Communicating Forest Values: Arborvitae Editorial

27 January 2011 | News story

An introduction to the special issue of Arborvitae newsletter by Stewart Maginnis, Head of IUCN’s Forest Conservation Programme and Keith Wheeler, Chair of IUCN’s Commission on Education and Communication.
 

The story goes that a lecturer in forest science once polled his students on the reason for their career choice. He was somewhat taken aback when many responses boiled down to the same sentiment – “you don’t have to talk to anyone”! Nowadays, while fewer foresters may seek this self-imposed exile, we still don’t seem to be terribly comfortable or competent in communicating with wider audiences. Even when we deem to “talk” via our presentations, papers and reports, our messages are seldom accessible, let alone compelling, for anyone outside our immediate circle. Indeed, our efforts seem to reinforce George Bernard Shaw’s sage observation that “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”.

Given that the future of forests depends much more on the actions of non-foresters than the efforts of foresters, this communication gap is bound to have serious consequences.

So where have we gone wrong and what can we do now?

To be fair to the forest profession, communicating any science-based concept to a general audience faces particular challenges, not least the need to translate complex ideas into clear, jargon-free messaging without dumbing-down to simplistic sound-bites. We’ve seen the difficulty of this in, for example, the media’s quick fix treatment of climate change and REDD. Forest-related communications today need to tackle misconceptions that have become ingrained after decades of overly simplified messages that have emerged because foresters have been unwilling or unable to make their voice heard. The gloom-and-doom deforestation message has definitely hit home and left little space for nuanced narratives or discussions on forest economies and sustainable forest management. We need to bring these positive stories to the fore, to paint a more complete picture of forests and their values. As Baba Dioum said, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

To mark the International Year of Forests, and in editorial partnership with IUCN’s Commission on Education and Communication (CEC), this special fullcolour issue of arborvitae takes a critical yet constructive look at how forest values are being communicated to non-foresters. One theme that runs through several articles is the need to recognize and respond to people’s emotional connections to forests; another is the powerful impact of photographs to inspire readers to act on written messages.

With these points in mind, we invite you to try an exercise in ‘relating to your audience’ and look at the colour photos on the centre pages of this issue using your heart rather than your head, to see what they say to you.

Stewart Maginnis, Head of IUCN’s Forest Conservation Programme and Keith Wheeler, Chair of IUCN’s Commission on Education and Communication