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Planetary Forest Transition
by Claude Garcia, 2 September 2019


Deforestation is as old as civilization. Do you want proof? Look at the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest piece of litterature known to us. In these ancient tablets, we learn how the King of Uruk in Mesopotamia and his new friend Enkidu, the savage man, embark on a journey to the Cedar forests to kill the demon Humbaba, the first incarnation of the forest guard, and cut down to cedar trees to make a door for the temple back in their city. The most ancient epic narrative of humanity is a tale of glorified illegal logging.

Today, anybody can picture the evolution of forest cover over the last 20 years. Just go to the FAO website, the World Bank or to the Global Forest Watch, and you will see the trend, or the landscape changes on the map. It virtually takes less than 45 seconds. We've never had it so easy to know what is going on, and this was a prerequisite to being able to change things. But hang on.

About 10,000 years ago, when the last great ice age ended, we estimate forests covered nearly 6 billion hectares, nearly 45 percent of the earth’s land mass. Today we are now at 4 billion (if you follow the FAO and the World Bank's definition of forest). In 10,000 years we have lost one third of the planet's forests. Deforestation is ancient, global, and intimately linked to our civilisation.

Is it thus a necessity? Is it unavoidable?

It seems not. When we look at historical processes, we find countries that have operated the transition. France and Switzerland in the 19th century. China and Vietnam in the 21st. The transition is therefore a possibility at a given scale. What were the reasons for these transitions? There are many, and well described, from the development of coal and the industrial revolution, to the migration out of rural area into the cities, etc. This has even given birth to the Forest Transition Theory. But what I want to draw your attention to here, is not so much the reasons why the curve was bent. I want you to look at the pattern of how it happened.

In France, massive rains created floods and landslides in 1840 and again in 1854, making headlines and creating awareness. Political leaders followed making policy decisions that were often opposed by local communities. Market forces and transformation of society followed and the trend continues today.

In Switerzland, massive rains created floods and landslides in 1868, making headlines and creating awareness. Political leaders followed making strong policy decisions. Reforestation was conducted through active plantations and through natural regeneration. Market forces and transformations of society followed and the trend continues today.

In China, black winds hitting Beijing in 1993, droughts and floods in the following years, making headlines and creating awareness. Political leaders followed making strong political decisions; the Grain for Green program was launched in 1999. Market forces and transformation of society follows, and the trend is well underway.

Do you see the pattern?

In [jurisdiction] at [date], [climatic event] creates [disaster and loss of life and property], making headlines and creating public awareness on the role of forests. [leader] follows making [strong policy decisions], eventually opposed by [local community]. Still, reforestation is conducted through active plantations and natural regeneration. Market forces and transformation of society follows, and the trend continues.

If this pattern is true, it follows it can happen at any given scale. It also sheds new light into the climatic events we are going through, the headlines, the protests. It means market forces and transformation of society respond to strong policy decisions. The bending of the curve will not happen unless we make it happen. Political leaders, hear that.

I have one more point. During the recent economical downturn in Europe, we read reports that greeks were turning back to harvesting forests for charchoal. I have not seen this having an impact on the national statistics of forest cover, but I wonder if it is true. I propose that if policies can halt and reverse deforestation, market forces and laissez-faire policies can make them plunge. The recent developments in Brazil would tend to prove it.

Alexander Mather wrote about this paradigm shift in 2000: "There is a public interest in forests, and [...] they are not, or should not be, simply private property. This public interest is not necessarily reflected in ownership, but is expressed in a combination of regulation and incentive." (p28).

Let me finish with this: On Earth, in 2019, severe heat waves created loss of lives and crops, fires ravaged countrysides, destroying widlife and properties, droughts killed cattle and displaced populations, making headlines and creating public awareness on the role of forests. This part of the sentence is already true.

[leader] followed making [strong policy decisions] and resisted [vested interests], implementing incentives and policies to restore and reforest landscapes. Markets and societies transformed and adapted, and the trend continues.

When? Who?

It's time! Let's call for a global governance of forests that respects livelihoods, biodiversity and the common goods. Let's call for a planetary forest transition.

Williams, M. 2002. Deforesting the earth: from prehistory to global crisis. Chicago, USA, University of Chicago Press.
Küchli, C. 1992. La forêt suisse.
Brönnimann, S., et al. 2018. 1868—das Hochwasser, das die Schweiz veränderte. Ursachen, Folgen und Lehren für die Zukunft.
Vischer, D.L. 2003. Histoire de la protection contre les crues en Suisse. Des origines jusqu’au 19e siècle, Rapports de l’OFEG, Série Eaux, Berne.
Schuler, A. 2002. La fondation de la société forestière suisse en l'an 1843 et son rôle dans la politique et la législation forestière helvétique. In: Annales des ponts et chaussées, vol. 2002, no. 103, pp. 51–57. Elsevier Masson, France.
Xu, Z. et al. 2006. Grain for green versus grain: conflict between food security and conservation set-aside in China. World Development 34, 1: 130–148.
Tsunekawa, A. et al. (eds.) 2014. Restoration and development of the degraded Loess Plateau, China. Springer.


This blog was originally published on Claude's LinkedIn.


Epilogue (which actually is more a sort of prologue)

I wrote this text earlier this summer, before Greta Thunberg was invited to the French Assemblée Nationale. Since then, hatred has piled on the young climate activist, fazendeiros in Brazil have launched the dia do foco, deforestation became a topic of the G7, there are talks of making ecocide a criminal offence and we seem to rediscover the links between our consumption patterns and environmental destruction. Now more than ever, it is time for policy makers to stand up.