A re-direction; leveraging my past to plant for the future
International aid and development consultant Chris Horwood has spent 33 years living in Asia, Africa and South America. Now, aged 57, he believes that to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss the world will need many more professional foresters and agroforesters. While still working as a consultant he is studying a three-year part time MSc Forestry at Bangor University. He aims to be involved in as many initiatives and projects in the UK and globally as possible.
There was a 33-year gap between my first enquiry into studying forestry and actually enrolling on the Forestry Masters course at Bangor University last year. If I remember correctly, my initial contact with the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford was not very serious or thought through. It was born of a vague but strong sense of affinity with trees, and a desire to be more useful than I thought I was in overseas work. I was in my early twenties and had just started working in humanitarian aid in East Africa after graduating in Development Studies from the University of East Anglia.
In those 33 years I mainly worked in aid and development, living in Asia, Africa and South America. More on that in a moment. What happened in the world during those years was enough to make your hair stand on end: as global population rose 64 percent, global forests reduced by around 70 million hectares which is an area the size of the whole United Kingdom plus half of Ireland. Imagine the whole of the UK completely covered in forest – and the phenomenal biodiversity and beauty that would represent. Then imagine year on year destruction of those billions of trees, mostly to make way for our voracious needs – not only driven by population increase but rising rampant consumerism. Four hectares a minute for 33 years, and counting.
The route to Bangor
Even where there were no forests, the wholescale decline of species in the earth’s land and oceans caused by human behaviour during those years has been catastrophic. And now we all know about CO2 emissions and climate change. But we only know about it because it’s a crisis and we have been shaken awake by its urgency. It is this urgency that brought me to Bangor. My somewhat simplistic and reductionist response to this ecological catastrophe is to want to plant trees. Lots of trees. In what is probably the last decade and a half of my working life I want to be involved in as many initiatives and projects in the UK and globally as possible. There are many out there and many more will start as the climate emergency intensifies – my premise is that the world will need many more professional foresters.
Through my life I’ve had an abiding love for wood and all things made of wood. I once trained as a wooden boatbuilder and ran a small carpentry company in Bristol in between working overseas. But my main career was working in humanitarian aid and development. Variously focusing on famine relief, land mine clearance, community development and more recently human trafficking and migrant smuggling.
For years ‘in the field’ and more recently as an analyst, I worked for the UN, for international NGOs and governments in over 20 countries while based in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Living in Kenya, up-country near Mt Kenya, I started planting many hundreds of trees around our homestead and developed a dream of planting so many more. Then just over two years ago I moved back to the UK with my family. I promised myself the physical move would echo a professional move towards doing something for the environment – something with trees.
During 2019 and 2020, while continuing overseas work as a consultant (still my day job), I literally beat a drum at climate change protests while I worked out how to put my plan into action.
I volunteered with a tree-planting organisation (Avon Needs Trees) and realised – if I was to be at all useful – I needed professional qualifications. Bangor University offers this 3-year Forestry MSc (part time/distance learning) that mercifully does not require a science or ecology-based undergraduate qualification. They are hugely respected globally and their graduates seem to find work fast in the growing sector and industry.
My MSc experience
My fellow MSc students range in age from their twenties to somewhere around my age. Many are studying forestry for the first time and changing or re-directing their careers. They are from all over the world, but most are British and almost half are women.
The course modules range from pure silviculture to social issues in forestry, agroforestry, forest ecology and natural resource management and forest inventory systems.
I’ve been on the course for seven months. I am intrigued by what I’m discovering about the complex and interwoven role of forest and woodland in human societies globally. I am learning about the shift away from vast single species commercial plantations; the difficulties of trying to implement a global forestry governance mechanism (so needed but so contested); about the new use of drones to afforest vast areas of remote and degraded land; about less damaging planting and harvesting techniques and about the amazing relationship trees have with soil and the many ecosystem services they provide.
Bangor doesn’t give out its Masters lightly. The time demands of the course are hard, the reading lists intimidating and the assignment requirements exacting, but it is fascinating and personally rewarding. What’s more, one gets the impression that they take each student seriously and actively encourage graduates towards employment in the sector.
I’m hoping to leverage my overseas management and research experience and the transferable skills I have gained to find ways of contributing to forestry in the tropics. That will probably be in agroforestry, or possibly as part of huge visions like the Great Green Wall aiming to plant an 8,000km wide belt of trees in the African Sahel. I’m not in my twenties or thirties anymore and can’t hope to spend the future on the ground in forests amongst the trees as much as I’d like to.
Moving from International Aid Consultancy to forestry
"Although this is a career shift for me, I’m banking on using experiences and capacities built up elsewhere as I work out how to start work in forestry in two years’ time. I don’t know if it will work out but I’m going to give it my best shot."
Chris can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .