Forest Connect: championing local forest enterprises

A meeting of the Forest Connect alliance reaffirms that it is local forest people that are best placed to reduce deforestation all over the world — provided they are given the right incentives. That means clear commercial rights to the forest and support to develop profitable and sustainable forest businesses.

Last week (16–18 February), I joined the Forest Connect alliance at a meeting in Ethiopia to learn from the country’s experience in locally controlled forestry and reaffirm our vision that poverty reduction and forest conservation can go hand in hand if locally controlled forest enterprises can be made profitable and sustainable.

Alliance members from 16 countries shared progress and tactics at a workshop as part of a process to develop guidance on how best to support small forest enterprises for the 700 members from 60 countries that make up the online Forest Connect network.

Ethiopia’s experience

Ethiopia is turning to locally controlled forestry under the banner of Participatory Forest Management (PFM). As we headed on a field trip to Chalimo forest west of Addis Ababa it was not hard to see why. A history of state forest management had devastated a once vast tract of forest, with less than 4500 hectares remaining. But, with the help of a local nongovernmental organisation, Farm Africa, PFM is now reversing the damage.

The local community has been given management and use rights — with a 70:30 benefit sharing of commercial returns from remaining forest activities. With a new cash incentive in place, 11 new forest cooperatives have emerged under the umbrella of a forest union. They have brought excessive cutting under control, reduced animal grazing in the forest to encourage natural regeneration and established a nursery to restock damaged or cleared areas.

“Where once you could hear only axes, now you hear only birds,” remarked the head of the forest union. Natural regeneration has increased 150 per cent and wild animals are beginning to return. The forest now exceeds 5000 hectares.

The country used to have several models of PFM, but different groups have learnt from their mistakes. For example, the staff from one project that has spent almost a decade domesticating Non-Timber Forest Products to provide farmyard income and take the pressure off the forest admits they made a mistake. Much better is to let local communities use the forest commercially — only then do they have an incentive to reduce deforestation and replant.

In September 2007, the Ethiopian government issued a new proclamation to “provide for the development, conservation and utilization of forests”. New forest provisions allow communities to participate in management plans for using forest resources through, for example, PFM. PFM and community forest cooperatives are now emerging across the country in large numbers and early indications suggest that this benefits both forests and people.

Spreading support

The Ethiopian story is not unique. In many of the countries in which Forest Connect operates putting commercial forest rights into community hands is paying off.

In Nepal, more than 15,000 community forest user groups are benefitting from a range of enterprise support programmes of the Forest Connect hub (ANSAB), including emission-reducing fuel ‘bio-briquettes’ and handmade paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

In Guatemala, 11 umbrella associations representing 77,000 families have joined forces to build a national alliance of community forest organisations. Forest Connect partners such as Ut’z Che’ and ACOFOP provide a range of support including product development and quality control for both timber and non-timber forest products such as Xate (palm leaves).

In Ghana, the Forest Connect partner Tropenbos is working to organise and clarify rights and responsibilities for thousands of chainsaw lumberers in the domestic market whose activities are critical to future plans to reduce illegal logging and reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD).

As people grapple with how to avoid deforestation and mitigate climate change, it has never been more important to look to realities on the ground. It is local forest people who are best placed to reduce deforestation all over the world. But they must be provided with the incentives to do so: clear commercial rights to the forest and support to develop profitable and sustainable businesses from forest products and services.

That is why alliances like Forest Connect that champion local forest enterprises and help link them to each other, to markets and to business and financial service providers have never been more important.