Volume 13 Number 1
The Forest: Mankind's First and Last Refuge
01 February 2000

Alan Channer joins people of many faiths and traditions at an ecological symposium in the Chateau de Klingenthal, France

The Penan woman from the rainforest of Borneo plucked at the strings of a simple instrument and primordial music suffused the formal meeting room. An Algerian, dressed in white, held up the branch of a date palm. A Tibetan Buddhist monk lifted some seeds out of a small bowl. In the French Chateau de Klingenthal, about one hour's drive from Strasbourg, an unusual symposium was beginning.

The theme was 'The tree and the forest--from cultural symbolism to programmed extinction?' and the opening address was given by Philippe Roch, Director General of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, Forestry and Landscape. He presented the ecological and the economic value of forest. Then he surprised everyone in the audience with a personal experience.

'For me the link between nature and spirituality has always been close,' he said. 'In the modern world there is so much talking. I go to the forest to "listen". And whenever I have experienced great difficulty, when I have suffered, when I have hated someone and felt unjustly treated, I have gone to the forest, and my hatred has disappeared.'

Roch explained that while a vital objective of his government department is to manage commercial forests sustainably, he also believes it is essential to set aside areas of forest as 'sacred spaces', entirely independent of man's material needs.

The Klingenthal symposia are the brainchild of Dr Jean-Pierre Ribaut, a Swiss zoologist and Catholic deacon who, before his retirement, headed up the nature conservation department of the Council of Europe. Ribaut's idea was to bring people of diverse spiritual traditions together with scientists and policy-makers in fora which address globally significant environmental questions. The Catholic movement Pax Christi, the Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation and the Goethe Foundation joined forces to support the venture.

Discussion about 'the tree and the forest' began with a review of the status of forests in the world today. Professor Hansjurg Steinlin from Germany pointed out that forest cover in fully industrialized countries has actually increased slightly over the last 30 years. As marginal agricultural land has been planted with forest, the growth of new trees has outstripped the exploitation of timber.

He contrasted this with the situation in the tropics, where forest has been diminishing at the relentless rate of one per cent per year for the last 20 years. 'This is not a problem of forestry,' he stressed, 'but of development.' He maintained that poverty, population growth, political instability, a lack of legal policies, poor policing and corruption all contributed to tropical deforestation.

Letitia Soares, an environmental activist from Brazil, supported this view. 'Eighty per cent of wood cut in the Amazon forest is illegal,' she told symposium participants. Since 10 per cent of the world's plant species are found only in the Amazon, it is a unique reservoir of potential pharmaceutical, horticultural and agricultural products. And yet, Soares pointed out, countries which have reduced timber exploitation at home are now putting increasing pressure on the Amazon. 'Our main need is to have the political will to have sustainable management,' she stressed.

The continuing assault on tropical forests is beginning to have far-reaching ecological consequences. Hydrological cycles have become less predictable: river flow is more unstable, rainfall more erratic, and the frequency of floods, mudslides and drought is increasing. Trees also play a vital role in the carbon cycle; taking atmospheric carbon dioxide and 'sinking' it into wood. The burning of fossil fuels (including the remains of prehistoric trees) and of wood, is increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which cause global warming. Thus the world's overall loss of forest is also contributing to climate change.

So the relevance of a symposium like this was quite clear. How can human populations be persuaded to respect the integrity of forests, before it is too late?

A remarkable plea was made by Bruno Manser, a Swiss artist and environmental activist who lived for six years with the Penan tribes in the jungles of Borneo. 'The last remaining virgin forests are a gift of the highest value that no human being can recreate once they have been logged,' he said. 'Only one per cent of all tropical timber comes from sustainable production. Only 10 per cent of the profits in the tropical timber trade remain in the exporting country.

'Officially, only 0.6 per cent of the profit from timber cut in Sarawak goes to the indigenous Penan people. But even this doesn't reach them. Instead, there are 700 people imprisoned in Sarawak for complaining about the logging of their land. Is it worthwhile to sacrifice the biodiversity and resources of a country, for low prices, to the already overfed industrialized nations for the profit of some few?'

French Catholic priests, an Algerian Muslim, a Hindu, a Baha'i, a Christian and animist Cameroonian, an Aboriginal from the Central Lands Council of Australia, a Shinto university lecturer, a Polish agnostic, a Cree Indian from Canada--all found themselves in complete agreement on this question. And an awareness of how to start doing something about it began to grow.

First of all, it was made clear that ordinary people in the West are contributing directly to tropical deforestation without giving it a moment's thought. For example, the cabinet sold under the label 'walnut brown hue'; or those nice all-weather chairs, originating in 'sustainably managed forest in south-east Asia' down at your local garden centre; or even that humble broom which declares the 'brushhead is beechwood, origin Switzerland'--are probably from plundered forests in Cameroon, Cambodia and Malaysia respectively.

In other words, 'walnut' is only the hue, not the wood; 'sustainably managed forest in south-east Asia' is a only a label fabricated in Vietnam for wood cut illegally in Cambodia; and while the brushhead is made from beech, the handle comes from Sarawak. The fact is that unsustainably exploited tropical wood is cheap, and the timber trade conceals its origins. But such deception is not going to last.

Consumer groups are now lobbying retailers of wood to detail the origin of the wood and the species of tree. 'There must at least be good information,' said Marie-Lise Ramackers from the French group Agir Ici (Act Here), 'then at least it can be up to the consumers' conscience.'

Organizations like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) are also working at it. Chris Elliot cited 'the unique situation in Mexico, where 80 per cent of forest is controlled by indigenous people'. There, WWF officials work with local people to verify the sustainability of their forest management practices. Export consignments of Mexican furniture, bound mostly for the USA, are then issued with 'ecological certificates'.

Chris Elliot pointed out that an internationally agreed and monitored system of 'eco-certification' would constitute a significant step forward in safeguarding the world's remaining tropical forests.

The value of eco-certification was highlighted in the fourth Klingenthal Appeal, produced at the end of the symposium and made available to the press. The document also advocated the importance of spiritual education 'in order to stimulate respect for Creation and nature'. It mentioned that forest, which served as humanity's first place of refuge, 'has an important place in practically all religions and spiritual currents'--and that, furthermore, these currents can contribute to policies of conservation and sustainable management 'more than is generally acknowleged'.

As one quotation in the appeal pointed out: 'The composure of trees makes us aware of our own agitation.... Their measured lives highlight the artificiality of ours--and remind us, if we had forgotten, that we too belong to nature and that nature does not belong to us.'

The symposium ended with an intercultural celebration. The participants sat in a large circle while a Franciscan nun placed fragments of tree from different parts of the world on the floor, at the four points of the compass. Then she thanked 'Brother Sun' and 'Mother Earth', 'Brother Fire' and 'Sister Water' for their life-giving qualities. Someone played a tape of birdsong--from Borneo, Brazil, Kenya and Australia. Then Bruno Manser dispensed incense from the jungles of Sarawak through the formal meeting room. Everyone was riveted.

At the opening of the symposium, Philippe Roch had said that if the 21st century could be a century of ecology, culture and spirituality, then it would necessarily be a century for the forest. I concluded that, if the 21st century could be a century for the forest, it would necessarily be a century of hope for mankind
Alan Channer

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