Thomas Brendler coordinates the National Network of Forest Practitioners, a grassroots alliance of ruralpeople advocating for environmental protection and social justice in the woods. He is a fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program.

Tuesday, 3 Sep 2002


The poet John Ashbery wrote that all stories begin in the middle. So here I sit in the early morning on the outskirts of Johannesburg in the flagstone courtyard of an old gatehouse, getting grill-marks from the icy wrought-iron furniture. The gatehouse is part of an old estate converted into a country inn, complete with a 10-foot high barbed wire fence (fences and gates are a booming business here) and a highway running along one side of it. There is also a river, the Crocodile River. Of course.

My water has boiled but my roommate, Farrell Cunningham, is still sleeping. Farrell, 26, is from the Maidu Nation in Northern California, one of dozens of federally unrecognized tribes. He is working to reestablish indigenous knowledge as the basis for managing his people’s land, most of which is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and has been hit hard by decades of heavy timber cutting and fire suppression. Together with his community and other leaders around the country, Farrell is helping to broaden the definition of “sound science” to incorporate non-Western wisdom.

Farrell and I are here at the World Summit on Sustainable Development as part of a delegation of people working on “community-based forestry” in the United States. Community-based forestry is a different way of managing forests. It is characterized by an emphasis on taking care of the land, a participatory and transparent decision-making process, monitoring the social, economic, and ecological effects of forest management decisions, and making meaningful investments in communities and forests. Community-based forestry is multidisciplinary, and the eight of us here are a diverse crew, interested in a variety of overlapping issues, including African-American land loss; criteria and indicators for measuring and evaluating sustainability on the ground; forest labor; developing and marketing so-called “non-timber forest products” like medicine and mushrooms; and sustainable, community-based wood products businesses. We are part of the two leading community-based forestry organizations in the U.S., the National Network of Forest Practitioners and the Communities Committee of the Seventh American Forest Congress.