Redwood Forest Foundation
Excerpts from the Journal of an International Forester
by Kevin Whitlock
Expanded online version
Kevin Whitlock is a forest economist who has worked for 30 years in the Redwood Region and the Northern Sierra Nevada, as well as in eleven other countries with the World Bank, USAID and others.
In this capacity he has witnessed first hand how resource depletion leads to ecologic, economic and social decline around the world through processes not unlike those of our own Pacific Northwest.
"The red dirt road winding from Conakry north to Senegal and on to Timbuktu is rutted and dusty at the end of the dry season. There are rusty wrecked vehicles around every blind corner. People are sitting by the side of the road choking on our Land Rover's dust. The sky is red with dust carried on the wind, blowing dry across the southern Sahara. The road cuts through the green hills with the vegetation thick and full of vines, ripening mangoes dangle like ornaments from dark green branches. It straightens out across the open savanna, baking in the harsh African sun. The acacia trees flame with yellow flowers. Much of the landscape is cut over, burned, and grazed; oil palm is now the dominant tree species having supplanted 200 tree species that once comprised the original jungle. Children mound up small hills of dirt with large hoes to plant yams and corn, waiting for the rain. The last remnants of forest disappear. Small black and tan goats dash off into the brush to browse sprouting vegetation. The goats of Africa have free range. They wander in the wilderness and graze where they will. As a result, the tropical hardwood forest becomes the savanna, and the savanna expands into the Sahel."
In 1958 the French abandoned their colony to a series of corrupt communist and greedy military dictators resulting in conflict that spilled over to neighboring states. The root cause of the conflict in the area was economic dependence on natural resources, known as the paradox of plenty or the resources curse. The ensuing results are devastating.
Currently, the only law is randomness. There is no clean running water; malaria, typhoid, and yellow fever are rampant; AIDS/HIV infects just over 40% of the adult population in a culture where polygamy is the standard. There are no sewers for the two million people that live in the capital city of Conakry. They just wait for the rain to wash the refuse out to sea. These conditions are repeated up and down the coast of West Africa from Dakar to Lagos."
Tropical hardwood logs pre-staged to be skidded to the landing and shipped to China for products eventually sold to the US. These are located west of Danane, Cote d’Ivoire in a 250,000 hectare concession, one of the largest in Liberia.
Among the most serious, long-term problems associated with the conflicts of West Africa are those related to the prevailing economic, ecological and environmental conditions caused by over-harvesting, and poor harvest practices. These conditions and the resulting economic and social impacts are widespread, not unlike what we see in our own back yard. After 150 years of over-harvesting and poor harvest practices throughout the Redwood region, the remaining second and third growth conifers compete with tan oak and brush for nutrients, sun and water. The Redwood Forest Foundation (RFFI) is breaking new ground by curbing economic dependence on extracting its natural resources while instead focusing on long-term forest and watershed restoration. RFFI is curtailing economic dependence that relies on depleting natural resources by establishing new revenue sources, such as selling a conservation easement and establishing carbon credits.
"We are traveling to a Fula village within the Ntalama Classified Forest, about 100 kilometers north of Labe. Of the five protected forests in Guinea, only three remain with some residual forest structure. Civil War, drought, and grazing goats have decimated the other two. This one is not yet completely lost. In the middle of nowhere, Seydou, my guide and Susu translator, knew which rutted trail into the bush the Land Rover should take, passing black-skinned women wrapped in bright floral prints, walking, forever walking. Young girls, barely teenagers walking; bowls piled with mangoes or bundles wrapped in plastic balanced on their heads.
We arrive at a cluster of round mud huts thatched with grass on a hill. Goats meander between the huts and into the dusty bare fields that surround the village. Smiling children peer over the wattle enclosure intrigued by the Tue-Ba-Boo, or white ghost, who came to talk to the elders about taking care of the forest. About ten men, wearing frayed caftans and white Islamic prayer caps, sit around inside the enclosure in the shade of a flame tree. White teeth smile from dusty satin black faces. A servant dressed in a dirty ragged shirt and dark greasy pants boils a thick black tea over smoky coals. He pours the tea back and forth from the small dented aluminum kettle into an old whisky shot glass until the tea has a frothy white head. Each elder is served a glass of tea in turn and the servant repeats the process."
A very upgraded version of the hut with a thatched roof; hotel accommodations outside Siguir near the Niger River in northeast Guinea 2004.
The paradox of plenty is a term used to describe a situation whereby a county rich in natural resources can generate large revenues, but for various factors often leads paradoxically to wasteful spending, raiding the revenue for politically popular causes creating huge foreign debt and declining social spending. Regardless of where you are, West Africa or the Redwood region, greed is or remains the driving force that perpetuates the paradox.
In this context, there are many similarities between countries and corporations. Both can raise enormous amounts of wealth and exercise great power for the good of society. At the most basic level, each is composed of people. On the one hand human beings are ethical or moral individuals experiencing the world through interpersonal relationships requiring an understanding of empathy. On the other they are what Thomas Hobbes, 17th century English philosopher, describes as an animal of instinct and the natural state of humanity devoid of any social or governmental structure, driven by and focused on greed, using fear and aggression as a means to an end. Hobbes hedges his hardline by stating, "The wickedness of bad men also compels good men to have recourse, for their own protection, to the virtues of war, which are violence and fraud." (De Cive, Epistle Dedicatory)
The creation of a green economy is a result of man's recourse. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) defines a green economy as "an economy that results in improved human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and the lack of resources."
