South Africa recently hosted the largest gathering of world leaders, business people, farmer organizations, forestry experts and activists to discuss the state of forests and issues connected to this. This has been billed as one of the most important conferences because it connected forestry with matters of agriculture and well-being. What are the ramifications of this on South Africa’s conference diplomacy?
The conference sought to shift the paradigm in the fight against deforestation and related ills while placing the issue at the centre of the sustainable development agenda that has gathered momentum in terms of building comprehensive global consensus. This shift is best captured in the slogan that evolved with the conference - take the forest out of the forest and save the tree - calling for demystifying the forestry question.
What are the implications of this gathering on SA diplomacy and on the broader efforts to use development in order to bring about a world that is just, fair and equitable? Answers to these questions cannot be straightforward partly because it is still too early to determine the implications of the conference, its discussions and resolutions. The agenda for world change is complex and evolving, meaning hasty conclusions are ill-advised.
South Africa's role in the world benefits immensely from matters of prestige and stage that enhance how the country is seen by other actors in international diplomacy and markets. This has been the story of post-apartheid South Africa in particular, arising from the global appeal of the anti-apartheid struggle, the manner in which the transition to democracy was managed, the iconography of Nelson Mandela and the new country's enthusiastic participation in summit diplomacy through the hosting of major conferences. This does not just end with prestige, but such prestige is also used to enhance agency through the country’s active pursuit of its agenda in the world.
South Africa is a relatively small country with a developing economy, a medium-size population, and a limited military capacity. Therefore, the sources of its significance have a lot more to do with matters of prestige, iconography and diplomacy. Therefore, every opportunity to host a major global showpiece, be it a sport event or conference, is a chance to add to the currency of prestige and agency. All that South Africa has to do is to host excellently, showcasing the country's ability to offer effective hospitality, and to work or hope for a significant outcome that history will record as made in South Africa.
It is confirmed that Durban 2015 was the biggest world forestry conference in history with the largest number of senior political decision-makers in attendance. It received a lot of publicity and saw a large number of side-events organized on the sidelines. It gave South Africa some publicity though the South African media seem to have been too inward-looking to give a good account of the importance of the World Congress. The Aka-Bonang rumours and the panties matter involving Ntsiki Mazwai and the new ANCYL leaders received more coverage than a gathering promising a better world, a better relationship between humans and their environment.
Outside South Africa, especially on the African continent we witnessed a lot of appreciation of the fact that this huge congress took place in Africa for the first and the continent as the home to 21 percent of its land area and 16 per cent of total world forests. Therefore, Africa bears the brunt of at least key global trends harming forestry's developmental potential: population growth, further shift to meat-based diet and commercial hunger for timber. So, in line with the Agenda 2063 that envisages a more prosperous Africa, the continent had huge ambitions going into the congress.
South Africa hoped for a congress that breaks some ground, so that like the congress outcomes the hosts of the congress will not be forgettable for a long time. This was the case with the Climate Change Conference whose outcome - the Durban Platform for Action has been the basis for follow-up negotiation forums including the upcoming Climate Change conference in Paris, France.
While such an outcome can only be confirmed over a period of time after the conference, congress declarations are the best basis for making preliminary determinations. The Durban Declaration should occupy a special place in the international efforts to ensure a world in which mankind lives peacefully with Mother Earth. The bulk of resolutions contained strategies for enhancing forest sustainability and forests' co-dependence with humans.
It endorsed the paradigm that forests are, as African Union Commission chair, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma put it, the three lungs of the world and their state affects the very life of planet earth. Connected to this is the point that forests are not just about trees, but are fundamentally about food, livelihood and sustainable development. They are about land we live on and the air we breathe. Secondly, delegates agreed that forests are a central part of the response to climate change. Thirdly, the congress agreed that effective partnerships among the forest, agriculture, finance, energy, water and human development sectors are no longer mere options, but an imperative for the creation of sustainable futures. Fourthly, innovative solutions will come from inclusion of all concerned including youth and women.
So, on account of this, the Durban World Forestry Congress was a resounding success in building a global consensus, the next challenge is to ensure effective and full implementation. South Africa emerged as an excellent host and an important champion of the agenda of forests and people. But it will have to stay the course and ensure that the Durban outcomes do not come to waste by working with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and others to champion the implementation of the declaration in the manner we have done with the Durban Platform for Action in the climate change processes.
This is the point about significance derived from prestige; it must be transformed into a resource for practical agency with clear impact on the world.
Institute for Global Dialogue and Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute at Unisa.