tool, they would likely be reserved for important agreements whose provisions and requirements are relatively clear and where the economic interests being addressed in the agreement are sufficiently strong to support costly examinations and reviews. If implemented, however, they could be coordinated among conventions, such as the Rio Conventions, that address similar issues.


Before resources are committed to a large harmonization effort, difficult decisions must be made about how essential reporting is in achieving the goals of the international instruments involved. These values must be weighed against the costs of reporting and of engaging in an international effort of harmonization. There are significant differences of capacity within the international system, in the types of issues that are being addressed globally, and in the conditions in the implementing countries. Moreover, the international community has only limited ability to affect how countries function domestically. These factors argue for thinking broadly and strategically about how to stimulate better levels of compliance. This is particularly necessary in a disparate world with very different actors and a wide variety of motivations.

Climate Change Biological Diversity

Forestry Principles
National Inventories

Article 4(b)

Principle 12
National & Regional Action Plans

Article 4(b)


Article 6(a), (b)

Articles 9, 10
Identification & Monitoring

Article 8

Article 16
Develop Protected Areas

Article 8
Legislation Preamble Article 8(k) Article 5(e)

Article 5

Article 12(b)
Articles 17, 19(b)

Principle 12
Public Education

Article 6

Article 13
Articles 5(d), 19 & 6 ("awareness")
Environmental Impact Assessment Article 4(1)(d)

"impact assessment"

Article 14

Principle 8(h)
Clearinghouse for technical information

Article 18

Article 18
Public Participation

Article 6(i)(a)(iii)
Article 9 (participatory process to update plans)

Article 19(4)

Principle 2(d)
Committee of Parties (COP)/regular reviews

Article 7
Exchange Information

Article 7

Article 17

Article 16

Principle 12(c)
Training Article 6 Article 12(a) Article 19 Principle 3(a) (institu. develop) & 11 (promote know-how)
Reports Article 12 Article 26
Data Collection Article 16
Examine obligations-Assess implementation Article 7(e) Article 23
Report Steps to COP Article 12 Article 26 Article 26
Compatible Data/Standards Article 16

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