On average, U.S. Forest Service domestic experts donate more than 300 salary days each year to helping their international colleagues advance best practices in Africa and the Middle East. We recently had a chance to chat with Lathan Sidebottom, Special Agent, to hear about how he contributed to advancing law enforcement good practices in Gabon and what it meant to him.
Q: Which program did you support and what did you do?
In August of 2019, I supported a multi-day training session on police investigative techniques to combat illegal logging in the remote town of Lambarene, Gabon. The training featured blocks of instruction delivered by the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Forest Service. We delivered a wide array of subject matter, ranging from wood identification to money laundering.
Q: Do you think your support made an impact, and if so, how?
As the training event in Gabon progressed, we gained a deeper understanding of the challenges police and natural resource managers face within Gabon. There was a deep sense of frustration and some level of hopelessness conveyed by attendees as they grappled with very limited resources, large gaps in the justice system and wealthy multinational corporations illegally exporting timber. Our presence at the event provided some ideas on relatively straightforward approaches for detecting illegal logging, collecting pertinent evidence and identifying key suspects. The more advanced instructional blocks provided ideas on higher level investigative techniques to work toward in the future. I believe our efforts and presence provided a sense that the people of Gabon aren’t entirely alone in their struggle. The police force gained insight into some basic steps within their capabilities which will make a difference in the long run.
Q: Did the experience make an impact on your life?
As a criminal investigator for an agency with a primarily domestic mission, I’ve spent the majority of my career focused on preservation of resources and investigation of crime within the American model of public lands. Participation in USFS International Programs has been a fantastic opportunity to expand my understanding of worldwide conservation challenges and the interconnectedness of people and resources around the globe. My experience in Gabon and subsequent countries has given me a much greater perspective on shared challenges with our international partners, as well as an appreciation for the resource conservation model we enjoy in the United States.
Q: What did you like most about the experience?
I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the people and culture in central Africa. The opportunity to see the complex ecosystem that exists in the Congo Basin was certainly a privilege.
Q: What did you like the least about the experience?
International travel has its ups and downs no matter the destination or purpose. Many of the inconveniences of intercontinental trips aren’t worth dwelling on. My deepest sense of frustration came from learning and seeing, in some small part, the scope of the problem within Gabon. It’s difficult to understand the challenges faced by the government in controlling illegal logging and the seemingly Goliath adversary that exists in foreign corporations operating with impunity.
Q: If you were to do another international assignment, is there anything you would change about your approach?
It’s difficult to know your audience, their levels of professional training and capability when visiting unfamiliar countries. My time spent in Gabon and elsewhere has underscored the need for instructors to be flexible, patient and armed with a wide array of materials from basic, to complex, to meet the needs of the students. If I’m fortunate enough to participate in future events with International Programs, I’ll come prepared with a wider range of content to be adjusted throughout the conference.