Forests of hope (also see our 7 country reports below)

Posted: 1 August 2000

Author: Christian Kuchli

Christian Kuchli introduces our reports from around the world on people-centred successes in caring for the forest.

In the mid-1980s things looked bleak for the world's forests. In Europe and North America, tree damage appeared which could only be explained by the effects of fossil fuel emissions. The greed of logging companies and slash and burn farmers in their wake ate deep into the tropical rainforests.

Reactions to the demise of the forests - the prime symbol of ecological decline - ranged from feelings of weary powerlessness to diffuse cynicism. Sunderlal Bahaguna

Sunderlal Bahaguna© Lorne Stockman

In 1984, I had the good fortune to meet Sunderlal Bahuguna, the charismatic leader of the Chipko Movement, which arose in the 1970s to protect the Himalayan forests. It struck me that there must be similar personalities and popular movements wherever forests are in danger. What I saw when I travelled to the Himalayas encouraged me to extend my search for hope and the conditions of hope.

Everywhere I met women and men who look after their trees and forests so that they can hand them on intact to their children. The work of the National Rubber Tappers' Council in the Brazilian Amazon is one example, the Project of Ecological Recovery in Thailand and the Chagga farmers of Tanzania, are others. But often other parts of the forest quite close to these well-maintained islands are less carefully treated.

When I sought an explanation for this situation I came across the same causes over and over again. Where there are conflicts over forest resources, either within the local population or between them and the forestry management, which on the whole represents the interests of urban and industrialized people - the trees suffer.

Whether trees thrive or suffer depends ultimately on the empowerment and influence of the local population. Who does the forest belong to? Who has effective control over it? Who profits from the effectiveness of the forestry management service? These are questions which go to the heart of the causes of forest destruction.

Where trees have vanished in recent years, whether in Amazonia, Siberia, Borneo or West Africa, this has occurred above all in the name of profit, or of that other equally magical and hollow concept, 'development'. Of course there were and are cases where the underprivileged have no other choice but to grow their crops in the ashes of felled trees.

But such destruction is not inevitable. Where large tracts of forest go up in flames, injustice is normally the match that lights it. Where five per cent of the population owns 80 per cent of the arable land, as in Brazil, it must lead to the oppression of large sections of the population, whether in city favelas (shanty towns) or on the fringe of the remaining forests. 'To be or not to be' for the forests is fundamentally a question of justice.

My personal hopes for the forest derive from two sources. First is the local resistance springing up everywhere against the rapid exploitation of forests by outsiders. Success depends on support from groups in the civil society like non-governmental organizations, who support the local population in asserting their rights.

Second, and a symbol of hope in itself, is the natural ability of forest vegetation to regenerate through reseeding and coppicing. Just how powerful this regeneration ability is can be seen in the largely spontaneous renewal of forest cover in Central Europe in the last one and a half centuries. The use of coal and the industrialization process of the last century had a socially levelling effect in the region and contributed decisively to the resolution of fundamental conflicts over the forests.

Changes will also be necessary in the South, to benefit the whole of society: these countries also have the right to technologies and the energy to use them, so that their natural resources can have the chance to recover.

But will the energy-intensive Northern model of industrialization and consumer culture be the right one for the South? As the far-sighted Mahatma Gandhi once said: "If England had to plunder half the world in order to become what it is, how many worlds would India need?" This is the big challenge for the self-styled 'developed' countries: to evolve life-styles which everyone can adopt without destroying the natural environment.

Christian Kachli is a forest scientist based in Switzerland and author of Forests of Hope published in 1997 by Buchverlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung.