Canada: University of British Columbia Annual Forestry Lecture 2010

In the second part of the feature Tim Rollinson, Director General of the Forestry Commission talks about the global forestry situation and a new partnership established to restore it.

English woodland

Part two: Looking globally

Turning to the global agenda, many countries now sadly find themselves in a similar position to where we were back in 1919. Many of them have come to us to see what we did, what we got right, what we got wrong, what we learned.

If I have painted a picture of an organisation that is proud it is getting things right, that is expert, professional, and serving society to the best of its ability, then that’s good. But I’ll not try to hide the fact that we made a lot of mistakes, experienced many failures, along the way. If we can help others avoid similar pitfalls than we will, so we are keen to share our hard won lessons. One of the ways we are doing this is through our efforts to promote global reforestation.

The drivers of forest loss – principally conversion to agriculture – remain unchecked in many countries. For many developing countries, forest exploitation and removal is the early first step to economic development. It is a well travelled path - one already travelled by the UK and most countries in Western Europe, the US and China. In the space of just a few centuries, people have removed more than one-half of earth’s original forest cover. Just one-fifth of the world’s original forest cover remains in relatively undisturbed forest.

Measures to tackle the problem are now rising up the political agenda and were high on the agenda at Copenhagen at the end of last year. This is welcome news. But measures to restore forest cover lag behind. Too far behind.

Permanent, sustainable forests

This is important for the future of our planet. With a global population already approaching 7 billion – and forecast to increase to over 8 billion by 2025, the pressure on all of our natural resources is immense. The world needs permanent, sustainable forests to lock up carbon, to conserve soil and water, to oxygenate the atmosphere, to provide timber, food, medicines and other products and services, to preserve and protect biodiversity and wildlife, and to provide places where people can go to refresh body, mind and soul. Yet forest cover in many areas continues to fall.

We find that our long experience of deforestation in the UK, and the efforts to restore the forest, is now valuable to others. In a sense, we got there first. We deforested long before most other countries. But we did something positive about it. That is part of the reason why, surprisingly for a country with such little forest cover, we find that other countries are keen to learn from our experience.

Asking and encouraging poor countries to stop deforestation when we, a relatively prosperous nation, exploited and lost most of our own forests centuries ago, can get a rather frosty reaction. And rightfully so. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to help.

Bringing back the woods

In 2003, WWF, IUCN – the International Union for the Conservation of Nature – and the Forestry Commission in the UK, joined forces to launch a Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration. Our aim was to raise awareness of the importance of restoring the worlds’ forest resources. We have gained support by inviting key decision makers and influential organisations to join a common movement to restore the world's lost forests. Today this partnership includes governments as diverse as Switzerland, El Salvador, Finland, Italy and Vietnam. It includes international organisations such as the UN/FAO, the Centre for International Forestry Research, the International Tropical Timber Organisation, the World Bank, and many others. The list continues to grow. Last year the government of China joined the Partnership and we are working closely with them to share experience and expertise.

Returning the landscape to its original state is just one solution - there are many alternative strategies, each requiring the participation of all those with a stake in the forest.  Remember, forestry is as much about people as it is about trees.

The messages from restoration programmes are clear: forests can be replaced to restore the environmental, economic and social functions they originally provided. This can be done relatively quickly and economically. The involvement of local people lies at the heart of almost every example of successful forest restoration and management.   It will fail without their input and their support.

A recent survey of attitudes of European citizens to forestry and forest management indicated that their overall perception of the quality of forest management is positive. The clear majority of EU citizens said they would favour more active forest management. Good news for the forester. However, the same survey revealed that the wide majority of Europeans believe the total forest area as well as the level of forest biodiversity to be decreasing. In reality, total forested area in Europe has been increasing over the past two decades and the loss of biodiversity has slowed down due to recent policy measures.

Well intentioned environmentalists have told people for at least two decades that felling trees is bad for the planet. Of course, the forester knows that the story is much more complex and has a much happier ending, but the public doesn’t necessarily see that. As climate change begins to bite harder should we not expect people to question our felling policies and practices and reconsider our hard won licence to operate?

They should know better, you might argue. I have lost count of the times I have heard a forester complain that people don’t understand forestry. But why should they? They don’t understand the engineering of suspension bridges, the science of genetic modification or how a mobile phone works. But these things are still important to them.

Our social licence to operate is not a legal permission but essentially the acceptance by society of an organisation’s – or a sector’s – activities, policies and actions. This licence is not written down and seldom spoken. It is only ever on loan and is not to be taken for granted. It is a fickle thing that can easily be lost.

Consider recent stories about the IPCC, a highly respected body that has produced a mountain of well-researched scientific evidence on climate change. Yet a controversy over an error in a Himalayan glacier forecast in its Fourth Assessment Report has caused the organisation  to come under intense scrutiny. Climate sceptics are scouring the rest of the report looking for more mistakes and there have been public calls for the resignation of its chair.

This has been an unwelcome event, particularly at a time when surveys show that the number of British people who are sceptical about climate change is now rising.   A recent survey found that 25% of people did not think global warming was happening - an increase of 10% points since a similar poll was conducted last November. The percentage of people who said climate change was a reality had fallen from 83% in November to 75% last month. So we need credible sources of information that are trusted by the people. That was the reason for commissioning our own independent national assessment and report.

The rise and rise of cities

I’ve looked at the UK experience in responding to the changing needs of society and some of our responses. At first sight, Canada’s situation seems much different with its much larger land mass and forest area, smaller population and a lesser need for reforestation. But some of the trends are very similar. Continuing urbanisation means that more and more of our people are moving to cities. In North America, the proportion of people living in cities has risen from just over 60% in 1950 to nearly 80% today – and is forecast to rise to nearly 90% by 2030. Globally, 60% of the population of the world will be living in cities by 2030. Urban populations are set to double in African and Asian cities over the next 30 years, adding 1.7 billion people – more than the populations of China and the US combined – to those cities.

With this increasing shift of populations to living in cities we are witnessing a greater disconnection between people and forests. To maintain our ‘licence to operate’ we have to engage with people in new ways – not only to explain to them what we have to offer, but to hear from them about their expectations and needs. 50 years ago the forester was in charge of the forest. Today, we have to listen to the needs of our stakeholders and be fully tuned in to the perceptions and concerns of the society we serve. 

It is no good knowing you are right if society’s perception is that what you are doing is wrong. Foresters in the UK have learned this lesson the hard way – to look outwards from the forest sector and to engage in new ways with a predominantly urban population. We have had to give up a lot of traditional ‘sovereignty’. But, perhaps, we become more powerful as a result.

Related links:

Part one

Tim Rollinson's speech was reproduced with the kind permission of the Forestry Commission.