Wednesday, 29 May 2002

BALI, Indonesia

Toward the end of a morning briefing for nongovernmental organizations, a U.N. official announces that because there are not enough seats at the opening ceremony, she has decided to hand out 100 passes on a first-come, first-served basis. The passes are yellow, laminated, and important-looking. A golden ticket to Wonkaland.

I dutifully wait in line and, after some pushing and shoving, get one of the last tickets. I string it on the chain that holds my U.N. pass and merrily hightail it to the balcony, only to be told that there are no seats, my shiny yellow pass notwithstanding. So it’s a quick dash to the opposite balcony, which is reserved for the press. Although the balcony is practically empty, my new credentials don’t help me there, either. I’m directed instead to an auditorium, where I can watch the proceedings on a colossal television. Exasperated, I head for the beach, but am stopped by a security officer who demands I relinquish my worthless amulet.

I came to PrepCom IV to learn first-hand about global efforts to promote sustainable development, to network with community forestry groups from other countries, and to use international support for community forestry — a recent study found that at least 25 percent of forests in developing countries are owned or managed by communities — to build greater acceptance for it in the United States. Partly due to the Kafkaesque atmosphere of the summit, and partly because of the consistent admonishments about how late in the game we already are, I was reluctant to organize a meeting of people interested in community forestry. Besides, the gathering was already stuffed with simultaneous events, most them quite interesting, and it struck me that one more interest group might weaken opportunities to build unity among the civil society groups.

But I kept running into people at breakfast who were astonished that the Chairman’s Text made no reference whatsoever to community forestry, and wondering when we could get together to discuss it. After a few false starts (daunted by the seeming futility of our goal), we attracted about a dozen people from places like India, Indonesia, Nepal, and Paraguay to a dimly lit hotel room where we scrutinized the forests section of the text. We printed out our recommendations and dubbed ourselves the International Community Forestry Caucus.

The next morning we were leafleting the place, lobbying delegates, and holding a second meeting, at which our numbers magically doubled. When we ran out of copies of our recommendations, one caucus member whipped out his laptop and spiffed up our manifesto. Our meetings have become more sophisticated, but it’s hard not to laugh hearing ourselves say things like, “Japan is in if someone else introduces it,” “Ecuador is a possibility,” and “Has anyone talked to India?” Still, it’s a good feeling to be involved; we’re planning a press release and beginning to strategize for Johannesburg and beyond.

And, all the while, we wonder if any of our work — or for that matter the efforts of other civil society groups — is worth it. This is, after all, a place where civil society groups are reminded at every turn that they are second-class citizens: We are restricted to separate lounges, a separate information desk, and even have to enter the conference center through the back door. (As one friend pointed out, the United States outlawed a similar policy nearly 30 years ago.) While we earnestly scurry about, we hear reports of corporations meeting privately with government delegations. Perhaps they’re printing out some more yellow passes for us.