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This is a Special Issue of the International Forestry Review published to honour the legacy, impact and career of the late John Spears, who was for many years the Senior Forestry Adviser at the World Bank. It outlines the long arc of his career and draws on some of the key themes which motivated John, and to which he returned throughout his life. In particular, it focuses on why he came to advocate for social and community forestry, the involvement of the private sector in forest plantation development, forestry research, education and training, the role of forests in reducing poverty, the challenges of conserving and managing tropical forests, and the potential of small and medium forest based enterprises to contribute to job creation and economic growth. It closes with a reflection on some of the processes which were launched in parallel with his career and to which he contributed.