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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : June 2002 : The struggle for paradise

The struggle for paradise


June 19, 2002 news service

Tropical forests are vanishing fast and the loss of biodiversity gives the world plenty to worry about. But the fate of the people who live in those forests is at least as big a concern. Not far from Bogor, an old town an hour's drive from Indonesia's capital city of Jakarta, there is a unique institute that describes itself as a "global knowledge organisation committed to enhancing the benefits of forests for all people". It was set up in 1993, a year after the Earth Summit in Rio, and has regional offices in Brazil, Cameroon and Zimbabwe. David Kaimowitz became its new director last August after a career spent looking at tropical forests around the world and a long spell in Costa Rica. Alun Anderson met him while he was visiting London to ask him how well the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) was doing--and even persuaded him to climb a tree in Kew Gardens

What makes CIFOR special?

We are making a major effort to link forest and forestry issues with the broader social issues of today, including poverty alleviation, climate change, health issues, violent conflict, macroeconomics. These are topics that people don't normally think of as being related to forests, forestry and forest-dependent people. But they are linked in very important ways.

That means we make a special effort to bring together biologists, ecologists, foresters, anthropologists and economists, which is really the only way you can work on these problems. It's what we call "biophysically grounded policy-relevant research". We are trying to reach policy makers with new ways of thinking about forest and forestry issues, but we want to make sure that everything we say has a strong ecological and scientific basis.

We have on staff about 60 researchers, but that's just the tip of the iceberg as we are really "an institute without walls". At any given time we have somewhere between 250 and 300 researchers who are being partially financed by CIFOR and are doing research in collaboration with our scientists.

Have you had any successes in influencing policies? Forests seem under threat everywhere.

Yes, although we have only been around for a short time. We have what I call a "wholesale" and a "retail" policy. There are only a small number of institutions that have a major effect on shaping the global forest agenda: the World Bank, the FAO, the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), and the conventions on biological diversity and climate change. So on the wholesale level, we've been trying to influence these institutions. We've see a big shift in the World Bank strategy as a result of our work, mostly by getting it to recognise how its other activities end up affecting forests. In the GEF, most forest lending used to go to creating core environmentally protected areas. We've been working very hard for recognition that most of the biodiversity in the world is and always will be outside core protected areas. We need to give more attention to managing biodiversity in plantations, and to secondary forest, logged-over forest, and agroforestry too. We are seeing a big shift in thinking.

At the retail level we are working with forest communities around the world, and trying to influence national policies. Recently we have focused on all the different ways that forests can help to reduce poverty. There are tens or hundreds of millions of people who use forests as a safety net. When there is an economic crisis, a drought, a war, they fall back on hunting, gathering and extracting to make ends meet. If for part of the year they don't have crops, they may go out and look for mushrooms or rattan to sell. Medicinal plants are very important too. For many people in the world, plants are the main source of medical treatment.

Then we have to remember how easily these people can be hurt by climate change. Small farmers in southern Africa won't be able to grow maize any more because it will be too dry. People in the north-east of Brazil will find droughts occurring more frequently. We are looking at all these different links and we are saying strategically how important each one is.

We think of forests as peaceful places but you mention a link between forests and violence.

Violent conflict is very common in tropical forested areas around the world. These tend to be remote, have a limited government presence, often have lots of ethnic minorities and indigenous people, and lack clear property rights. When oil is discovered or timber becomes very important or diamonds are found or drugs are grown, then there really isn't a governmental framework in place that can manage how these resources will be used. Very quickly violence erupts. This is true around the world. We can think of Mindanao in the Philippines, north-eastern India, northern Burma, Colombia is an extreme case, Chiapas in Mexico, Liberia and Sierra Leone in Africa.

Are these problems being addressed?

We believe that you can either invest a relatively small amount of money now, giving clear property rights over forest resources to local people as well as giving them government and social services. Or you can spend huge amounts of money in violent conflicts in the future. Governments haven't invested a lot of money in these areas, because not many people are living in them compared to urban areas, but they don't think about the multiplying effect of violence in this areas. Take Chiapas in Mexico, where the area directly affected contains fewer that 250,000 people. If the government had incorporated rather than marginalised these people 15 years ago, the guerrilla war would never have begun. It has now destabilised the Mexican financial markets and created a political crisis for the entire country.

