Remembering Duncan Poore, a leading light in sustainable forestry

Duncan Macqueen and Steve Bass reflect on the life of the late Duncan Poore, founding father of IIED's Forest and Land Use programme.

Article, 19 October 2016
The Deramakot Forest Reserve, in Sabah, Malaysia, includes a strict protection area for biodiversity conservation and a reduced-impact logging area (Photo: Angela Sevin, Creative Commons via Flickr)

The Deramakot Forest Reserve, in Sabah, Malaysia, includes a strict protection area for biodiversity conservation and a reduced-impact logging area (Photo: Angela Sevin, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Duncan Poore, who died on 22 March 2016, was a botanist, conservationist, forester and ecologist. He is widely heralded as a key shaper of the policies and practises that underpin conservation and sustainable forest management across the world.

His long and distinguished career included a stint as senior research fellow at IIED, where he established the Forest and Land Use programme, affectionately known as FLU. 

A quarter of a century later, Poore travelled to Edinburgh to celebrate the programme's 25th anniversary and meet its current staff and advocates. Duncan Macqueen, now a principal researcher at the institute, remembers it well: "That was the first time I met Duncan – at least in person," he said. "His written word – particularly his seminal 1988 work 'No timber without trees' – had already been an inspiration to me at university and as a general call to action against the unsustainable management of the world's forests. 

"Duncan's concluding comments on the important role that forests play in sequestering carbon and mitigating climate change preceded the Kyoto Protocol by almost a decade.

"As noted in its preface, the main message of that book was 'urgency' – and it was fitting that that same sense of urgency and enthusiasm still lit up his face 25 years later at the anniversary of the programme he had founded, as he discussed its evolving strategy to tackle those same issues. We are very much indebted to him."


Earlier this year, IIED senior associate Steve Bass – who directed FLU from 1994-99 – wrote a tribute to his peer and colleague for the Commonwealth Forestry Association (CFA). It was published as an obituary in International Forestry Review 18(3), 369-371, 2016, and is reproduced below with kind permission from the CFA.

In the death of Duncan Poore, the forest community has lost one of its wisest guides to how forests should be shaped for the future.

Duncan was an acute observer of species, landscapes, people and institutions, his roots firmly in ecological science. He painted a big picture of forests in society, with his great aptitude for language helping us to understand our place in that big picture.

He was a teacher to many: a professor both in Kuala Lumpur and in Oxford, a mentor to institutional heads making tough decisions, and the author of guidance that inspires professionals across the world. In this sense, some might call Duncan a visionary – he clearly expressed a compelling vision for forests. Yet he would not have liked the term.

His vision invariably drew on the best thinking of many others, and he never occupied a 'pedestal' to promote it. Instead many influential people sought his advice because it was clear, evidence-based and given without judging them. In receiving it, they gained confidence to change for the better.

The British Government deployed his facility for languages by sending him to Sri Lanka to decipher Japanese, following training at Bletchley Park

Duncan was born and schooled in Scotland, from where he went to read Classics at Cambridge. His degree was interrupted by the Second World War. The British Government deployed his facility for languages by sending him to Sri Lanka to decipher Japanese, following training at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking centre.

Duncan's colleague and friend, Dr. Jean Balfour, suggests it might have been his time in Sri Lanka's vibrant tropical environment that inspired him to switch to Natural Sciences (specialising in Botany) on his return to Cambridge in 1947. Ecological science was developing rapidly at the time and Duncan, under the supervision of Sir Harry Godwin, went on to conduct doctoral research in Woodwalton Fen in Cambridgeshire.

Duncan's approach to ecology was always deeply practical. Following his PhD, in 1955 he joined Huntings Technical Services, mastering aerial photography and multi-factor analysis in his commercial agronomic surveys of Cyprus, Pakistan and the Middle East. Ultimately his approach to practicality was an 'upstream' one, not in the day-to-day business of managing forests but in teaching new generations of graduates, and in seeking opportunities and preparing cases to influence policy.

