Yes, we know that forests are exploited during conflicts, serving as hideouts for rebels, staging grounds for guerilla warfare, currency for weapons and as rewards of the spoils of war. However, there are some forests who have not only benefitted from the need of our species to kill each other but whose very existence is dependent on it. These are the ‘Forests of War’ (though most prefer the more genteel sobriquet of ‘Peace Parks’). Now, I am not advocating that we embark on starting war campaigns to protect forests, but the fact remains that in some cases forest ecosystems fare better in war time. In some twisted circumstances, peace can actually spell devastation of previously undisturbed wilderness. Some notable examples;

1. The Demilitarized Zone, North/South Korea: This unwitting 4Km wide, 250Km long forest has been left relatively undisturbed since 1953. More than 20,000 migratory waterbirds use the forest wetlands and it is probably the last intact forest ecosystem in the region. The only threat to its survival; Peace.

2. Forests of Colombia: The forests of Colombia are HQ for armed groups, guerillas and paramilitaries. While they are responsible for converting forest tracts  into Coca and Poppy fields for the cocaine and heroin that pay the bills, their presence has simultaneously discouraged migration and organised exploitation of these frontier regions. Because of years of  ‘gunpoint conservation’, Colombia has more forest acerage than several decades ago.

3. Forests of Aceh Province: The Aceh province contains the largest remaining blocks of rainforests on the island of Sumatra. Most of the forests in Sumatra has been cleared by loggers or converted into oil palm plantations. The conflict in Aceh protected the forests by deterring such activities. The province now wants to earn carbon credits for its 3 million hectares of forest from ‘avoided deforestation’ carbon financing schemes.

4. Borneo: When Indonesia and Malaysia were fighting over border claims on the island of Borneo, very little damage was done to the wilderness. But in the 1990s they peacefully competed to cut down and sell Borneo’s forests. Businesses and the military raced to start forest fires to clear them for cash crop cultivation.

5. North Laos forests: Laos is paying part of its war debts from the Vietnam/American war to Vietnam and China with timber concessions in Northern Laos. Timber merchants from China and Vietnam are able to operate without consideration for logging bans or protected area boundaries. In August 1999 the state-run Vientiane Times reported that 90,000 cubic meters of timber went to cover ‘debt repayment,’ 12.5 percent of the total national timber quota for 1998/99.

Dictators. They get a lot of bad press and deservedly so. Military rule, gagging of free speech, rigged elections, genocide, crushing dissent and plundering natural resources are all in day’s work. Perks of the job include absolute power, opulent lifestyle, constant media attention and a swanky pad in a safe haven when the War Crimes Tribunal comes a’ calling. Do these bad boys have a single good bone in their well-fed bodies? Well my exhausting research (try finding ‘good facts’ on dictators) proves some of them did (for wildlife conservation at least anyway). Welcome to my list of Five Green Dictators;

1. Omar Bongo, President of Gabon from 1967 to 2008

Elected unopposed 3 times, he is world’s longest serving ruler (excluding monarchies). Money from Gabon’s once booming oil trade is rumoured to have made him one of the richest heads of state in the world. Mike Fay of the Wildlife Conservation Society melted the patriach’s heart by showing him pictures from his ‘Megatransect’ expedition through Gabon’s forests. Gabon went overnight from zero to 13 National Parks covering 25,000 Sq.Km or 10% of the country. Try achieving that in a democracy!

2. Francisco Macías Nguema, President of Equatorial Guinea 1968-79

Repression by his military and clan members caused more than a third of Equatorial Guinea’s residents to flee to other countries. Fuelled by his consumption of hallucinogenic drugs, he assigned himself titles like ‘Unique Miracle’ and ‘Grand Master of Education, Science & Culture’ while simultaneously banning the use of the word ‘intellectual’. His claim to green fame was the banning of fishing in his reign. The presidential order was given to prevent citizens from fleeing the country by boat. Fishes of Equatorial Guinea lived unmolested in the 10 years of his reign while its human populace was not so lucky.

3. Daniel arap Moi, President of Kenya from 1978-2002

One of the ‘Big Men’ of Africa whose supporters called him the ‘Giraffe’ and ‘Professor of Politics’ in admiration of his far-sightedness and political strategems. His presidency brought corruption, political repression and ethnic tension to Kenya.  His wildife conservation record is better. In true dictator style he dramatically torched 10 tonnes of elephant ivory seized in Nairobi National Park worth over 60 million Kenyan shillings to demonstrate his stance against slaughter of elephants in his country. He also issued shoot-on-sight orders for poachers.

4.Major General Omar Torrijos Herrera, Commander of the National Guard of Panama from 1968-81

The General scorned the pedestrian designation of ‘President’ in favour of the more worthy titles of  ‘Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution’ and ‘Supreme Chief of Government’.  He gained power in a coup and was credited with making his opponents ‘disappear’, nepotism, corruption and turning Panama into one of the countries with the highest per capita public indebtedness. To his eco-credit he ‘adopted’ the wilderness of El Cope which was designated as the 25,000 hectare Omar Torrijos National Park in 1986. He never got to see it as his plane crashed in 1981 in the same wilderness area during a thunderstorm. A population of the Harlequin Frogs, presumed to be extinct, was found here by Jeff Corwin’s expedition team for Animal Planet recently.

5. Fidel Castro, President of Cuba from 1959-2006

His ‘Revolution first, elections later’ soon became one-party rule. The U.S was so desperate to get rid of him and he is believed to have remarked that “if surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal”.  However on the plus side, more than 20 percent of Cuba’s land is under some form of government protection  and since Castro seized power in 1959, logging has slowed significantly. Forest cover has increased from 14 percent in 1956 to about 21 percent today. One could argue that this is because Cuba has been excluded from much of the economic globalization that has taken its toll on the environment in many other parts of the world. However, a stable population, clear land tenure, strict enforcement of environment laws have also had a role to play.