It's a fair copse with local efforts

Forests of Hope
May 1, 1998

In Forests of Hope, Christian Kuchli, a professional forester, makes a "long personal journey" of discovery and photography that many people can only dream of. He visits 12 countries around the world to meet people and see groups with "dedication to preserving forests". Starting in his home country of Switzerland, he examines the forest history and interacts with non-governmental organisations in India, Nepal, Thailand, Indonesia, China, Tanzania, Kenya, Costa Rica, Brazil, the United States, ending up in Germany.

His basic premise is that social/community forestry and agro-forestry practised by and for the benefit of local people, in the context of national and environmental benefit, are the only sustainable ways forward. This is not a novel conclusion, but the manner and diversity of his research make his conclusions compelling, and the book is an excellent read with some very good pictures to complement the text. There is also a very good reference list for each country.

The chapters on Switzerland and Germany trace the origins of traditional forestry and the lack of tenure for the common man; the over-exploitation and commercialisation in the last century (average per capita wood use was above two tonnes a year; higher than in developing countries today); the coming of fossil fuels; provision of fodder; the onset of monocultures and clear-cutting; debates on forestry laws and practices; the preferences for indigenous species; and the modern problems of ravaging deer and air pollution. It is all part of the debate in the book on how to have people- and environment-friendly forestry that can provide local benefits and national income.

Nepal today provides striking similarities with Switzerland of more than a century ago. The theory of Himalayan environmental degradation, whereby blame for the Ganges plain flooding was placed on upland, hill farmers, is examined; and a more moderate view is propounded. The 1993 forestry act holds out promise that decentralised control of forests will prevail and that users will receive the benefits. The focus is now on management of surviving natural forests and afforestation of degraded soils, which will require a new generation of foresters. All this is seen through the eyes of a village group involved in managing its local trees/forests as forestry projects have come and gone.

This sets the pattern for all the subsequent chapters. We have discussions on the "chagga" agroforestry system of northern Tanzania, the "women under the acacia tree" in semi-arid Kenya, the subsistence farmers and "precaristas" in Costa Rica overcoming the legacy of the hamburger connection and the banana plantations, the Chipko movement in the Indian Himalayas, the seninguelros rubber tappers and the pepper farmers of Brazil, the forest villages in Thailand, the Great Green Wall and Jinshatan projects of China, and the "tree people" of Los Angeles.

Forest destruction and regeneration are as relevant now in the climate-change debate as they were in the 19th-century debate on resource use. As the author states: "The fate of forests is determined in the context of human conflict. In the final analysis, political and economic power, ownership, and questions of incapacitation and empowerment at the local level determine whether trees will thrive or perish."

After reading this book, I have further justification for feeling somewhat optimistic that we can reverse forest destruction to the benefit of everyone.

David O. Hall is professor of biology, King's College London.

Forests of Hope: Stories of Regeneration

Author - Christian Kuchli
ISBN - 1 85383 505 6
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - 19.99
Pages - 244

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