Fabian Schmidt: Forests — Use Them or Lose Them
Fabian Schmidt

Forests — Use Them
or Lose Them

Fabian Schmidt is an advisor at GIZ — а German federal enterprise, engaged in sustainable development — currently residing in Lima, Peru, with his wife and daughter.

How did you know you want ecology to be your profession and does it go back to your childhood?

It does. I was a kid that played a lot outdoors, and somehow I developed an interest in birds. My parents realized this and took me to local environmental NGOs who offered early morning walks through forests to identify birds by their calls. Anyhow, the older I got, the more I lost interest in nature. I became a bit of a computer nerd and spent most of my time in front of screens and not in nature, but later on, my passion for it was reawakened. After school, I decided against the military service and did social service instead. I worked for a year in a nature reserve in southern Germany where I basically spent all my days outdoors. Afterward I decided to base my living on my IT skills and, therefore, started to study media information technology. But as life goes, it took me two years to realize that this wasn’t the right track for me, and I then decided to start studying forestry.

Fabian Schmidt

What exactly it is that you do, explained for the non-familiar? And how is a forest being managed?

In the beginning, I worked in the private sector in Costa Rica and Panama, specializing on reforesting degraded areas that were formerly covered by rainforest and then used for cattle ranching during several decades.

So a new forest is planted and then managed. You basically create permanent forests and promote the trees with the best growth. If the forest has reached a certain age, you start selectively harvesting some trees, but you never take out more than what is growing back.

I have been working in international development cooperation for few years now, so I am not directly involved in forest management anymore. Our work is focusing more on creating an enabling environment for sustainable forest management in the tropics.

Forestry is more about people than about trees:

the main task now is to create the capacity needed at the level of governments, institutions, organizations, up to individual people. If people don’t know how to manage forests, forests lose their value and are being replaced by other economic activities, such as agriculture, mining, oil, and gas. And when deforestation occurs, forest-dependent people lose their livelihood, ecosystem services like biodiversity are lost, and greenhouse gases are emitted, further accelerating global warming.

You’ve traveled quite a bit. Tell us about all the places your job has taken you.

There are a lot: Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Peru, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, USA.

Some of these places are considered dangerous. Have you ever had any trouble or been afraid?

I never had any trouble, even though I’ve been in several dangerous situations. Maybe I was just lucky enough.

Where do you feel better: in the Indonesian rainforest or roaming the halls of the World Bank?

I definitely prefer being in the rainforest and feel much better in nature than in any office.

What are the most important issues in modern-day forestry?

If we look at forests on a global level, we can see them disappearing at an alarming rate.

Global deforestation is currently 13 million hectares per year; so every year the world loses an extent of forests that is much larger than the total area of Bulgaria.

Forests are lost mainly in developing tropical countries, due to conversion in other land-uses,such as large scale agriculture (palm oil, soy, cattle), mining and infrastructure development. In the meantime, the link between forests and climate change has become very clear. Global deforestation causes 15% of all man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and more and more countries realize the importance of slowing it down. People have also become more aware of the link between consumer choices and deforestation. The push from the private sector and governments towards deforestation-free value chains is definitely a good sign, as well as the creation of incentive mechanisms to halt deforestation.

Unfortunately, it is not enough and the world has to raise its ambitions if global deforestation is to be slowed down. Currently, there is a lot of focus on forests and climate change, but new scientific evidence about the importance of forests for local, regional and global rainfall patterns is emerging. This is further highlighting the importance of forests for human mankind and providing more reasons to think about them. Last, but not least, a lot of false perceptions exist to date such as the ones that using forests is something bad and that forests have to be conserved and reforested only.

We have to acknowledge that using forests and all their products is something good because if we don’t use them we will lose them. The key is using them in a sustainable way and not over-exploiting them.

Fabian Schmidt

What do you expect to happen in the field in the next 10 years?

The debate has been a lot on protecting forests to avoid GHG emissions, biodiversity loss and so on, but I hope that using forests in a sustainable way will become more accepted and attractive in the next 10 years.

Take, for example, the anti-tropical timber campaigns in the 80s and 90s. People still have these images in their head of timber trucks driving through tropical forests and logging being the main cause of deforestation, but the world has changed and also the drivers of deforestation.

I think that the growing consumer awareness will be the key ingredient. Voluntary certification schemes (e.g. the Forest Stewardship Council оr FSC) are promoting the responsible management of the world´s forests, so consumers can nowadays buy timber products from responsible sources from all around the world.

Timber is one of the most beautiful and sustainable building materials. Furthermore, it is a renewable resource, much more climate-friendly and energy-efficient than, for example steel or concrete, which cause a lot of GHG emission and consume massive amounts of energy during their production process.

If we want to move to a greener economy, let’s build our future on timber.

Walk us through a typical day of yours.

Getting up between 6 – 7am, having breakfast, writing emails, playing a little bit with my daughter, then Skype meetings with colleagues from Germany, a taxi ride to the office, more meetings, more emails. When I’m not in Lima, but in the forest regions, the day looks completely different: meetings with forest enterprises, park rangers, communities or other local stakeholders. In between that – long car rides on bumpy dirt roads or rides on rivers, depending on how much we enter the jungle.

Fabian Schmidt

What’s next for you?

I don’t know yet; right now I’m enjoying working in Peru. Who knows, maybe after this job I might move with my Bulgarian wife to her home country.

Published 19.05.2015