Forest Monitor

Dr. Alan Grainger, from the University of Leeds, has questioned whether the popular assertions about deforestation are valid. He acknowledges that deforestation is occurring, but examining FAO time-series data he has found a number of errors and inconsistencies, but no long-term net decline in tropical forest area. His findings are mirrored by recent satellite data. He calls for an international effort to monitor tropical forest trends through the establishment of an independent body. Strengthening national forest agencies is essential, but the difficulties are less about the statistics than interpreting the data and trends. Querying deforestation is not new: James Fairhead and Melissa Leach have been the forefront of those comparing international perspectives, orthodoxies, forestry & conservation programmes with local narratives. In “Reframing Deforestation: Global analysis and local realities: studies in West Africa” (Routledge, 1998), they write:

the extent of forest loss during the twentieth century has been vastly exaggerated. Much so-called deforestation either took place much earlier, or has not taken place at all since the areas in question have not carried in historical times…much of the forest that has been lost during the twentieth century, and indeed much of that remains, covered land which had been populated and farmed…on the northern margins, it has on the contrary sometimes been people, their settlement and land use which has been responsible for the development of forest vegetation where it was previously lacking.

Similarly, there has been increasing understanding of the importance of forest regrowth in Central and Latin America since the mid-1990s, and that in many regions secondary forests are an integral part of land use systems.

These are important insights that will determine the success of efforts to reduce deforestation. First, whose voice counts in deciding areas to be supported and the form that support will take, and second how these processes will be monitored and supervised?


Some of the practical difficulties can be seen in Liberia. The first map shows the extent of present forest cover. The new forest law gives an unprecedented institutional role to communities and civil society in the management of the country’s forests. Communities must be consulted about all forest land use decisions. 30% of forest lands are to be set aside in protected areas with financing from a share (10%) of stumpage and forest product fees. Communities also share revenues from commercial forestry, with 30% of land rental fees distributed to directly affected communities and another 30% shared between all 15 counties. Forest management contracts are subject to an annual financial audit and rolling 5-yearly performance checks. But rebuilding both the state forestry department and ensuring that civil society groups are equipped to support communities is a long-term process, not least in a country emerging from civil conflict.


The second map – – based on satellite imagery — shows an interpretation of land use change with the darker areas indicating forest loss. But land use change needs to be verified at the local level to indicate for example whether the change is occurring as a part of bush fallow cultivation, or land clearance. The flux in land tenure adds to these difficulties. See the Liberia Forest Initiative for reports. As reported by Rights & Resources many initial carbon trading schemes have shown little community ownership and benefit.There is no template to fit the differing forest characteristics and political institutions of tropical countries, but common standards (most probably drawn from forest certification and EITI experience) are needed, in order the monitoring and evaluation required for financial intermediaries.

Since much of the financing for carbon trading will come from private investors, the experience of the recent financial market instability may prove salutary if the corrections and new regulatory institutions are put in place. The extent of the debacle is widely recognised.

Globalization, thy name is Wall Street bailout…less than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the West’s gleeful jig dancing on the grave of communism, state capitalism is suddenly threatening the autonomy of the global “free” market. Wall Street’s elite banks, long time freedom fighters for deregulation and scorners of all government intervention in the marketplace, are now begging, cup in hand, for aid from a gallery of regimes that includes some of the most authoritarian and undemocratic governments on the planet…Perhaps it would be more accurate to say freer markets lost the day. The root of Wall Street’s woes leads back directly to their own strategic missteps, greed, speculation-run-amok, and lack of appropriate supervision.The brightest minds in finance had exactly what they wanted, a play ground where the monitors were looking the other way, and they blew it.

Similar points are made in The Independent. The FT reminds us that the US banking system has enjoyed four bailouts in the past three decades, namely the crises over developing country debt, saving and loans, commercial property in early 90s, and today’s sub-prime and securitised credit mess. This amounts to “a history of privatising gains and socialising losses.” (See for example: the US$66 billion staff pay costs of the big US investment banks).