In 1959 he took up the inaugural position of Professor of Botany and Dean of Science at the University of Malaya, where he began new research in tropical rainforests. In 1980, he was appointed Professor of Forest Science and Director of the Commonwealth Forestry Institute, where a generation of students (including me) benefitted from his masters' curriculum – and his personal teaching – on managing forests in a wider land use, social and economic context.

Between Malaysia and Oxford, Duncan took up two key posts that were to more closely unite science and policy. In 1966, he was appointed Director of the Nature Conservancy of the UK, an organisation that both established nature reserves and conducted ecological research to inform their management, the research being strengthened considerably under his guidance.

In 1973, Duncan left for IUCN in Switzerland where, as science director, he led the preparation of scientific guidelines for conserving tropical forests, mountain environments and arid lands – well-researched and practical material that remains valuable today. At IUCN, too, he helped to shape the seminal World Conservation Strategy with Robert Prescott-Allen, presenting what is still one of the clearest arguments for sustainable development and its ecological foundations.

Although Duncan resigned as a result of the lamentable decision of Oxford University to wind down the Commonwealth Forestry Institute, he did not enter the 'retirement' that might have been expected. Two institutions in particular benefit from his legacy.

One is in policy research: the International Institute for Environment and Development, for which Duncan set up the Forestry and Land Use Programme (and which I was privileged to steer as a later director).

Image of book cover: No Timber Without TreesDuring his time at IIED, Duncan conceived a hugely ambitious study – assessing the sustainability of management of the world's tropical forests. Published in 1988 by IIED as No Timber Without Trees, it hit the headlines for its evidence of an extremely low level of sustainability at the time "less than one eighth of one percent"). Yet the book was a typically constructive Poore product in analysing many glimpses of good practice and proposing ways to improve. Many years later, in 2005, it was voted as one of the two most influential forestry books in a CIFOR survey.

Duncan's legacy is perhaps most evident in the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO), and in those of its timber-producing and timber-consuming countries that have pursued its goal of sustainable forest management. No Timber Without Trees provided a baseline for ITTO to realise a new form of commodity agreement, with its balanced concern both for timber as a major commodity and for the ecological foundations of its production.

By this stage an adept 'forest diplomat' of great integrity, Duncan helped to broker the ITT Agreement, bringing parties to a vital meeting in London to secure enough signatures for ratification. He went on to ensure the success of what must have been a very sensitive early ITTO 'mission' to Sarawak to promote more sustainable approaches to forestry.

He spearheaded ITTO's forest action plan, its formal criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management, and its first forest management guidelines. Over the years, Duncan managed to steer a course between being independent of ITTO and highly committed to achieving its aims: his later book Changing Landscapes (2003) remains both a celebration and a valuable critique of ITTO. 

Duncan's books and papers have influenced at least two generations of foresters, conservationists and ecologists. As John Palmer of the University of British Columbia said to me, Duncan made the best ideas accessible to administrators who would never have read the source texts, his writings being clear and accessible, the arguments easy to follow but not over-simplified: "when I read them now, I can hear his voice clearly". Manoel Sobral Filho, former ITTO executive director, recalls Duncan as "one of the sharpest, most eloquent and most engaging people I've met in my time in tropical forestry".

One of the sharpest, most eloquent and most engaging people I've met in my time in tropical forestry

Duncan was indeed sharp in his analysis, but he did not parade his scholarship. He painted a big picture, but did not paralyse people with its complexity. He was passionate in his scientific curiosity, but also in encouraging others' views. He was an authority figure, but much more a breaker of barriers (saying to his students "don't bother with this 'professor' nonsense: call me Duncan").

He was an international figure, but he was dedicated to his family: to Judy, his wife of almost 67 years, and to his sons Robin and Alastair. He had surveyed the forests of the world, but loved to walk the landscapes of Scotland and his own garden at Balnacarn. Duncan was a teacher who would listen. Even now we can learn from him, though we shall miss him.

Martin Edward Duncan Poore, born 25 May 1925, died March 22, 2016.