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Last Updated: 01/26/2004
Something about trees
Simon Stande

The Editor spends a couple of days out of the office.

22-24 January, Costa Rica.


The two day field course was something about trees. Three professors and eight students went off in search of understanding the reason for a many sided conflict. We met representatives from two government ministries, bureaucrats, producer’s association, earnest pleasant people from two NGOs and a very friendly grumpy farmer who fed us with cakes and juice while we stared at a strange cow that turned out to be to be a cross between a Brahma, a Jersey and a Holstein.


We are in Costa Rica, which only a few decades ago was covered in forest. Rapid population growth and economic expansion has led to a staggering reduction of forest so that now only 12 % of the land is protected, but at least that’s doing a lot better than many other places on the planet. Since 1997 the government has had a scheme to save the forests through what can be loosely described as incentive payments provided partly through a levy on petrol and partly through international payments via the Kyoto protocols.


Generally speaking the dispute we studied stems from good intentions. Conservationists want to conserve; the government wants to manage forests; producers want that too but are a bit hungrier than the government; the farmers want a collective voice but are listened to the least.


There seemed to be no chance of any violence occurring but maybe tempers might heat up at some point. It did not happen while we were around. Everyone was really civilized. Of course, one day civil society will be like that everywhere: civil.


Expanding the forests, providing a living for producers and ensuring that some of us get to buy beautiful wood can’t be bad.  On the other hand, conflict is pretty inevitable wherever people meet, trade, grow things, make things and look to improve themselves. The world is not the world of Adam Smith’s harmony or of Enlightenment dreamers.


The range of native woods here in Costa Rica is tremendous and you can still buy solid wood furniture. Let’s hope the forests expand and people can use wood instead of plastic. I don’t suppose many people in the so-called advanced countries remember the days when it took both hands to lift a dining room chair.  


And the only time when anyone did get angry was when I suggested that the government nationalized land instead of using incentive payments. Yeah, well, nationalization really does seem to be a thing of the past, a bit like solid wood furntiture. But, nationalization or not, the system creates its fair share of government and NGO bureaucrats and technocrats, each one needing more than just two hands to shift.





Simon Stander is the editor of the Peace and Conflict Monitor and also associate professor of Peace Studies. Occasionally he leaves the office.