There are inherent difficulties in the regulation and supervision of an industry which is driven by spectacular profits. But a more robust system will need to be in place if there is to be confidence in carbon trading as a financial transaction as well as a means to prevent forest loss. How far should regulation go: “The question the authorities need to ask themselves is simple: if a specific [financial] institution fell into substantial difficulty would they have to intervene?” only answers the first part of the question. How to monitor forest governance is the second part. If tropical forests have global public good properties then putting in place institutions – at local, national & international levels – for monitoring and verifying forest condition and international public and private financial transfers, including supporting civil society, in poor countries is a prerequisite.


Adventurers, explorers and writers

Adventurers and explorers have also often been good writers. Many early travellers in the first part of the twentieth century were prompted by their schoolboy reading (they were predominantly men, Sybille Bedford being an exception), and most are characterised by the degree of amateurishness and almost comic incompetence in their preparations.

A classic example was Graham Greene – looking for a ‘blank’ space – who walked across Liberia in 1934 with several crates of whisky and his cousin Barbara. It was their first trip outside Europe. She hardly got a mention in his book “Journey Without Maps” (1935) but wrote her own account of this extraordinary trip some years later. For Greene this was to prove a defining journey in terms of his future work, sandwiched between his first commercial successes (Stamboul Train and A Gun for Sale). The book records both what he experienced and his emotions during the 4 week trek from the border with Sierra Leone to the coast.

Greene’s perceptive contemporaneous observations reflect his background and the age in which he lived. At almost same time the self-taught Patrick Leigh Fermor was setting out as 18-year old on a year-long walk across Europe to Constantinople. But his travelogues “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water” were not written until four decades later, and perhaps reflect the experiences of a full life. Continue reading “Adventurers, explorers and writers”

Fellow travellers

Not having visited the tropics has not been seen as a drawback for a number of writers who have written ‘rainforest’ novels. Jenny Diski who wrote “Rainforest” (1987) – which is a fine novel – happily admits that for her research she visited London’s Kew Gardens.

Earlier, Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle’s action-adventure stories found inspiration in nineteenth century travelogues and the popular interest given to scientific discoveries, including Darwin’s Origin of Species. Similarly, their stories also caught the imagination of the public. Verne´s “Le Radeau” [The Giant Raft] (1881) is set in the Peruvian Amazon, and Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” (1912), a forerunner of Jurassic Park, is loosely located in the northern Amazonian region.

But other ‘outsiders’ have had a varying degree of success in their evocation of tropical forests. Evelyn Waugh’s “Handful of Dust” (1934) which includes a ludicrous detour to the Amazon to resolve the protagonists’ marital problems is one of his best-forgotten novels. If Waugh’s Tony and Brenda Last’s moral compass is wonky, the eponymous hero of Brian Hennigan´s comedy “Patrick Robertson: A Tale of Adventure” (2006) is happily unencumbered by any moral dilemmas. The Thai jungle provides a backdrop to this frankly preposterous but very amusing tale of an utterly self-centred salesman, lured in a hotel bar and kidnapped by an eco-terrorist group (the self-styled People’s Earth Friendly Liberation Group) having mistaken him for his namesake from the IMF. Continue reading “Fellow travellers”


“The Evil Forest” is a short story in a collection the “Marriage of Wisdom and other stories from Liberia” by Wilton Sankawulo. Originally published by Heinemann Educational Books in 1974 and reprinted in 1981, thedenk_sm.gif copy that I found in Broad Street, the main street of the capital, Monrovia, had been republished by the Catholic Educational Secretariat, Archdiocese of Monrovia, in 1994 and again in 2005 on behalf of the Ministry of Education. The dates loosely reflect the changing fortunes of the country: the optimism of the mid-1970s, the start of the fall into hell, the false dawn, and (determinedly) the return to peace. My copy is simply printed with a green card cover. There were no bookshops in Monrovia at the time of my last visit (Jan-April 2007). There are two pavement book markets on Broad Street: one outside the Ministry of Education, and another on the intersection with Johnson Street. They sell mainly recycled American high school and undergraduate text books, plus assorted novels and Shakespeare plays, most presumably looted during the wars.

Sankawulo writes stories in English based on traditional folklore. Much folklore – whether African or elsewhere – tends to portray forests as being either forbidding, scary, dangerous or enchanted places. Oral traditions have been important sources for writers through the ages. Harold Scheub´s A Dictionary of African Mythology: The Mythmaker as Storyteller (OUP, 2000) is an excellent compilation. Continue reading “Sasabonsam”