Forests are responsible for metabolizing 78% of the world’s carbon dioxide annually. Not only do forests provide a mechanism for sequestering carbon, but they do so in a way that can also provide a vital and sustainable supply of timber to support many facets of a ecologically balanced economy. In this interview we spoke with Jeff Schnurr, the Executive Director of Community Forests International about the potential role of sustainable forestry in the development of symbiotic cities.
By Craig Applegath
You split your time between your work in Canada and Africa. This provides you with an unusual perspective from which to view our contemporary world. What are some of the things that stand out for you with respect to the differences between how North Americans and Africans understand their relationship with the environment?
When I’m in Canada, I live and work in New Brunswick where forestry and rural communities are practically inseparable. Although there are a few pockets of truly sustainable forestry, the commonly held consensus in Canada is that forests and the natural environment either need to be conserved, or should be maximized for economic growth. This line of thinking has resulted in a divide between economic and environmental development. When I arrived in East Africa I saw a completely different worldview. Although rural communities still depended on the natural environment for their livelihoods, many villages have realized that conservation and income generation must go hand in hand. To do one without the other would be detrimental.
You and Community Forests International are considered pioneers in the development of carbon-offset credits based on managing forests sustainably in concert with sustainable community development. Where are you and your team heading with both your carbon research and its practical application over the next few years?
We’ve been exploring carbon-offsetting as a way to bridge Canada’s economic and environmental divide. We believe that well designed carbon-offsetting projects that involve rural communities and sustainable forest management and harvest can provide for an over-populated planet while fighting climate change. There are ways that forest products can be harvested while improving and restoring forests in the process and we believe that carbon offsetting can held make these efforts economically feasible. Over the next few years we’ll continue to explore how responsible organizations and individuals, rural communities and natural systems can work together to fight climate change.
Some people are very uncomfortable with the whole concept of carbon offsets. Critics see offsets as being akin to the indulgences for sins that the Catholic Church sold during the Middle Ages. How do you respond to this kind of criticism?
There is a lot of criticism around carbon offsetting and some of this criticism is not unfounded, but the bottom line is that we are emitting way too many greenhouse gasses and individuals and organizations on both sides of the equation genuinely want to do something about it. I think that early green-washers never got the mileage they wanted out of offsets, and now we can give climate stewardship and offsetting some real consideration. As for indulgences for sins? The only sin would be a failure to act while we still have a chance to pilot the mechanisms that may help us find viable solutions.
Levels of CO2e in the atmosphere are now up past 396ppm. Most serious and respected climate scientists believe we are already starting to experience the impacts of climate change. Where does sustainable forest management fit into this picture?
Forests regulate our climate and provide ecosystem services such as water filtration and nutrient cycling. As humans have yet to find a way to provide these life-essential ecosystem services without forests it’s pretty clear that we need to work to ensure that forests remain healthy and productive. The way we interact with forests will either contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, or reduce them. Forest diversity and health will be essential for human adaptation as the climate changes around us.
Symbiotic Cities of the future will rely heavily on both rural and urban forests to maintain a supply of environmental services. Do you see any possibilities for applying the lessons you and your team have learned to the cities and suburbs?
With a population of almost 7 billion people we need to admit that we are truly a part of the natural world, and this goes for rural and urban communities alike. In my opinion it all comes back to accountability and stewardship. Urban communities and suburbs must be aware of their environmental impacts and we all need to work together to mitigate the negative consequences of our communities’ actions. Imagine a world where all urban and suburban communities monitor their greenhouse gas emissions and then form partnerships with neighboring rural communities in order to store and sequester the carbon they emit? These types of rural/urban partnerships could play an important role in our efforts against climate change.
In your work in both Canada and Tanzania over the years, you have seen the tight connections between natural ecosystems and the human communities that inhabit them. What important lessons have you drawn that could inform our discussion of the planning and design of symbiotic cities?
The most important thing that we’ve learned is the interconnectivity between people and the natural world. There is no separation and we need to stop pretending that humanity exists outside of the natural world we depend on. In Tanzania it’s easy to see. If the rainy season is shorter than usual and the rivers are dry everyone knows it and everyone is talking about it. In Canada, we still don’t see the direct impacts of climate change because we isolate ourselves from natural systems. Symbiotic cities could both foster and highlight our relationships with the natural world and bring some of humanity’s most pressing issues to the forefront. We don’t need to experience a complete environmental collapse to notice climactic changes, so how do we design and plan symbiotic cities to highlight the roles that natural systems play in our daily lives?
You and your CFI team work very closely with communities to help them understand the close relationship between environmental health and economic community health. So given this experience, how do we get people to realize that life-critical ecological services such as water purification, pollination, oxygen production, and natural carbon sequestration cannot simply be treated as externalities, but instead have value, and must be valued?
To date, both economic models and conservation efforts have serious flaws and fail to recognize that both systems are working towards general well being. In order to recognize the similar goals of both systems we need to break down barriers and build new partnerships. Business can be financial profitable and good for the environment. Conservation can maintain it’s traditional values while admitting that people need to make a living on the landscape. We believe that a whole new wave of partnerships are beginning to emerge and are proud to be a part of it.
About Jeff Schnurr:www.cbc.ca/change/2010/10/jeff-schnurr.html
Jeff Schnurr first made his mark while working as a Canadian tree-planter, where he singlehandedly planted over half a million trees. Between planting seasons, he traveled to over 35 countries before landing in Tanzania, where he worked with local villagers to spur a tree planting movement that eventually grew into Community Forests International. With the dream of making conservation a rural livelihood, Jeff has spread the techniques of forest restoration around the globe. In 2010, Jeff Schnurr was named one of Canada’s Top 10 volunteers by the CBC and Manulife. More recently, Jeff and Community Forests International teamed up with DIALOG to develop a carbon offsetting strategy based on the sustainable management of forests in Canada.