IN my glory days, I was contacted by the professional advisors to a wealthy American family, who wanted to make some kind of a statement about deforestation and the threat faced by the world’s forests. This must have been 40 years ago. It involved, needless to say, a good deal of research, but held the promise of a job in a more exotic setting than the North Pennines, my other pre-occupation at the time.

The family trust wanted to invest $12 million in protecting tropical rainforest, but they needed to retain management control over their investment. This eliminated many potential propositions as in most Third World countries control and indeed ownership had to be local, operating through a local board of trustees or directors. And there were other problems. The most obvious approach was to acquire a chunk of the Amazon rainforest, but here again was the basic problem that it would be extremely difficult to define ownership, and even more difficult to prevent illegal felling and exploitation. No good trying to ring the police or even call out the army. Bad news all round. 

Now, my first challenge was finding out where the $12 million had come from, before dashing off to the tropics with a map and a compass, but I wouldn’t be needing my quarter-girth tape, that was for sure. Anyway, a nice guy at the US embassy in London had some interesting tales to tell. We succeeded in eliminating a good many possible sites, but finally settled on Belize, where the somewhat dubious past included the importing of Honduras mahogany by a London-based firm of timber merchants who, to all intents and purposes, had control not only of the country’s valuable timber resources, but of everything else, too. The advantage was that English property law was respected and control could be exercised offshore.

There was also a useful link with the US where the Audubon Society, the equivalent, perhaps of our RSPB, had an interest in Belizean forests which are the annual destination of migratory birds from the States and, as such, need protection. So I quickly winged myself south via Laker Airways to Atlanta, thence to Miami and Honduras, then to Belize City.

In Belize, the ministry in charge of natural resources couldn’t have been more helpful.

They laid on a light aircraft and pilot to fly me round the country, where, somewhat alarmingly, we became a plaything of the then-novel Harrier aircraft undergoing pilot training for the RAF. This taught me how to swear in Spanish, but we survived. My pilot, Captain Gomez, then announced that since the airport was log-jammed, he would land on the public highway just by the airport terminal, buzzing the strip a few times to warn cyclists of our approach.

READ MORE: Forester's COP26 diary: Fighting for the future

The next morning, when I had somewhat recovered, I was back at the ministry. The aerial reconnaissance was excellent, I said, but could they now provide me with a pickup and a driver to get my feet on the ground? I would drive north then head into the low, mountainous area to the south. The official looked dubious. I well remember his words: “Señor, if you go north in a pickup truck, we will never see you or the truck again.”

Drug dealers flew in from Colombia and landed on strips among the trees. Best avoided.

What happened to the Americans? They bought orange groves in California. 

Memories of this more than memorable excursion were rekindled by the encouraging but sketchy announcement from Glasgow last month. Prevention of deforestation is at last on the COP agenda and seems to be gathering support. But rather like our own sketchy forestry policy, it has a very long way to go in practical terms and many issues to overcome, just a couple of which I confronted on my Belize trip. 

One is the question of just how you police it. And there’s another which also affects us. Where will the hardwood timber, the softwood sawlogs, the wood fibre for paper, the woodchip for energy come from in the future? If we do away with plastics, where is the alternative? All we seem to get here is how planting trees can help us with our towards-the-watermark 1.5-degree target. We already import 80 per cent of our wood products. 

Forestry Journal: It was good to see deforestation on the agenda at COP It was good to see deforestation on the agenda at COP

On the TV, good old Countryfile came up to expectations, enrolling a six-year-old boy – a good chap – to show us how to plant an acorn in a plastic cup, to be planted next year, somewhere or other. Planting our farmland with oak is great fun, but it is yesterday’s thinking. What we need is Douglas. What we need is Sitka and lots of it.

Well, the tumult and the shouting has died, the captains and the kings departed. I confess to feeling a sense of doom. We foresters have lived and worked through the onset of climate change. I will return to COP26 in a later diary, but it is hard to be optimistic about the future, isn’t it? To me, the weather and the world feels different. And where are the leaders to get us out of the approaching disaster? Forests and trees have a major role to play. I confess I was less than impressed, weren’t you?