From Asia to rural Africa – my journey through the forests and the development sector

Xue Weng, our new Deputy Editor-in-Chief, wrote an excelente article along with photos from Nairobi, Kenya (read her profile).

 My name is Xue, and I am honored to join the OxForest Editing Team as a Deputy Editor-in-Chief. On this unique web platform, I look forward to sharing my work with like-minded people in Japan and abroad, and to exchanging innovative ideas about conservation, rural development and green economy. I hold a BA in International Politics and Economics from Middlebury College, Vermont, U.S.A., a MSc in Environmental Change and Management from University of Oxford, U.K. I am also currently working toward a PhD at the School of Environment and Natural Resources at University of Freiburg, Germany in conjunction with my work at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) Nairobi.

 Below, a little bit about myself, and my journey through rural communities in Asia and Africa and how I ended up in Nairobi.

 First, my childhood surrounded by rice paddies and mountains in rural Japan sits at the heart of my connection with nature, and my passion for conservation. I grew up in Kyushu, Japan where my Chinese parents had moved for their PhDs and research work. Looking back, even though I was young, I think the abundance of greenery, clean air and water along with the rural Japanese culture of stewardship of nature – which contrasted greatly with the grey and polluted landscapes of my Chinese hometown going through rapid industrialization at the time — planted an idea for my future: I would like to help preserve such beauties of rural landscapes in places going through rapid economic changes.

 Fast forward twenty years. By a twist of fate, for my master’s dissertation at the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) of University of Oxford, I had the privilege to travel to Cameroon to conduct field research on illegal logging. That was my first time setting a foot in a tropical rainforest. It was also my first time in Africa. The cacophony of noises, colors and scents inside the rainforests and in urban Yaoundé astonished me – and I think I have been ‘hooked’ ever since by their contrasting beauties between the serene nature and the vibrant society. It wasn’t just these colorful impressions. In fact, my research in Cameroon flipped my world view upside down – on what is illegal, and what is legitimate.

 For an academic detailed version of the story, you can read here (cifor.org). But the gist of the story, with a personal take, is this. I went to Cameroon looking for ‘illegal loggers’ trashing the precious forests of the Congo Basin, the world’s second biggest rainforest after the Amazon. What I found in the forests were local community members desperately trying to stake a claim on the resources about to be snatched away by corrupt politicians. To get some economic benefits on trees and land that have been passed down through generations, to pay for school fees for their children, to avoid hunger…and to simply ‘survive.’ These people were labeled as ‘illegal loggers’ by their own government, international development workers, and conservation activists. The reasons behind this cannot be elaborated fully due to lack of space, but you can search for an abundance of writing on elite capture, state corruption, legal pluralism in Africa’s natural resources sector.

A giant 100-year old ‘bubinga’ trees standing in 2013 – possibly already cut down and sold to Asia.

And those magnificent large trees when they are converted to timber for export

 Suffice to say that this mind-twisting reality that I encountered on the ground, where I went to look for the ‘bad guys’ and to save rainforests but instead came out wanting to help them secure their claim but feeling helpless about the fate of the glorious tress I had seen, was the beginning of my journey on sustainable rural development in Africa. Over the last 7 years, I travelled to rural communities in Cameroon, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda and Tanzania for research and worked with various African NGOs, researchers and policymakers in those countries, China and other countries for a sustainable future. The longer I work on this continent, the more questions I encounter and the solutions I have in mind for the community, the continent and the world keep changing. But I suppose that’s a good thing – it is a humbling reminder to me, as a development worker on a foreign soil, that every time I enter a community, they teach me something new, something unique about preserving natural beauties in the midst of economic changes. Those are the favorite moments in my job.

Interviewing rice farmers in Uganda

Working with local researchers in cotton-farming communities in Zambia

During a fieldwork on illegal logging research  in Zambia

Women in mining communities in Tanzania

 I am currently a Research Fellow with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), based in Nairobi where I continue to learn and grow as a researcher, development worker and a multi-cultural person. I still call Kyushu my home and trace my environmentalism to those rice paddies and mountains, but years of study, work and travels through North America, Europe, Southeast Asia and now Africa continue to broaden and transform my identity. In my spare time, I enjoy cooking, yoga and learning new languages – currently learning German and Kiswahili to add to my repertoire of English, Chinese and Japanese.

Written by Xue Weng

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