Forest landscapes transcend national borders, making international cooperation necessary to address transboundary forest issues. The need to protect forests from fires, sustain watersheds and biodiversity, and combat illegal logging and associated illegal timber trade, has prompted governments to move past historical modes of cooperation towards formalized transboundary cooperation instruments such as bilateral Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs).
However, the effectiveness of these MoUs at managing transboundary forest issues in practice has been questioned, with some comparing them with other forms of transboundary engagement, such as trade agreements and multilateral agreements.
To address these concerns, the UN-REDD Lower Mekong Initiative conducted an assessment, drawing from the results of an online survey and five focus group discussions, that together reached nearly 100 people involved in MoUs. The assessment identified which factors make an MoU effective; defined how to design MoUs to improve their effectiveness; and uncovered entry points where donors or international organizations can provide support.
The assessment found that MoUs are perceived to be less effective than other cooperation instruments, but still enable necessary cooperation that could not have been achieved otherwise. For example:
- MoUs enable ad hoc emergency communication. During law enforcement operations, officials can rapidly exchange information and coordinate with each other in real time rather than communicating through complex diplomatic channels.
- National MoUs provide a framework for sub-national cooperation. In some countries, the existence of a national MoU has enabled the signing of provincial-level MoUs, fostering direct coordination between transboundary border provinces.
- MoUs enable data sharing that would normally not be possible. Sharing data, information and technology for forest monitoring helps build capacities to manage forest areas and prevent forest crime. In the Lower Mekong Region, sharing knowledge and lessons learned can also help to collectively achieve regional goals under the ASEAN umbrella.
To improve the effectiveness of MoUs, the assessment suggests increased transparency and communication through publishing and sharing information on MoU contents and achievements. Additionally, setting up monitoring frameworks and work plans would provide measurable ways to assess achievements, as well as clear entry points for donors to provide support.
The broader findings of this assessment can be viewed in this brief. The lessons therein aim to strengthen forest sector cooperation in the Lower Mekong Region so that cooperation mechanisms no longer remain under-funded, under-utilized or misunderstood. Effective cooperation will not only protect forest resources, but help facilitate a responsible cross-border timber trade that boosts forest economies in the region and facilitates higher volumes of sustainable trade and investment.
By Erica Pohnan, UNFAO