When you work in the field of forest research in Northern Europe it is easy to get stuck in a bubble. A bubble where forestry basically functions: property rights are clear, almost all forest is certified, natural forests are not under serious threat, and bioeconomy is seen as the solution to numerous problems. The 14th World Forestry Congress in Durban, South Africa, gave me a welcome break out of this bubble and a much wider perspective on forest research.
I was there as a representative of the Swedish Future Forests research programme, with whom I have been working since 2014. Our team of 11 programme participants made a concerted and well-planned effort to tell the approximately 3900 conference participants about our results and the research programme. We had our own side event, a stand at the exhibition hall, mini-sessions at the stand, and a networking event one of the nights at a hotel.
We managed to reach a lot of people, but one thing was obvious: there was a lot of competition for attention at the conference. There were 17 other side events at the same time as ours, which meant that I spent most of the first day of conference promoting our event at the stand and wherever I got to talking with people. Nevertheless, it was possible to find the relevant people from the mass of participants and to inform them about our results.
World Forestry Congress is not purely a research conference. It involves scientists from different fields (at least three other Luke researchers attended), but there are also a lot of participants from non-governmental organisations, companies, and various governments. This meant that we had to modify our message to a wider public, but it also meant that we met people from all sorts of backgrounds. The conference was also extremely international, with participants from about 140 countries, including all African countries. This shows the range of people involved in forest related topics. I’m hoping that some of the contacts I made will be relevant in the future.
Broader perspectives on forest use and sustainable trade
The most important experience I got from the conference was a wider perspective on forest research. While we take well-functioning forestry for granted, it’s far from so in many other countries. Some of the most interesting sessions I attended were “Sustainable trade: new developments from Buenos Aires to Durban and beyond” and “China in Africa’s forests: finding a green path to prosperity?” I learned about the different ways of ensuring legitimacy of traded timber, monitoring its origins, technological solutions to preventing illegal logging, the effect of price premiums on the willingness to pay for forest certification, and about the controversial role China in Africa. Chinese investments in forestry are not discussed as widely as other Chinese investments in Africa, but they cause tensions and at least according to the discussion I heard, Chinese companies are less than insistent on legal logging. A briefing by one of the organisers on Chinese investments can be found here. To sum up, ethically sourced timber is far from certain in many parts of the world.
Another interesting session I heard concerned the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel initiative. It’s not a wall of trees across the continent, as I imagined, but rather a combination of different projects that aim at improving the lives of people in the region by combating desertification and land degradation. The means include using e.g. forests and agriculture. Land degradation is a topic we in Nordic countries don’t really discuss, but it is a serious issue elsewhere. There was also a lot of talk in different sessions about the pressures for more agricultural land. An interesting example of cooperation between plantation forestry and agriculture came from Stora Enso, who engages in this kind of work in Laos. Interestingly, as far as I know the only one who mentioned bioeconomy in the conference was Göran Persson, the former Swedish Prime Minister.
A concluding take away I got from the conference was inspiration. In the research world there is so much talk about funding, difficulties of doing research and other problems that sometimes you forget that forests are actually extremely important to masses of people across the globe. It’s good to be reminded of that sometimes, and of how well things actually are in our green, Northern bioeconomy bubble.