February 15, 2011
I confess that British Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to auction off all 650,000 acres of England’s national forests to the highest bidder came as a bit of a shock to me – especially as the contained such world-famous national treasures as Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, the Forest of Dean and the New Forest. Although warned by my Irish mother that Tories can never be trusted, Mr. Cameron’s passionate pledge to deliver the “greenest government ever” seemed sincere, especially given his ambitious plans to cut Britain’s pollution. Anyway, even if he turned out to be as slippery as his predecessors, his deep green Liberal Democratic coalition partners would, I thought, keep the planet high on his priority list.
I should have listened to my mother.
Although thousands of Englishmen and women have rushed to the forests and the streets to keep these forests and their creatures safe from the logger, the biomass furnace, and the McMansion, the privatizers seem to have Cameron’s ear. And the Liberal Democrats seem willing to sacrifice these natural wonders as a burnt offering to the gods of coalition.
As much damage as this sale will do to the English countryside, its wildlife, and the rights of a free people to the great outdoors, the true consequences of this policy will be felt far from England’s little woodland gems, across the seas on the frontiers of the tropics.
You see, I work to protect the planet’s rainforests: the Amazon, the Congo Basin, the Paradise Forests of Southeast Asia. It’s not easy work. We face cattle ranching gangs, palm oil cartels, and timber barons who seize any opportunity to burn and clear the forest for a quick buck – and damn the orangutans, the tigers, the indigenous people who stand in the way. Despite the devastating toll of this deforestation, we are starting to make some progress. Deforestation, while still unacceptably high, has declined by two thirds in Brazil since 2000. And it looks like progress is starting in other countries as well.
One of the reasons we are beginning to turn the page on the era of forest destruction is that many of the forests in rainforest nations are owned by the public—or communally owned by indigenous tribes. It’s far easier to crack down on illegal logging and burning there than it is on private land, where it can be tricky for the authorities to monitor what’s going on. And on public or communal land, the whole country has a stake in their protection.
The agents of deforestation in these countries are constantly looking for an excuse to reverse the new conservation policies and let the bulldozers roar again. When an advanced developed country like Britain sells off its national patrimony to meet a temporary budget gap, they won’t need to look far for a new model of "modern" forestry.
Indeed, the deforesters already ask, “Why should we be denied the right to plunder our forests when that’s exactly what Britain and many other developed countries did?” Now they will ask the same question, only in the present tense.
In Britain, a budget gap means slight increases in taxes and reductions in public services. In Indonesia, a budget gap can mean the elimination of the most basic health services for children. It will be hard to justify long term thinking about natural resources when it appears that the English aren’t willing to pay the 30 pence per person per year it costs to maintain the national forest system. This from a country that has made protecting rainforests around the world a key part of its environmental agenda – from David Cameron’s assertion that countries that destroy their rainforests are "barmy" to Prince Charles’ very effective work through the Prince's Rainforest Trust.
Of course, the government argues that the sale won’t really change the English landscape. The UK’s land planning requirements, (limited) public access rights and the existence of conservation charities that might (or might not) be able to purchase some of the jewels of the forest estate, will mean little change in forest cover.
There are reasons to doubt these claims: when anything goes into private hands, particularly large tracts of land, the public interest necessarily becomes secondary to the private interest. Rules and regulations may last for a time, but they are always perceived as interference with property rights. It’s hard for a politician to argue that someone shouldn’t be able to do what they want with their own land—especially if a family is facing extreme economic pressures and needs to sell just to pay the taxman.
But let's for the moment take Cameron at his word. Perhaps the British laws work so well and English charities are so rich and forward thinking that this will amount to nothing more than an administrative change.
But there are few nations with the luxury you have. Even in the United States, with our great forestlands, it would be well beyond the financial reach of even our most well-endowed charities to purchase, protect, and manage just the choicest of our public lands. As for the forests in Papua New Guinea, Peru, or Cameroon? Forget it.
I confess that my fears aren’t just confined to the tropics. This land privatization craze could infect my home country just as easily, just as earlier centuries’ enclosure movements, begun in England, formed a precedent for an earlier round of destructive privatization and displacement around the world.
Indeed, the vital necessity of public forests was a lesson Britain itself learned during World War I. Britain’s extraordinarily high rate of private land ownership had also led to one of the world’s worst records of deforestation and wildlife extinction – the wolf, the (recently reintroduced) great bustard, great auk, Mallow skipper butterfly being only a few examples. Indeed, by World War I, only about five percent of Britain’s forests remained, and 90 percent of Britain’s timber came from overseas. Most people and government officials thought that cheap wood could be imported forever – until the German U-Boat appeared on the horizon and made it clear that the lack of native forests would cost the British enormously in blood and fortune.
With the armed forces needing wood products for everything from the charcoal ventilators in gas masks to pit props keeping the furnaces of manufacture humming, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith formed a committee led by Sir Francis Dyke Acland to recommend a domestic way to supply this essential resource. Sir Francis’ report came not a moment to soon. With so few forests left, he found, Britain needed to get serious about tree planting fast. The committee recommended planting 1.7 million acres with trees, and successive governments acted. In 1919, the government authorized the creation of the Forestry Commission and gave it expansive power to buy and plant land.
Progress was speedy, and was actually accelerated by the Great Depression: the government found employment for thousands of jobless by putting them to work planting trees. By the time World War II broke out, important progress had been made: the Commission had acquired 650,000 acres and planted about two thirds of them. This was to prove a vital resource – Britain’s surge of industrial production for the war required lots of wood to keep it going. It also required workers, who were in short supply because of the war demands. And so, thousands of young women were inducted into the "Women's Timber Corps," where they donned fetching green berets and axes and went to the remotest parts of Britain to plant trees, fell timber, and care for the land.
We remember, as we should, the brave airmen, sailors, and soldiers who fought to keep the world free from tyranny. But let us remember that England’s forests, and the Lumberjills who worked them, did their bit for victory as well.
So, please, let’s keep the forests public in England and in all the countries that look to England for moral leadership. We can’t let the Land of Hope and Glory become a land without trees.