Hugh Blackett, 1955-2010

Tropical forester and conservationist

Hugh Blackett dedicated his professional life to the wise use and conservation of tropical rain forests. He was at the forefront in developing tools for tracking individual logs from forest to factory and onwards to point of sale, making it possible to prove the ownership and legal origin of wood products throughout the supply chain. Such certificates are just starting to be required by US and EU law, and it will soon be impossible to import and sell wood products legally in these markets without them. This is galvanising countries such as Indonesia, where much logging is illegal, and governments are at last putting serious pressure on the gangsters who exploit forests outside the law.


Blackett was very much a Scot, and began his career at the Bank of Scotland before leaving in 1976 to study forestry at Aberdeen. Not content with tending pines for the Forestry Commission, within a year or two of graduating he was with VSO in the Sri Lankan forestry department, and by 1984 he was in Uganda with a British aid project. Between then and 1997, Blackett planted, planned and analysed his way through forests in Vanuatu, Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya and the Solomon Islands, turning his hand to project design, economics, forest inventories and the restructuring of forest departments.


This phase of his career coincided with a peak in the mismanagement and destruction of tropical forests, as fortunes were made by selling off logs, plywood, pulp, paper and newly cleared plantation lands. Professional foresters are often overruled by the rich and powerful, and Hugh had seen hair-raising things by the time we met in Malaysia in 1997. Our job then was to computerise forestry and biodiversity logic within the digital systems of the Malaysian forestry department. But Hugh was ready to confront those who pandered to the forces of deforestation. No longer willing to see his beloved forests and the people who depend on them forced into extinction, he is remembered for pounding tables and insisting that foresters take responsibility for thinking like grown-ups in a world run by greedy children.


Surprisingly, perhaps, Blackett is fondly remembered by those he lectured in this way, including senior forestry officials and their German advisers. I think because he was so obviously truthful and correct, he opened something in people’s minds where new thoughts could enter. And he would follow up with more relaxing conversations about his other great loves, such as Scottish football and a demonstrable fondness for the whiskies of his homeland. It was hard for even the toughest production foresters to be annoyed with Hugh for long, and the rest of us came to love him for his anarchic joys, generosity, and inquisitiveness.


Wide-ranging late-night talks brought new perspectives to all of us and, looking back, in 1997-1999, Hugh changed from a conventional forestry consultant into an imaginative explorer of new ideas. As a result, he first began to experiment with the trade in sustainably produced timber from North America, and then became involved in certifying well-managed forests in the tropics. In short, realising that the old ways were not working, he was looking for win-win outcomes from the collaboration of forest science and commerce.


By 2003, Hugh had discovered a real passion in leading the Tropical Forest Trust’s work across South East Asia. Based in Malaysia, he supervised efforts to help forests and forest companies get certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. This work grew in 2007 into the mission of his last three years: the timber tracking and verification systems that were fast becoming the life-blood of sustainable forest governance, trade, law enforcement and the forest carbon-conservation partnerships that are starting to dominate in what remains of the forested world. Hugh applied his knowledge of forest and data-management systems to good effect in Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Ghana and Guyana, working for Helveta and other firms.


The transparency and precision of the systems that Hugh created will make it possible to safeguard the homelands of indigenous peoples, biodiversity and carbon stored in forests and forest soils. Without them, we were helpless to implement the key deals on forest protection and carbon storage that we need to reduce tropical deforestation, which generates a quarter of all greenhouse gases. But tracking, monitoring and enforcement, and verifying carbon stored that would otherwise be released, all demand trained people, on the ground, across the tropics. Blackett was as much involved in building these capacities as he was in pioneering the technical systems themselves.


The awful untimeliness of his death is revealed by the fact that in May 2010, Norway signed a Letter of Intent with Indonesia, offering a billion dollars, cash on delivery, for reduced greenhouse-gas emissions from avoided deforestation. And in August 2010, as Hugh lay dying, the EU, UK and Netherlands were agreeing to support the avoided deforestation and low-carbon development plans of the vast Indonesian Province of Papua. But these and scores of other initiatives need the systems that Hugh Blackett was developing, and the people he was training. So he will be as deeply missed for his indispensability as for his good humour, compassion and commitment. Those who remain will just have to do our best in his absence.


Julian Caldecott


Hugh Logan Blackett, forestry consultant: born Edinburgh 22 April 1955; married Luisella D’Alberto; died Oxford 12 August 2010. ┬áSee obituary notice in The Independent here.