The Opening of the First Meeting of the Intergovernmental Working Group on Global Forests, Kuala Lumpur, 18 April 1994

The Honourable Douglas Young, Minister of Transport, Canada,

Dato' Tengku Mahmud Mansor, Deputy Minister of Primary Industries,

Tan Sri Othman Yeop Abdullah, Secretary General, Ministry of Primary Industries,

Mr. Jag S. Maini, Special Advisor, Canadian Forest Service,

and Co-Chairman of the meeting,

Almost two years have passed since the Earth Summit in Rio adopted the UNCED Forest Principles and Chapter 11 of Agenda 21 on combating deforestation. Since then we have made very little progress. Save for the resolution adopted by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development to review matters on forestry next year, there has been no clear indication regarding the implementation of these UNCED decisions.

That is not say that matters relating to forestry have been totally ignored. Negotiations are in earnest in respect of conventions on desertification, climate change and biological diversity and, inevitably in these discussions, the question of forestry had been raised. We view with concern the fact that attempts had been made to introduce proposals on forestry, by the back door as it were, into these negotiations. Not only will it generate problems of duplication and coordination in the implementation of the overall agenda on global forests, it will also divert our attention from the real issue at hand.

Forest protection, and in fact the entire issue of the environment, cannot be divorced from the broader questions of development, population growth and the quality of human life. We stress the need for an integrated vision on the subject matter because the developing countries have often become the target of harmful policies and patronizing concerns of international institutions and NGOs aggressively promoting their myopic views. Policies on the environment based on such partial or fragmented perceptions will only retard the process of economic development, and hamper the effectiveness of our conservation efforts. Poverty and underdevelopment are no friends of conservation.

Between 1990 and 2030, the world's population will grow by 3.7 billion and 95 per cent of that growth will be in the developing countries. To sustain that population, food production will need to double. And to achieve for everyone living conditions that we can consider decent and humane, we will have to accelerate the pace of development. According to World Bank projections, by the year 2000, only in East Asia, from the developing world as a whole, would we see substantial progress in poverty eradication. The actual number below the poverty line is expected to decline from around 170 million people currently to only about 70 million at the end of this decade. However, at the other extreme, in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is expected the number of poor people will increase by almost 50 percent, from around 220 million at present to more than 300 million in the year 2000. Only those who are totally insensitive to the misery and suffering of the world's poor would fail to place development issues at the very highest levels of urgency and priority. Unless the concern for the environment is matched by an equally zealous commitment to wage a relentless war on poverty worldwide, we believe the environmental movement will be perceived merely as a luxury, and a preoccupation fit only for the affluent elites.

As far as Malaysia is concerned, our forests are among our most valuable resources. In the past, they provided substantial revenues which enabled us to embark on massive investments in education, health care and basic infrastructure. In the early 1970s, forest products accounted for more than 16 percent of our export earnings. The judicious utilization of our forests has given us the necessary initial capital to pursue our economic diversification programmes. With success in industrialization, we have been able to become less reliant on forest products. Thus, we have been able to enforce regulations designed to ensure long-term sustainability of our forests through effective, economic and environment-friendly management.

Malaysia itself is thus no longer dependent on our forests as we were two or three decades ago. But other developing countries which have yet to reach the critical take-off stage in the development process must not be denied the opportunity to utilize to their advantage their natural resources for the betterment of their respective populations. Of course we share the universal concern about excessive exploitation of forests, be they tropical or temperate, and the effects of such exploitation on the global eco-system. But we must not be naive to confuse the genuine, legitimate and altruistic conservationism, with the kind of environmentalism which is no more than a cover for lobbyists and activists acting on behalf of protectionists and vested industrial interests.

Ladies and gentlemen,

An integrated approach towards environmental protection and conservation presupposes fairness and equity, both in the assumptions of burdens and responsibilities, and in the distribution of gains and benefits among the global community. Developing countries, especially the poorest ones, have been asked to make great sacrifices in the name of preserving the environment for humanity as a whole. Pressure has been brought to bear on them to curb their use of their own resources. At the same time, it is apparent that very few of those in the forefront of the global environmental campaign is as forthcoming with their financial commitments as they have been generous with their rhetoric.

A good illustration of this lack of fairness and equity in dealing with global environmental issues relates to the question of biodiversity conservation. It is an issue in which Malaysia has a direct interest. We uphold the cause of biodiversity conservation, and are fully aware of the tremendous benefits in store for everyone in line with developments in biotechnology, now and in the future. In the present context, however, biotechnology appears to be serving the interests only of those who eye strategic raw materials. Countries with advanced biotechnology have exploited the biodiversity of developing countries into billions of dollars of profits, without sharing them with the sovereign owners of the genetic resources. The scale of this economic exploitation is not small: over the last decade or so, some US$66 billion were contributed to the US economy through germplasm flight from the developing world. None of it was shared with the countries of origin of these resources.

We are against neither biotechnology nor biodiversity conservation. However we deplore the role of biotechnology as an instrument, by sone countries, of economic exploitation and that of biodiversity as a political ploy to impose unfair trading practices and extract economic benefits without sharing the gains with the original owners. It is ironical that the same advanced countries who are vocal on biodiversity are, at the same time, highly protective of access to biotechnology. This comes to establish the perpetuatiom of monopoly at two levels: technological superiority and control of strategic raw materials.

It is imperative, therefore, that developing countries together formulate strategies and mechanisms to control access to their genetic resources. It would also be fair that those who want access to these resources share the benefits thereof. There can no longer be an unconditional, unlimited free access to the genetic resources of the sovereign countries in the developing world. While we concede that the world community has a stake in preserving the common heritage of mankind, we cannot forfeit our right to development.

In conclusion, there are many contentious issues as yet unresolved. Although I have cited instances where the interests of developed and developing countries seem to diverge at various points, I believe there are enough goodwill and connom interests which should bring us together. This meeting itself is a case in point. It is initiated jointly by the governments of Malaysia and Canada to facilitate dialogue and consolidate approaches to the management, conservation and sustainable development of the world's forests. At Rio, we have raised the hopes and expectation of the world. We must not allow those hopes, through apathy or needless contention, to fade away.

On that note, I now have the great pleasure to declare this First Meeting of the Intergovernmental Working Group on Global Forests open.

Thank you.