The Model Forest concept was first developed by the government of Canada in the early 1990s in 10 pilot sites spread across the country. It was a response to a period of intense conflict in Canada’s forest sector at a time when environmentalists, governments, indigenous peoples, communities and forest workers were struggling over forest resources and how to manage them in a sustainable manner. The approach showed immediate promise as people came to the table to find common solutions to the issues they faced, including logging practices, biodiversity conservation and economic stability among others.
The international Model Forest initiative was announced at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro where Canada invited other countries to join in testing an innovative approach to sustainable forest management (SFM).
From the beginning, Model Forests promoted the idea of forming partnerships to provide a neutral forum where a range of values and interests could be represented, and where a desire to experiment with new ideas under a common goal of SFM could occur. Each site was intended to be a “model” from which others could learn and advance their sustainability goals.
Working as a global network, it was thought that Model Forests could accelerate overall sustainability learning through simple multiplication: each Model Forest would develop and share its own innovations, knowledge, experience, strengths, skills, challenges and lessons learned with the other members of the International Model Forest Network (IMFN).
The promotion of Model Forests in Asia began in 1997 when China initiated development of the Lin’an Model Forest, which was formally established in 1999. Also in 1999, the government of Japan provided a grant to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in support of Model Forest development in China, Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar. This two-and-a-half-year project had its roots in a series of international workshops initiated by the Forestry Agency of Japan, held between March 1998 and October 2000, entitled the “Model Forest Approach for Field-Level Application of Sustainable Forest Management.”
With the establishment of Model Forests in these countries, an informal regional network emerged. As well, a regional secretariat based at the FAO during the project carried on and continues to be an active partner in development of the regional network and Model Forests.
Over the first several years, the main focus of regional activities was on capacity building within the Model Forests. At regional workshops, Model Forest representatives met to discuss ways to strengthen capabilities in a range of areas, such as resource mobilization, criteria and indicators (C&I) for sustainable forest management, forest policy and related legislation, and project monitoring and evaluation. Strategic planning workshops were also held. Subsequent development at the site level focused strongly on the continued exploration and use of the Model Forest governance approach. During this period there was also an emphasis on economic development projects using sustainably managed forest resources.
Strong growth in the Network globally led to discussion on how members could more effectively participate in terms of governance, funding, program planning and strengthening of Network activities. The creation of regional networks was seen as the best way to achieve this goal.
In March 2010, an RMFN–Asia secretariat office officially opened in Beijing. Its main purpose is to define, articulate and manage a regional program of work related to the sustainable management of forest-based landscapes that reflects the priorities, strengths and opportunities that are unique to the region. It also facilitates regional communications and knowledge exchange, capacity building and funding opportunities for existing Model Forests, as well as those expected to join the Network. The office is hosted by the Chinese Academy of Forestry and works closely with the IMFN Secretariat based in Ottawa, Canada.