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  • Apr 18, 2017

In My Life: Gerhard Dieterle, World Bank Forests Advisor

J Sibanda 

My childhood shaped much of my career and my choices in life.  I grew up in a small, 150-person village in the Black Forest in Germany. 

It was nine years after the war.  Like many people in developing countries now, we could only survive with subsistence agriculture.

Gerhard Dieterle, one of the founding fathers of the Forest Investment Program, in conversation with the CIF about his life and career in forestry.  

My childhood shaped much of my career and my choices in life.  I grew up in a small, 150-person village in the Black Forest in Germany.  It was nine years after the war.  Like many people in developing countries now, we could only survive with subsistence agriculture. We had a cow, 12 chickens and a pig.

Following in My Father’s Footsteps

My Father was what we call a forest ranger or guard.  He often brought me into the forest when he went out to work.  I would have been eight or nine.  In the winter, the snow meant we had to go out out on skis!  As I got older, I helped measure the length, diameter and volume of the trees we harvested and I was introduced to traditional hunting practices.  All this was great experience for when I worked on forests later - I had a degree of credibility because I’d had the lived experience of hard chainsaw labor when I was young. 

I come from a very traditional forestry family going back for many generations.    When I was young, it was not normal that someone would go to high school or to university.  It was not normal that you left the place you grew up.  So the past 40 or 50 years have been incredible but it was sometimes hard for me and my family to adjust to new places and roles in society. 

My childhood helped me to connect to local people throughout my career and to see them as my target groups.  I couldn’t have had the Dedicated Grant Mechanism idea without it.  I can always draw a line between what I did as a youngster and what I do now. 

I always remember from growing up in Germany that if you deal with rural people, they are very honest and they won’t let you down if you give them a chance. That’s been my experience across the world, from Africa to Europe.  It needs specific conditions though – it needs communities and social structures.  I am concerned that this social fabric may weaken in our rapidly changing and increasingly mobile world. 

When Opportunity Knocks

After my PHD –I wrote my thesis on sustainable forestry management - I joined the local state’s forest administration to become a civil servant wearing the traditional green uniform.  So, I was all set to become a district officer in the Black Forest and being competitive in cross-country ski racing. But here is my advice for my young colleagues who are eager to build a successful career: be prepared for unexpected turns!

Out of nowhere I was offered to work in the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Forestry on air pollution and acid rain which, at that time was a major environmental problem in Germany. From there I got my first exposure to the international forest regime and everything changed when I had the chance to work at FAO in Rome.  During that time I looked after the German Minister of Agriculture who, back in Germany, asked me to work for him as his personal assistant. 

We traveled the world together.  I remember being in Togo and Cameroon with him, around 1988.  GIZ, the Germany development agency, had a forest program there.  A member of the delegation said they were looking for a team leader and I said “that’s me!” I had no experience in tropical forest management but they gave me a chance. A dream came true as it was always my childhood dream to get out of the small village in the forest into the big world.

So, from 1990 to 1993, I was leading one of the biggest German-funded forestry projects in Africa. There I learned lessons which later I could translate into projects at the World Bank and in particular the Forest Investment Program. Sustainable management and use of forests can transform the lives of people and landscapes.  But at the end, there was a Civil War.  That taught me that conflicts can start from small entry points and become bigger, bigger, bigger and things developed over years can fall apart in no time.  I saw lots of hurt and lots of grief.  The situation got so bad that we were evacuated.  That was a big shock, especially for my family.  Looking out at what happens today, for me, preventing conflicts at early stages is a radically better option than fighting them through.

Making Forestry My Life’s Work

Working at the European Commission in Brussels from 1993 to 1996 was another unexpected opportunity. My main task there was to develop the EU Forest Sector Development Guidelines which are still in use. This strategic work and my role as an adviser to the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry in Jakarta from 1996-1999 during the end of the Suharto era and the catastrophic forest fires in Kalimantan were invaluable building blocks for my work at the World Bank where I did not want to miss a single day of the last 18 years.

In my role as the Bank’s Forests Adviser I was one of the initiators of the Forest Investment Program.  I wrote the design document and we went around donor capitals to convince them to invest in forests.  I think back to the Pledging Conference in Brussels for the FIP.   We got $420 million on the first day.  That was something really outstanding and spectacular, to go from a broad idea a year before to a pledged fund of that size.  It was certainly a special moment even if I sometimes was so exhausted that I couldn’t fully enjoy the moment!

One night during the negotiations at the second design conference of the CIF, I wrote the famous Paragraph 38.  That was the starting point for what became the Dedicated Grant Mechanism for Indigenous Peoples.  That’s how the DGM came about! It didn’t start as a big process.  It was a flash moment where I thought I could do something that I experienced in childhood and over my thirty years of professional experience; which is to concretize a way to show that working from Local to Global is as important as working form Global to Local.  The next day we worked on the design document and it stayed in.  The observers (from civil society, Indigenous Peoples and the private sector) were in the room and they spoke up saying “we have been waiting for this for so long and it’s exactly what we need.”  The DGM is one of the things I’m most proud of. It shows how transformative local action and initiative can be. 

What we do in the FIP makes a lot of sense to me.  The MDBs are working on Investment Plans decided jointly with countries.  You create something, you demonstrate something, you involve local actors in an engaging way and then you can watch them graduate within the system to become leaders. 

The climate change story has been the most influential trend in forestry in the past decade.    Climate has redefined our approach to forests decisively and forests will continue to play a decisive role for global mitigation and adaptation efforts.

However there is still much to be done to develop the crucial economic, livelihood and income functions of forests and meet the projected supply gaps for timber and wood-based energy in the years to come. We need to encourage bold moves in landscape restoration and sustainable management practices across a range of value chains because climate change mitigation and adaptation and green, inclusive growth do not exclude each other.

Looking Back with Gratitude and Tips for Young Professionals

I’m grateful to the World Bank and to my managers that I could be part of the big development agenda and involved in programs and policies that have changed the lives of so many people.  This is a unique privilege and the World Bank is one of the few places where people like myself and can make a difference.  It allowed me to take initiative and to take risks. 

In terms of people who want to work in forestry and development  what I see in successful young people is they are willing to learn.  They listen.  It’s been gratifying to see all of the young talents I have worked with and helped develop take their own distinct and successful career paths.

My advice to anyone would be to follow your passion and be prepared for unexpected turns. At the end of the day, you need to believe in things and live this. Link your inner values with what you want to do.  Do this and you’ll be good at what you do.  


‘In My Life’ will be a regular feature where those in climate and development who have lived a life less ordinary share stories and lessons from their experiences.