Changing hats


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Dear friends and colleagues,

In July, I will become Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Several people have asked whether that means I will abandon POLEX. It does not. Let me tell you why.

Since POLEX first began in 1997, it has sought to encourage the forest community to look beyond its traditional boundaries, and to get non-foresters to think about forests. Many of the broad social trends and events that dominate the nightly news affect forests and forestry more than specific forest policies or practices do. Similarly, poor management of forests contributes directly or indirectly to more general problems such as corruption, financial crises, hunger, ethnic conflict, climate change, and war. It is more crucial than ever to link forests with these broader issues.

We cannot solve forest problems without involving all the players. Illegal loggers have something to say. So do the fourth grade students in Denmark who want to save the beautiful animals they see on the Discovery Channel. National and local bureaucracies do lots of bad things, yet it is hard to imagine solutions that don’t include them. Scientific research can and should inform decision-making about how we should manage forests. Nevertheless, no soils map or economic algorithm can tell us which land should have forest and which should not. For that we need open honest debate and democratic decision-making. POLEX – and CIFOR – provide objective information to all the groups sitting at the table.

Millions of poor people rely on forests to make ends meet. We have a fundamental moral responsibility to help them defend their current access to forest resources, obtain or create new resources, and find ways to earn more from the resources they already have. These are human beings, not statistics. Most are women and children. Often they manage their forests better than other groups do. Sometimes they do not. They don’t need participatory processes in which they remain powerless. They need governments, NGOs, grassroots organizations, and research centers that are accountable to them as citizens and stakeholders with rights and responsibilities. They also need policies, markets, and technologies that don’t force them out of the new global economy. Polex stands beside the poor with facts, not rhetoric or romanticism.

A lot of myths lurk in the forest. In reality, forests don’t always improve water supply. Many species thrive in forest fragments. Increasing agricultural productivity and the efficiency of timber processing often puts more pressure on forests, not less. Formal forest management plans are useful tools. Still, many communities manage forests well without them and many companies that have them treat their forests poorly. Plantations are unlikely to save the world’s natural forests, but nor are they inherently diabolical. Command and control actually works some time. Wealth destroys at least as many forests as poverty does. Myth busting is an essential part of what POLEX – and CIFOR – are all about.

POLEX often publicizes research by the FAO and the World Bank. They are key players and have a great deal to contribute. It broadcasts the findings of international NGOs and northern academics for the same reasons. However, nothing satisfies one more than to promote the conclusions of developing country scientists and organizations who work hard for little money to make things better.

Given the worrisome state of the world we are leaving to our children, perhaps we should be more humble. We should stop hiding behind the empty rhetoric of the international community and the sophisticated jargon of science, and admit we are groping for answers.

Taking on my new responsibilities will not change any of this. POLEX has always been a space to share ideas, not to push CIFOR’s official agenda. That will not change either. If I ever send out messages in my official capacity as Director General of CIFOR I will make that abundantly clear. Otherwise, please assume your POLEX messages just come from a concerned colleague.

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