Can’t See the Forest for the Trees: Deforestation and the Challenges Facing Conservationists

Jen Dickie

Illegally felled rosewood log in Marojejy National Park, Madagascar.  The original author does not wish to be named for safety reasons.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licenseAt the end of November, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a British NGO, published a damning report on China’s involvement in the illegally logged timber trade.  China’s rapid economic growth has seen the demand for timber and wood products for both domestic consumption and re-export increase substantially, earning its crown as the world’s biggest importer, consumer and exporter of timber and wood products.  Laurence Caramel and Harold Thibault in The Guardian Weekly summarise some of the key findings of the report highlighting that public enterprises, which are often controlled by provincial governments, play a significant role in this lucrative trade.

Despite accusations of being “the largest importer of stolen wood”, China ironically has enforced strong measures to protect and grow its own forests, including a logging ban across 41.8 million hectares of natural forests and initiating a reforestation programme.  Whilst the EIA acknowledge the Chinese Government’s forest conservation efforts, they argue that the gap between supply and demand has led to China “exporting deforestation to a host of countries around the world”.

On Monday, a report from Simon Speakman Cordall in The Guardian outlined the extent to which the Vietnamese forests, and the people who live there, are at risk from illegal loggers and poachers.  Blaming economic and social problems such as unemployment and alcoholism on an increase of attacks on forest guards, Cordall explains how the Carbon and Diversity (Carbi) project, an alliance of the Vietnamese government, WWF and the German Development Bank, aims to facilitate a sustainable future for the people and the wildlife of the area whilst also  acknowledging the conflict between the importance of conservation and the welfare of the people whose survival and livelihoods depend on forest access.

The complex nature of forest politics is demonstrated by Ivan Scales in his article for The Geographical Journal.  Scales explores the relationships among environmental narratives, identity politics and the management of forest resources in Madagascar, a country that has received global attention for being one of the most biologically diverse places in the world but one that has also had its hardwood forests pillaged.  He argues that more attention should be paid to local views and beliefs of the forest, particularly those associated with local practices of forest clearance, and that these should be incorporated into existing and future conservation policies.

As the global demand for timber increases, the challenges facing both conservationists and the communities who rely on the forests will intensify.  These threatened forests are viewed as a global asset, however, rather than focussing on just the bigger issues it is clear that conservation policies need to focus more on how indigenous cultures understand and interact with their environment.

 Ivan Scales, 2012, Lost in translation: conflicting views of deforestation, land use and identity in western Madagascar, The Geographical Journal 178, 67–79

 China at the centre of ‘illegal timber’ trade, The Guardian Weekly, 11th December 2012

 Vietnamese guards brave attack to reverse destruction of the forest, The Guardian, 17th December 2012

Carbon and Biodiversity Project (Carbi),  accessed 18th December 2012

 Appetite for Destruction: China’s Trade in Illegal Timber, Environmental Investigation Agency, accessed 18th December 2012

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