Community forests can fight climate change and empower people

31 January 2020
Jenna Jadin and Martin Greijmans
With the right support, community forest enterprises can add the financial benefits that are needed to safeguard forests while reducing poverty.
Practitioner's Insights

Climate change was a key focus of this year’s World Economic Forum annual meeting, held in Davos, Switzerland from 21—24 January. The 2020 theme, Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World, featured seven main topics. ‘How to Save the Planet’ topped the list.

Environmental champions Sir David Attenborough, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, and 16-year-old Greta Thunberg all spoke to the urgent need to take action on climate change now. Public figures, including United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte, explained their commitment to protecting the environment and outlined the steps they were taking to do this.

At RECOFTC, one of the ways we are tackling climate change is by supporting community forest enterprises (CFEs). More than 30 years of experience has shown us and others that CFEs are a powerful solution to safeguarding forests and empowering the communities that depend on them. We have learned that forest conservation, a vital component to fighting climate change, is nearly impossible without people gaining economic benefits from forests.

A wide range of benefits

CFEs are typically small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that encompass a wide range of products, skills and market actors. RECOFTC has helped develop and promote many community forest SMEs in the past, and continues to in some of its ongoing programs. Some examples include women-owned honey cooperatives in Nepal, sedge grass handicraft producers in southern Thailand, and teak farmers in northern Laos.

CFEs can add the financial benefits that are needed to conserve forests while reducing poverty. They can also be a tool for climate change adaptation and mitigation, helping communities access REDD+ and other climate funds. At the same time, they can promote land restoration and preservation that supports both economic development and improved ecosystem services.

The good, the bad . . .

Community forest SMEs are not new. For generations, communities around the world have been monetizing their forests for use as either a primary or supplemental source of income. Many of these endeavors have been good for both communities and forests.

One example is the rattan industry in Indonesia. Rattan is one of the few marketable commodities that can be grown on intact, wet peat. It can fetch high prices on domestic and international markets, providing an incentive for communities to keep their peatlands intact.

Forest enterprises are not always beneficial for both communities and the forests themselves. There are far more cases of large enterprises causing more harm than good. The most notorious examples perhaps are the enormous pulp, oil palm and rubber plantations that dominate the landscapes of much of Southeast Asia.

Rubber plantation
Over 90 percent of the world's rubber is produced in Asia with Thailand, pictured above, leading the way. 

All of these crops were once cultivated by smallholders. But once the profitability was apparent, large-scale cultivation led by big corporations took over. In some cases, peatlands were drained and are now sinking beyond reparable levels to accommodate some of these commodity crops that are in huge demand globally. Many local communities lost rights to their lands, and typically have not reaped any benefits from the sale of those commodities.

. . . and changes for the better

This model of large private sector enterprises grabbing community lands and not sharing in the benefits is changing, albeit very gradually. It has taken decades of work on the part of international donor agencies, non-governmental organizations to get the most basic of changes enacted.

Thanks to this pressure, there are now authorities that can certify that products were sourced sustainably and equitably. There are also consortiums where large companies can hold dialogues and reach agreements on pro-environment change. Consumer advocacy groups have played a large role in this change, making buyers aware of the consequences of their purchases. They have helped create the ‘conscious consumer’, who now demands environmentally, socially-just products.

A need for short-term and long-term solutions

Despite the impetus, change is slow and the time for action has long been coming. Policies that encourage community forest SMEs but do not support the enabling conditions are prevalent. For example, in many countries, smallholders who need permits to selectively and sustainably harvest timber face insurmountable government bureaucracies that they have neither the time nor the education to negotiate. In other cases, growing timber products to the optimal point of harvest takes time that many smallholders who struggle daily to feed their families do not have.

Teak farmers in Xayaboury Province, Lao PDR, harvest teak to generate income.  

Teak is such a crop. Teak reaches its optimum quality at 30 years. That means that when a farmer chooses to plant teak on their land, they must have another source of income for 30 years so they can feed their families. RECOFTC’s work with teak farmers has found that many growers are harvesting at 15 years. This suboptimal timber can only be sold at lower prices or to companies that can process small pieces of timber into larger planks. Finding ways for these growers to sustainably and profitably use their lands for 15 to 30 years until the big financial returns come in is a goal of RECOFTC’s Flourish project.

The right support is crucial

RECOFTC and its partners are always looking for ways to help community forest SMEs become profitable in the short term and sustainable in the long term. We believe that the only way to preserve intact landscapes and restore those that are degraded is to value them, either by monetizing or by making social and aesthetic values more clear.

We also believe that community forest enterprises can satisfy conscious-consumer demand, environmental preservation and economic growth.

If given the right technological, financial and policy support, CFEs can be successful and scalable. They can grow national economies sustainably and help nations meet the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda. And they can provide people who live in and around forests with a means to control their own natural resources and decide on their own paths to personal and community growth.

RECOFTC’s work is made possible with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).