IIED remembers Peter DeMarsh

By Duncan Macqueen

Words can never do justice to the life of a man – especially a good man. It is therefore with a sense of great inadequacy and sadness that we have here to remember the life of Peter DeMarsh, who died in last Sunday morning’s Ethiopian Airways crash.

Peter DeMarsh, a champion of locally controlled forestry worldwide

Peter inspired those around him with a commitment to collective action and solidarity among smallholder forest farmers based on his own appreciation, compassion and mutual respect for them – whatever their background. Despite his own humility, he became a forest champion – a champion of locally controlled forestry worldwide – and he will be sorely missed by all those fighting for social justice in forest landscapes.

Peter himself was a forest owner and small farmer with his wife Jean in New Brunswick, eastern Canada. He was a lover of nature (with passion for hiking and an encyclopaedic knowledge of birds) and of philosophy (a leading light in his local philosopher’s soup group), but perhaps of people most of all.

A flood of messages following his death from colleagues as far afield as Guatemala, Kenya, Nepal, Thailand and many more, testifies to the fact that he engaged people, many small farmers among them. These were the people he stood up for. He was also a proud and loving husband and father.

With a degree in political science and economics from Toronto and master’s degree in international affairs (rural development), Peter had begun to work with local family forest owner associations in 1971, eventually becoming chair of the New Brunswick Federation of Woodlot Owners in two stints between 1976 and 1998.

His passion for family forestry and his persuasive leadership capabilities led to him becoming chair of the Canadian Federation of Woodlot Owners (since 1989) and then chair of the International Family Forestry Alliance (IFFA), since 2012. In that role he also became the co-focal point of the Farmers and Small Forest Landowners Major Group in the United Nations Forum on Forests (since 2011).

Working with IIED

It was in his role as IFFA chair that Peter first met colleagues from IIED at meetings of the Forest Connect alliance in Ethiopia, Nepal and Vietnam, and shared know-how on how to support locally controlled forest enterprises.

Peter also lent his experience to the ‘Growing Forest Partnerships Initiative’ – and especially to an 11-country dialogue series on ‘Investing in Locally Controlled Forestry’ between financiers and indigenous people, community foresters and family forest smallholders run by The Forest Dialogue. He co-authored a booklet on investing in locally controlled forestry, and made a major push to spread the concept – including as part of IIED’s Rio+20 Fair Deals event.

In representing his constituency, he found common cause with indigenous and community forest rights-holders, and founded what was provocatively called the G3! That alliance between three major forest rights-holders groups proved to be a powerful advocacy force to shape many further global agendas, ranging from improving food security to mitigating and adapting to climate change in a range of global forums and events.

Peter’s sharp intellect allowed him to clarify four basic preconditions for incentivising sustainable forest management from a farmer’s perspective – couched as simple questions:

  1.     If I plant tree x (for food, fuel, fibre, conservation, and so on), will I have the right to sell it? (ie secure tenure)
  2.     If I plant tree x, will I be able to sell it at a fair price? (ie fair market access)
  3.     If I plant tree x, will I be able to get the technical support to manage it sustainably, protect it from pests and diseases, and package it for the market? (adequate technical extension services), and
  4.     If I plant tree x, will I be able to associate with others to make sure circumstances don’t change while the trees are growing, and I can carry on answering yes to the previous three questions? (strong local organisations).

These pillars of sustainability now form an abiding legacy in all IIED’s forest work.

It was Peter’s passion for strengthening local organisations with the poor and marginalised that shaped his defining design contributions for the Forest and Farm Facility (FFF), for which he was invited onto the steering committee from the start (since 2012). And it was here that he worked with IIED, FAO, IUCN and Agricord colleagues to publish seminal guidance such as ‘Making change happen’ on how to strengthen the forest and farm organisation that would provide a win-win-win for local livelihoods, society and forest protection.

Words cannot do the man justice – but the world needs people like Peter DeMarsh. That will have to do.

Originally published March 14, 2019 at www.iied.org/iied-remembers-peter-demarsh.