Remembering Peter deMarsh, A Champion for Forestry

It has been more than four months since our friend and colleague Peter deMarsh died in a tragic airliner crash while doing what he loved - championing social justice, local ownership and fairness in the forests of the world.

The loss is incalculable – not just here in New Brunswick, but across the country and around the world. While Peter was quiet, self-effacing and humble, there was a fierceness in him – a dedication to the place of people and communities in forestry – that commanded respect.

I was watching video clips of Peter recently as he spoke at some of the many international events he attended over his years with such organizations as the International Family Forestry Alliance and the Canadian Federation of Woodlot Owners. He was, of course, also a past president of our federation and he was a beloved community leader in his hometown of Taymouth, near Fredericton.

Fully one-third of the forests of the world are under the control of families and communities and he loathed seeing local voices marginalized by large corporations and governments.

In one of those clips, from a 2015 conference in South Africa, Peter talked about a comment made to him by an indigenous man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who said, “I know my forest and my forest knows me.” Peter loved that quote, describing it not only as spiritual worldview but also a practical statement about how a person, family or a community can care for a forest in a way that cannot be duplicated by any other agency or company.

“I know my forest and my forest knows me,” Peter repeated at a speech at the conference. “Whether I am an indigenous person from the Congo where this truth goes back several millennia, or a family forest owner from Eastern Canada where our forests have been in family ownership for three or four generations, this is a simple truth about who can best care for forests.

“It is people with meaningful control, good government support, reasonable and fair market access and people who have direct benefit deriving from the management work they do.”

Those were his four cornerstones for successful local control of forests, his pillars of sustainability: secure tenure; fair market access; good quality government support services and the presence of an effective forest producer association.

He used a short story to illustrate the importance of the four points. He said someone of authority – a business or government representative – would visit a community like Taymouth to try to encourage local growers to plant a new type of tree, perhaps a hybrid or new species. They would tell the community this new tree will transform their lives. Peter called it a “pitch” and he said there are four key questions growers need to ask.

“When it is time to harvest these trees, will I own them? This is the tenure condition,” he said. “When ready to sell, will I be able to sell them on a reasonable basis? That is fair market access. While the trees are growing, will I have access to the information I need to plant properly and care for them? This is the forest extension component. And do we have a good association to represent us to make sure the first three conditions are in place and will stay in place?

“These are specific risks, and family forest owners must consider them before embarking on a new venture.”

Peter was always looking out for the little guy.

He believed in the power of local organizations, like our federation, as vehicles to stand up for private woodlot owners and speak truth to power. Fully one-third of the forests of the world are under the control of families and communities and he loathed seeing local voices marginalized by large corporations and governments. He truly believed in the common good and in fairness in the forests.

Peter played an instrumental role in building up the wood marketing board system. He shared our concern about the power imbalance that has developed in New Brunswick between the forest industry and producers, notably the 42,000 woodlot owners in this province. He was a voice for reform, calling for diverse competition within the industry and competitive pricing that would allow all New Brunswickers to earn – rather than lose – money from our Crown resources. He hoped to see government re-empower the marketing boards as part of that reform – a hope we share.

Peter was recently awarded, posthumously, the Ken Hardie Stewardship Award by the York-Sunbury-Charlotte Forest Products Marketing Board. Ken, one of Peter’s good friends, also was a champion of woodlot owners. The award was presented to Peter’s widow, Jean Burgess. As well, I’m pleased to see that friends and colleagues are raising funds for the Peter deMarsh Memorial Education Award. This would provide financial support to graduate students pursuing studies on rural community development and the role of woodlot owners, and also for grassroots organizations involved in forestry.

In some ways, it is still hard to believe that our friend died in that terrible Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10. He was en route to Nairobi from Addis Ababa – a quiet, humble organic farmer and woodlot owner from Taymouth, N.B. But his wisdom was so great, it had to be shared with the world. And his loss is so profound, it will be felt around the world.

Goodbye my friend. You will be forever missed.

Thank you for listening,

Rick Doucett

President, New Brunswick Federation of Woodlot Owners