“I am interested in building bridges between people and I’m interested in building bridges between disciplines.”

23.02.2022 Dr Claude Garcia has joined BFH-HAFL as the head of the International Forest Management team and tells us about the path that led him here and what he hopes to accomplish.

Dr Claude Garcia has joined BFH-HAFL as the head of the International Forest Management team.

You have recently joined the BFH-HAFL team, tell us about your career path that led you here.

There are two sides to my story… The first side of my story is that, from the age of twelve, I wanted to be forester and live in the Alps. I followed this path, studying and working in forest science and forest management, with a small diversion when I specialized in the tropics and tropical forestry. When I was 24 and I wanted to get into the Ecole Nationale du Génie Rural des Eaux et des Forêts in Paris, the Director of Studies looked straight at me, and said: “You want to be an expert in international forest management. This is extremely difficult. There are maybe five such positions in the world. The chances are you will not make it!”. I took all the opportunities I could to be where I am today – working for the last 10 years in Switzerland. I was leading the Forest Management and Development research group at ETH Zurich, and taking the chair of International Forest Management at BFH-HAFL was a logical next move.
The other side of my story is one of complete chance and coincidence,  and of having zero control over my life. I remember telling my PhD advisor: “I want to do my PhD, but not in India”. I now have over 12 years of experience working in India. I remember saying, “I don’t want to do research”. And now, I am a professor. 

I must say that Switzerland, first ETH Zurich and now BFH HAFL, provided me with very fertile ground to grow roots and freely explore the questions that interest me, and that I believe are at the core of the present development crisis. And for this, I am very grateful. 

I am interested in building bridges between people, and between disciplines. I am never “the expert”, I’m always the outlier. I take pride in the fact that I can help a botanist listen to an anthropologist, and then take into consideration the viewpoint of an economist, so as to make sure that all four of us understand the entire system better. 

To understand the system, the landscapes I work with, one needs to look at three pillars:

  • the ecosystem and its processes,
  • the people, their strategies, livelihoods, aspirations, and knowledge,
  • the rules, norms, institutions and contracts that people build to regulate and control the access to the ecosystem.

To work within a landscape, one can start with any of these pillars. I started my career counting trees, and looking at the ecosystem, but others may start in this field by asking questions to people, or by looking at the power dynamics within a network. All are valid paths, if in the end we acknowledge that we need to look at all three pillars. 

In your research you focus on the South and South East Asia. What led you to this region?

I am Spanish and French. My name is Garcia, I speak Spanish and I specialized in tropical forestry. I would have no problem working in Latin American countries, but I thought, “If I start working there, I will never leave”. Instead, I decided to begin by going somewhere else. I chose to focus on Asia and designed my PhD topic so that I would look at another part of the planet – Vietnam. Now, I have experience all over the tropics. I have learnt a lot from seeing the larger picture.

I understand that your focus is in part on the human-forest interface. Could you explain this a bit more?

I share the frustration and anxiety of many about the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and poverty and inequality. For me, these problems are interlinked. My answer to this frustration has been to try and understand people: why farmers, governments, industrialists do the things they do. If we can understand why people are doing things that one considers “not good” for all of us collectively, maybe we can find ways to do things differently. What drives my research is the urge to understand people, and the discrepancies between what people know, what they want and what they do. Understanding the constraints people are operating under can help change things. What I want is to help people shape their future. I have a lot of faith in humans because I have seen them change.

Science answers three types of questions: what, why and how. The question of “how” is the most difficult of all. My research tends to focus on how things happen, and how we can make things happen differently. 

What science produces – data, information – does not normally convey meaning. Facts alone do not create change in behaviour. To increase the chances of science having meaning, we need to place people in a situation where information will be connected to an emotional experience. One of the ways people learn is through “epiphanies” – the “eureka!” experience. If we can create epiphany moments for people, they will do things differently from that moment on. 

If one makes this happen in a small village in Madagascar, maybe the life in that village will change. If one manages to make this happen at the European Commission in Brussels, or at the World Economic Forum, or the COP, everything could change. Our community of researchers started to work on this twenty years ago at the village level. Now is the time to go up the power structure. Not farmers but policy makers. Not interns but CEOs.

Is now the right time?

There is enough anxiety, enough tension, enough fear about the future that people are willing to consider solutions that are out of the box. In 2019, a terrible, beautiful and frustrating window of opportunity opened. Three things happened:

  1. Notre Dame went up in flames, as did the forests in the Amazon, in Australia and in California. The planet looked at fires, at forests, and was concerned.
  2. A paper was published in Science about the global tree restoration potential by Jean-Francois Bastin and Tom Crowther. The paper demonstrated that there is a capacity for a certain number of trees on Earth, that the potential is considerable, but that it will decrease, and that countries were pledging to restore more land than they had available. The paper created an epiphany and had an impact that I’ve never seen before. For a short moment in time, everyone was talking about planting trees to save the planet. 
  3. It was the first time G20 talked about forests and forest restoration. A new initiative was promoted at the United Nations to save the rainforests. There was political will. 

Covid put everything on the backburner. But forests are still going up in flames, the problems are still there, and the people are ready for action. In Glasgow, 141 member states pledged 20 billion USD to stop deforestation. It is not nearly enough! We need 500 billion dollars, or even trillions. This is what I’m fighting for – it’s research, it’s advocacy, and it’s certainly out of the “ivory tower”… it’s citizenship, I think.

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