Have you had any direct personal experience of violence in forests?

In Nicaragua, I went to a meeting that we organised to try to help resolve the indigenous Meskito people's fight over land. You may recall the US administration armed the Meskito Indians as part of their effort to overthrow the Sandinista government in the 1980s, but of course the Meskito were mostly concerned about their land and keeping out people who wanted to exploit its timber and minerals. After the Sandinistas left they still had the same concerns. I rode out to find some commanders of the Meskito who were supposed to come to the meeting and was detained by several dozen heavily armed guerrilla fighters. The amusing thing was that after hours of discussion they asked if I could guarantee their safety from the army if they came into town for the meeting. And I said: "Look you are the people with the automatic rifles, I am standing here with nothing. If you can't guarantee your own safety, there is nothing I can do."

Did they come to the meeting?

Yes, the meeting went very well. Nicaragua is discussing a law on indigenous people's territorial rights. It is absolutely central to bringing peace to the country for the government to recognise indigenous people's right to their own lands.

Are there any signs elsewhere in the world that forest rights are being recognised as essential to prevent conflict?

There are hundreds of millions of people who live in forested areas who need land rights, not only to improve their livelihoods but to give them a strong incentive to conserve and manage those forests. There is some good news. For example, in Latin America, around one million square kilometres of land, an area the size of Bolivia, has been titled as indigenous territory. In India some 35,000 village organisations have received increasing access and rights to about 8 to 10 million hectares of forest. In China and Vietnam they are turning over degraded lands to communities so they can reforest them. But we are still losing 10 to 15 million hectares of forest per year, an area about the size of Greece, so we need to work faster and harder.

Scientists tend to think of conserving forests and biodiversity as requiring pristine biological reserves free from any people. But you are saying that we should be conserving forests by giving rights to the people who live from them.

First, modern ecological, anthropological and archaeological work is showing that there is much less pristine forest out there than we formerly believed. Most of the tropical forests have been shaped by human presence. Most of the natural mahogany in the pristine areas of Latin America has grown up alongside shifting cultivation. In areas that were thought to be untouched by humans we are finding archaeological remains of large populations of indigenous peoples.

Then it has recently been estimated that something like a billion people live in the world's 25 areas of greatest ecological diversity. If we are going to maintain that biodiversity in the long term, then we need to get the people to manage it. Undoubtedly, there are species that will only be able to survive in large pristine areas, which means that protected areas will always play a major role in any conservation strategy. But much more could be done to protect diversity in disturbed landscapes and landscape mosaics. It's important too to ask why we are protecting this diversity. One of the main reasons is because there are thousands of species out there that local, poor people depend on, and they have a real need to maintain those species and the ecosystems that support them.

When CIFOR scientists go to look at forest communities isn't there a risk that you'll be seen as outsiders imposing your own values?

We have to think about what is valuable to people in those communities. What do they think is important in terms of the health of these forests? Some people in our biodiversity programme, for example, have developed new methods of assessment which basically involve sitting down with local people and trying find out what species are important to them, why, and what priority they give to them.

What is the role of scientists in projects that are ultimately designed to set policy?

Science has a very important role to play because it is only with good scientific research that we will be able to show that many traditional ways of managing the forest are in fact environmentally sustainable, and that many of the things that small-scale foresters are doing out there right now have advantages compared to some of the more forester-driven or large-company-driven forestry activities.

What sort of young scientists join your programmes, and do they get overwhelmed by the enormous economic and political dimension that complicates ecological questions?

We look for people who are serious researchers, but have a sense of wanting to make a difference. And we look for people from developing countries or who can collaborate well with developing countries' scientists and local communities. We are not looking for loners but people who can be good facilitators.

We often find that people from biology and forestry begin to think that to make a difference they need to abandon their training and become a political scientist or economist, but I think that is quite wrong. There is an incredibly important role for ecologists, biologists, hydrologists and meteorologists, but what is very important is that they do their work in a way that helps create better policies.

And as an economist by training how do you feel about science?

I am still working hard to catch up!

You can find more about CIFOR at



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