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Branching Out to Communities: Reflections from the Eighteenth United Nations Forest Forum

By Max Han

On the morning of 8 May 2023, I cradled a cup of Penang Kopi O’ in my hands, a comforting touch of home, as I walked past rows of national flags rippling in the wind. I paused briefly when I spotted Malaysia’s flag, a moment of quiet pride before I flashed my badge for security checks. Stepping into the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, I felt a wave of awe and anticipation wash over me as I prepared myself for the week-long Eighteenth United Nations Forest Forum (UNFF18). I was ready to listen, participate, and share stories of young Malaysians’ grassroots work from my nonprofit Youths United For Earth (YUFE).

The UNFF is an international platform to address issues related to forests and sustainable forest management through dialogue, policy development, and international cooperation. This year’s forum was strategically designed as a technical assembly, setting the stage for a policy-focused UNFF19 next year. Through interactive dialogues, the UNFF18 explored themes such as enhancing the social, economic, and environmental benefits of forests, strengthening forest governance, and strategizing the mobilization of finances for sustainable forest management.

The forum brought together different stakeholders: members of the UNFF, the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF), and its member organizations. To enrich discourse, major stakeholder groups such as farmers, indigenous groups, women, and youth were invited to bring their perspectives. Representing the International Forestry Students Association, we, the youth delegates from across the world, were the voice of the Major Group for Children and Youth. In this collective assembly, we all shared a common objective – to lend our voices, articulate our perspectives, and contribute to the global dialogue on sustainable forest management.

As the UNFF18 Chair banged the gavel, sessions swung into full motion. Throughout the week, I found myself immersed in dynamic political exchanges, ranging from the challenges of forest monitoring to the opportunities of carbon markets and bioenergy. Member nations took the stage to present their progress and challenges in sustainable forest management, sparking debates on the responsibilities of wealthier nations to financially support developing countries in their forest preservation efforts. I distinctly remember the delegate from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who passionately highlighted the long-overdue commitment of developed nations to finance the preservation of forests in developing countries. It was one thing to learn about the common but differentiated responsibilities of nations in theory, but quite another to hear the urgency in the delegates’ voices and feel the palpable tension in the air.

As the delegates’ presentations rolled on, I noticed the lack of discourse surrounding gender and indigenous group stewardship. It was largely Latin American nations that highlighted their critical role in protecting forests, with Costa Rica reminding everyone that “the ones who will actually implement these solutions” are mainly indigenous people, children, women, and youth. I was also struck by the difficulties we, as youth delegates, faced in voicing our inputs. During agenda item 3(c) Contributions of Major Groups, our intentions to speak got lost amongst a private sector panel discussion on regenerative agriculture, confusion over the agenda, and many competing voices. 

With each day, the importance of stakeholder representation became increasingly clear. In high-level policy discussions, it is easy to be swept away in the delicate dance of diplomacy and overlook the significance of local communities who are the true forest custodians. As youth representatives, we are uniquely positioned to remind the floor of unspoken truths delegates may hesitate to mention — the elephants in the room, or rather, the forest. 

Through drafting and delivering interventions to the floor, we shared our first-hand experiences in environmental education, highlighted the often-ignored rights and needs of local communities, and championed alternative forms of knowledge like youth and indigenous environmental stewardship. By our side was an indigenous representative from Columbia, who shed light on the exploitative practices of forest management and the urgent need for meaningful community engagement. It was a poignant reminder that their voices, often drowned in the sea of political exchanges, carry the weight of lived experiences and alternative forms of knowledge that are crucial to our understanding of sustainable forest management.

My experience of the UNFF18 is a powerful testament that sustainable forest management is not just about forests, but also about people and communities. On the first day, we asked schoolchildren visiting the UN what they like about forests. They replied, “Crazy fruits and multiple animals!” A girl said, “Mother Nature!” Through them, I hope we are all reminded of why we were there – to ensure that these children and future generations can continue experiencing the wonders of our forests. 

As a Malaysian, I feel deeply honored to bring the stories and efforts of young Malaysian environmentalists to this global platform. 

As a youth, I feel disillusioned at the challenges we faced in voicing our inputs, but hope in the collective effort to build a liveable world – through policies that protect forests and biodiversity, policies that allow the children’s “crazy fruits” to grow, and policies that truly branch out to all communities.