Green growth (OECD 2011a) is about "fostering economic growth and development while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being depends. To do this it must catalyze investment and innovation which will underpin sustained growth and create new economic opportunities."
The RFFI vision and mission parallel these global concepts by establishing community-based natural resource management through a working forests model for the social, environmental and economic benefit of all our citizens in perpetuity, returning net profits directly back to the communities.
"It is necessary to keep the goats out of the recently planted Classified Forest," I said in English. "They are eating all the young trees the Peace Corps volunteers have planted." Seydou translated my words into French. A French-speaking elder in the village translated them into Fula.
The chief elder, Amadu Corka Kamara, smiles and responds. His words are translated back to me. "The goat is the King of Africa. He goes where he wants. Goats cannot be contained."
"But then the forest cannot grow back," I argue.
"Goats are not solid creatures. They flow like water. They cannot be kept away from the trees. This is the will of Allah," replies the chief. All the elders smile and shake their heads in agreement. The servant continues to serve tea and the conversation shifts to making musical instruments from hardwoods and the uses of bamboo."
Primary jungle after logging and grazing goats have decimated it - north of Nzerekore in southeast Guinea 2004. By 2010, this became a palm oil plantation.
Community-based natural resource management has been around for millennia, the phenomenon is not new. Communities throughout the world have developed elaborate resource management systems maintaining many traditional activities of collective natural resource management.
According to Tom Tuchmann, former RFFI Executive Director, community forestry means different things to different people. Definitions vary: a community of place, a community of interests involved with governance, the integration of social, economic and environmental values.
Unsustainable extraction of natural resources throughout the world has necessitated the need for a paradigm shift. RFFI believes that in order to achieve a working community forest, the guiding principles for responsible management must be based on the principles of transparency, accountability, communication, interaction and trust. These are the same principles of good governance used globally to guide countries away from, and out of, the paradox of plenty.
"It is a bright Sunday afternoon for the return trip from Labe to Conakry. On the way out of town, Seydou asks to visit a friend attending a naming celebration. The guests were dressed in their finest and most colorful attire, crisp and dazzling in the African sun. Joyful music of drums, koras and balaphones resonated in the courtyard, surrounded by gray concrete blocks covered with magenta bougainvillea. We are offered warm sodas; everything in Africa is warm. It was the eighth day since the birth of the child, yet unnamed. The Koran was held over his head and the imam prayed to Allah, the merciful, ancient words in Arabic. He took up a shining blade and with a swift and practiced motion; he cleanly sliced off the foreskin of the baby. At that moment, he called out the name of the child in a loud voice, "Mohammed Omar!" The cheers of the rejoicing crowd of relatives and friends drowned out the cry of the baby.
A bed of hot coals waited as the naming ceremony continued with a combination ritual sacrifice and barbecue. An alert black goat was dragged into the courtyard by its horns, panic in its eyes. The imam once again offered a prayer to Allah, the merciful, with his hands on the head of the goat. Finishing the prayer, a sharp knife was handed to him. The unlucky goat gave one more small kick as the imam grabbed it under its jaw and placed the blade on its neck. The eyes of the goat glazed over with a look of resignation. Perhaps the animal knew that its imminent demise was for a higher purpose. The imam cut its throat in one expert motion. The animal shuddered and its legs collapsed. Blood pulsed out of the fatal wound and collected in a large yellow gourd."
"Several young women standing nearby stepped forward, dipped their hands in the gourd, and smeared the shining red blood on their cheeks and forehead. Seydou told me these women wished to have children and the blood of the sacrificed goat would ensure a successful pregnancy. Guinea is a country of children. There are very few old people. The children are the hope of the future. They are beautiful and innocent. Their parents love, cuddle, and dote upon them. Nearly every woman I see is pregnant or has a baby wrapped in bright cloth tied on her back. The national symbol for the country of Guinea is the Nimba; a mythic fertility image that is a cross between a woman and a goat - with four legs, a goat-like face, and long pendulous breasts. The present appears hopeless, and the future is unknown, but things do not look promising with the Nimba leading the way."
Leadership in conservation is not a matter of alerting people to the problems created by excessive over-extraction or intensive management of the resource; it is about policy, good science, good governance, community, and a realignment of the economics.
As a non-profit, RFFI relies on maximizing community engagement. The personal connection to the community is critical to the success of the RFFI mission. Throughout the non-profit sector and developing nations, there is often a lack of emphasis on the people or communities actually experiencing the impact of a program. RFFI's governance structure, forest management philosophies, financial and community commitments are working to bridge the gap.
The planetary issues of climate change were discussed in Paris this year; many believe that the changes will shape our social, economic and political issues, including over-population, poverty, war, and economic stagnation.
As Earth Day 2016 - 'Trees for the Earth' approaches, it is up to our collective leadership to suggest practical ways to effectively leverage our natural resources to achieve worthy goals beyond what is politically popular.
"As we leave Labe, driving through the pastoral Fouta Djallon highlands on our way back to Conakry, clouds build up in from the west. They become billowing black masses, blocking the sun. Sheets of lightning outline the distant treeless purple hills and thunder cracks overhead. For several minutes, it rains; raining so hard, it looks as if we are submerged under water. We pull over to wait out the intensity of the storm, thunder and rain shaking the Land Rover. The red dirt road became a river of blood. The rainy season has arrived and the sewage and garbage of West Africa is washed into the Atlantic."
As the Air France wheels retracted into the underbelly of the plane, I am thankful that I can come home to America. During my stop in Washington D.C., I literally skip down the National mall, "How lucky I am to be an American!"