Although I’m no botanist and have a hard time memorising the names of plant species, forests have fascinated me throughout my life. Trees are me! I have spent many happy hours walking through woodlands, admiring green hillsides and reflecting on the mysterious magic of nature in the budding and fading of blossoms and leaves on the trees in our garden.
Pink blossom in front of an apple tree and a copper beech, May 2020
My ”non-career” in forestry began sometime in the 1970s in a wintry landscape in the West of Scotland. Accommodated in a couple of poorly heated caravans on the edge of a village in January, I spent a week with a small group of somewhat crazy young conservation volunteers in the old oak forests of Ardnamurchan. Our task was to mark out a grid for measurement of biological diversity; i.e. counting the flora and fauna on the hillsides. This meant balancing on slippery slopes as we drove short wooden stakes into the ground beneath the trees. At the end of every day we squeezed into an old Land Rover and bumped off to the village pub for drinks and dinner before collapsing in a heap of mattresses and sleeping bags in the caravans.
Further involvement in nature conservation took me to the woodlands of a protected area in County Down, during a year working with peace and reconciliation movements in Northern Ireland. However, I don’t remember much about the biological diversity of the province as my time was spent engaging with social diversity in the form of young people’s fears and hatred of each other across the sectarian divide. In the summer of 1979 I travelled to Ariège in the Pyrenees with a group of unruly Belfast teenagers, both Catholic republicans and Protestant unionists. Despite the tensions amongst the kids, we had a good time building footpaths in a park surrounded by the steep wooded slopes of a high mountain valley at Aulus-les-Bains. The group worked hard and drank hard too… But the police picked up one of the tough guys when we embarked on the ferry sailing from Stranraer back to Northern Ireland. It transpired that he was wanted for highjacking a lorry with a water pistol just before we went away!
Forestry was on the agenda during my first ventures to West Africa in the mid-1980s. After a chance encounter I became involved in the activities of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Dakar called ”Environnement et Développement” (ENDA). Together with a Danish forester and a team of West African consultants I undertook short surveys of reforestation and forest management schemes in Senegal and Burkina Faso. The idea was to come up with proposals for improving “la gestion des fôrets” through the approach known as CBNRM (community based natural resource management). Interviewing professional foresters, community organisers and members of village associations and farmers groups was an important eye-opener in my life. It was also a daunting test of my knowledge of French!
As an environment and rural development consultant in the early 1990s I had many opportunities to explore forest policies and practices in different regions. A highlight amongst my assignments was a 1994 review of a forest scheme in the semi-arid Aravalli Hills of Haryana and Rajasthan, funded by the Commission of the EU. This gave me some insights into the workings of one of the world’s largest natural resource management institutions: the Indian Forest Service (IFS). Foresters are heavyweight players in many countries, responsible for not only nature conservation, but also for organising and controlling the commercial exploitation of vast regions. In the severely eroded and degraded Aravalli Hills the IFS was encouraging villagers to plant drought tolerant tree species and grassland fodder crops in order to stabilise the hillsides and to prevent destructive grazing practices.
The key to success was communicating the conservation messages to women in the villages, particularly as they were in charge of the herds of small ruminants (sheep and goats) that seemed to be the main factor causing degradation. But the male dominated IFS team was not very good at community mobilisation, despite policies that aimed to encourage “bottom up” resource management. We had long discussions with the team of foresters and with village leaders before drafting a critical review report. I wonder what became of the scheme. It would be interesting to go back and take a look, a little over 25 years down the road…
Ten years later I was still messing around in the sphere of silviculture. Protecting forests and biodiversity is a priority for many environmental movements in Central America, where rain forests, cloud forests, dryland forests, mangroves and assorted mixed woodlands provide valuable resources in the form of timber and “non-timber forest products.” The mountains of the region are a patchwork of coffee plantations and woodlands; some of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen. Various groups of indigenous people are also part of the patchwork.
Sadly, criminal activities are never far away from forests. Valuable timber attracts bona fide and illicit enterprises. In Nicaragua the office of the environmental prosecutor has struggled for many years to ensure control over the vast forest resources in the centre and east of the country where illegal logging has been rampant. While based in Managua from 2002 to 2005 I was involved in the production of a film about clandestine forest clearance and timber trading: “Erase un paìs verde” (it was a green country). I also joined a delegation visiting the indigenous communities who live in the enormous Bosawas “biosphere reserve” in northern Nicaragua, flying across the forests at low level in an ancient Russian helicopter.
A little more than 10 years ago my interest in forests became a serious matter, almost full time. By 2010 I was familiar with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and had been involved in designing a scheme to promote “pro-poor” reduced deforestation in several countries including Ghana and Indonesia as well as in arranging support for a mangrove forest development programme in a number of countries in South and South-East Asia, notably Thailand. I was happy to seize opportunities to travel around these regions. The IUCN is one of many organisations seeking to reverse the high rates of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from deforestation and degradation; a process known as REDD+ in the context of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). “Nature based solutions” are the organisation’s catchwords.
Thus, in the last decade I have zoomed around the planet as a high emitting do-gooder in the forests and climate change “complex.” For two years I worked as an adviser with the United Nations in Geneva (far from the tropical forests but close to the funders…). Happily the UN, the World Bank and a host of other agencies and NGOs have had deforestation and degradation on their radar. But many national governments and authorities have been highly negligent: witness the half-hearted or “denial-tainted” responses of many Australian and Brazilian politicians and leaders in 2019 as huge forest fires overwhelmed rural communities and devastated vast tracts of the outback and the Amazon.
Times are changing, however. Awareness of the importance of forests is on an upward curve. Our village is located in one of the national parks that have been demarcated in Denmark recently. As global mobility appears likely to be restricted in the wake of the 2020 pandemic I’m glad that we have some beautiful wooded landscapes and lots of trees on the doorstep.
Windbreaking pines near the beach at Rørvig, April 2020
Bidstrup forest, early May 2020
The emergence of homo sapiens as a dominant species occurred after our ancestor apes descended from trees to hunt and gather food on the savannah. Gradually successful human primates have spread across the diverse ecosystems of the planet, but so have diseases and devastation. Will forests and trees outlive our self-destructive tendencies?
NB: Further information about the places and organisations mentioned can be found through the following links.
Conservation volunteers: https://www.tcv.org.uk/scotland
Ardnamurchan oak woods: https://www.nature.scot/enjoying-outdoors/scotlands-national-nature-reserves/ariundle-oakwood-national-nature-reserve
County Down: https://www.ireland.com/articles/destinations/down/down-county/
Environnement & Développement (ENDA): http://endatiersmonde.org
Indian Forest Service: http://ifs.nic.in
Aravalli Hills (2019 update video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbV0__0m2YI
Central American biodiversity (update): https://news.mongabay.com/2019/12/central-american-countries-pledge-to-protect-mesoamericas-5-great-forests/
It was a green country (Erase un paìs verde, Fundación Luciernaga, original video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Na4IqvdSSms
Bosawas biosphere reserve: https://en.unesco.org/biosphere/lac/bosawas
International Union for the Conservation of Nature: https://www.iucn.org
REDD+ platform of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): https://redd.unfccc.int
UN-REDD Programme: https://www.un-redd.org
National parks in Denmark: https://danmarksnationalparker.dk