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Thoughts about the upcoming year

December 31, 2010

Next year (2011) is the UN year of the forests. It may seem silly to dedicate a year to this or that, but previous experience indeed show that journalists, governments and people in general take the opportunity of discussing something of international concern.

What is a forest?

A forest is not only confined to the trees. I believe that one goal for this year will be to convey that message. It is not an evident statement. Many years ago Swedish forestry companies came up with the slogan ‘Sweden has never had so many forests’. They failed to see the difference between an exotic monoculture plantation and an ancient virgin spruce forest, vibrating of life and mystery.

A Swedish toy manufacturer showed its environmental concern by planting South American rubber trees in Thailand. It is better than bare soil, of course, but not much better than a corn field. Education is indeed needed!

For 2011 it is important that people learn that a forest is not just a bunch of upright planks, it is composed of many different trees, and other plants, animals, birds, butterflies, mushrooms, tockays – all together they constitute a forest!

The carbon dioxide concern has in my eyes made the biodiversity decline a low priority among politicians, journalists and environmental organizations. They will argue any tree is good for reducing CO2. I suffer more than most people when I hear this, because I do not even believe in the CO2 hypothesis as an explanation for the current global warming.

Let’s select the pangolin as a surrealistic symbol of the Thai forest to shake the heads of politicians, foresters and toy manufacturers. We need to work among all channels available to inform people that a forest is more than wood. The pangolin is a lovely mammal with scales instead of hair, and it used to be common in Southeast Asia, but is now much reduced due to the incorrect belief the scales have medicinal value.

Why should we care? I belong to the infinitesimal minority of humans who love the forest, but love has no value. Elected politicians would do what the majority of the people want, and since Roman times we know uneducated people are mostly interested in ‘whiskey and karaoke’ (a modern version of ‘bread and circuses’, panem et circenses). If the voters want to save the forests the politicians are all ears. With education the voters may learn to respect a forest as a supreme creation, so what educational strategy is the best to achieve that?

Money is the best argument to start with, even better than the landslide and flood prevention arguments. The argument plants and mushrooms host potential medicines (remember cyclosporin from moulds, salicylic acid from willow bark and quinine in cinchona bark) only appeals to somebody with a long perspective about society’s welfare, and then we lose a majority of the voters. There is money in a teak plantation too, so a forest in its original creation may not be needed by people looking for economical reasons. The answer could be what the Thai Tourist Association currently dismiss as a niche, i.e. green tourism.

If educated people pay to see Thai forests, a majority of people making money on green tourism would demand forests and not fields of Mexican sunflowers, the symbol of death and destruction. Are there examples? Indeed, Australia and New Zealand make a lot of money on green tourism, and such tourists do not come for shopping or bars, they have that at home, they come to experience another world, an Avatar landscape. Australia was not environmentally concerned a few decades ago, but when the tourist money poured in, the degradation was halted, and people who previously did not care much, started wondering why these foreigners crossed the planet to see Australian shrubs, and knowledge and pride filled the veins also of the locals.

Education of tourists and locals are equally important, and the journalists are key people. The local news papers still advertise the Mae Hong Son sunflowers in blossom, while they should write how bad it is, and suggest the organizers to offer tours to see wild orchids, butterflies and pangolins instead.

Dokmai Garden will keep educating English-speaking tourists, but who will teach in Thai and Chinese? I fear without teaching in these languages, Thailand will keep bleeding to death. We have desperately tried to encourage the other tourist venues in Chiang Mai to display books in their souvenir shops, but in most cases in vain. Mass tourism is all about fast money in exchange of shallow impressions, while passion and knowledge is often absent.

Another way is to ask the help from the Thai monks. They do teach about respect for life and they do teach that status symbols are not the way to happiness, but who listens? Many religious people in the world follow the abracadabra rituals, with the egocentric hope God would reward them for singing along, but they do not necessarily cherish God’s creation.

The UN year of the Forests 2011 should include a discussion about what a forest is, and why we need forests, or maybe we don’t?

Eric Danell, Dokmai Garden

Pangolins have almost been exterminated in Southeast Asia due to superstition and greed. Two thousand years from now our descendants can consider that although they have no pangolins to adore, their ancestors (us) enjoyed cheap Mekong whiskey they bought for money made on hunting pangolins, and the incompetent ancestors (us) enjoyed eating a ‘medicine’ which did not help them at all. Some will probably deny pangolins ever existed. Trading pangolins as medicine is like selling stolen Dali paintings as fire wood. Ultimately, turning the over-population is the key to a happier world.

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