Major figure in Third World forestry

 

Prof Laurence Roche, who died on November 23rd, was an enchanting and highly civilised Irishman who became a major figure in Third World forestry. Before his retirement in 1992 he occupied one of only two university chairs of forestry in Britain.

He was born in Wexford, the second in a family of nine children. He left school at 14 and spent eight years at sea having started as a cabin boy on the Irish Cedar.

He inherited a love of poetry and literature from his mother, an aunt of novelist John Banville. He read widely; the works of Thomas Merton were a standby. He thought of becoming a priest and studied for two years with the Carmelites in Wales.

In 1956, when he was 29, he sent himself to Trinity College, Dublin as a forestry student. He was a passionate debater who preached socialism and berated nationalism as the opium of the Irish people.

He became President of the Philosophical Society in 1958. Lord Hailsham, Michael Foot and Noel Browne spoke at his crowded inaugural meeting. Noel Browne became a close friend and pressed him to stand for the Dail.

However, he decided that his future lay in trees, not politics. There were no openings in Ireland's hidebound forestry services. After 10 years in Canada he was appointed in 1972 Professor of Forestry at Ibadan University in Nigeria. He grasped the need to view tropical forests not just as an isolated economicresource to be exploited for short-term gain but in a wider ecological and social context.

He pioneered the education of a corps of native African foresters to take over from blinkered and often condescending foreign experts.

When, three years later, he moved to the chair of forestry in the University of Bangor, North Wales, he made it a unique centre for Third World students. He had a legendary rapport with them. He launched and edited the Journal of Forest Ecology and Management. When roused he was still a vehement polemicist.

In 1992 he retired to live at Madaboy near Murroe, Co Limerick which had been his wife's family's home. He was elected an honorary fellow of his beloved Trinity College where he renewed his friendship with Noel Browne although his own views on everything except equality of opportunity had mellowed. His counsel was much sought by the Food and Agricultural Organisation and he made frequent sallies to its headquarters in Rome and on missions to tropical forests. His zest and enthusiasm was undiminished.

Prof Roche was a well-wishing and sensitive friend, and a sympathetic companion with an impish sense of humour. He valued spirituality while deprecating the extremes of orthodox religion. When, a few short weeks ago, he learned of his fatal illness, he wrote to his friends to tell them that he felt calm in face of death and also grateful for his great good fortune in life.

He is survived by his wife Felicity, two daughters, Nicola and Patricia, and one son, Christopher.

Prof Laurence Roche: born 1927; died November, 1999