Forest and Farm Facility: Getting resources to those who matter

Improving the participation of rural people has been in vogue for years, often with limited success. Here's one scheme that lives up to the hype by involving forest and farm producers on their own terms. 

This week in Myanmar, pictured, the Forest Farm Facility is funding a national exchange between forest and farm producer groups and many other producer groups (Photo: Duncan Macqueen/IIED)

In 1983, Robert Chambers published his controversial book 'Rural development – putting the last first', which challenged development worker 'outsiders' to view poor rural people as crucial participants of the development process, not passive recipients of aid. His stinging criticisms of development workers' 'fear of involvement' and their propensity to view the poor from the 'limousine comfort' of the superhighway retains its force.

Of course sitting in an air conditioned limousine or capital city workshop is easier than slogging through muddy roads to reach rural villages. Thirty years on from Chamber's book it is no less difficult  to involve, and channel resources to, the vast private sector of local forest and farm producers who help keep many of the world's trees standing. It is time-consuming and costly to engage local producer groups.

In the world of development there always seems to be a new 'silver bullet' in town – anything to avoid the necessity for painstaking engagement. Novelty is king: a consultation programme on governance here, a market mechanism there, a trade lever sometime soon. All these novel endeavours ultimately run aground on one particular rock – the need to involve and mobilise forest and farm producers.

Governance consultations, such as those linked to the design of former National Forest Programmes (NFPs), need to mobilise producers to implement new policies. Market mechanisms for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) need to mobilise producers to transform land use practices. Trade levers, such as processes linked to the EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) timber procurement law, need to mobilise producers to ensure that they aren't being impoverished by more stringent export-oriented systems to prove the timber has been legally harvested. Outside development workers look to involve producers in many such processes driven by external organisations and priorities.

What about involving forest and farm producers on their own terms? Forest and farm producers established their own groups to defend their cultural rights and environment, to help their enterprises prosper, and to reduce their poverty on their own terms.

They don't focus on just one aim, such as agricultural land use, or mitigating climate change, or producing timber or water etc, but in achieving all these things together. They must balance competing claims and priorities – ensuring that a multi-functional mosaic of land managed by smallholder forest-farm enterprises delivers local public goods (such as sustainable food, energy, water and construction materials) alongside global public goods (climate change mitigation, biodiversity etc).

These smallholders are at a significant power disadvantage in pressing their needs when in competition with connected urban elites and well-funded single-issue agendas that so many outsiders support. Resources to defend their interests are scarce.

Enter the Forest and Farm Facility

The Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) was designed to channel scarce resources to such groups. It's not a perfect vehicle – nothing ever is. But it emerged from an extensive process of negotiation between representatives of forest and farm producer groups, investors and development agencies. Its steering committee comprises a who's who of indigenous, community and family forest and farm representatives. Its management team involves a partnership of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

The FFF has now established a credible approach to channelling resources to forest and farm producers' organisations in just over a year of operation – building strength in numbers. It has six partner countries, and will be soon expanding to ten. 

This week in Myanmar the FFF is funding a national exchange between forest and farm producer groups who are both direct FFF grant recipients, and also many other producer groups supported by a wider array of civil society programmes (such as Pyoe Pin). They will share experiences and discuss possibilities of working together in more concerted regional or ultimately national federations.

The FFF is also calling for proposals for planning and partnership grants to strengthen the role and voice of Forest and Farm Producer organisations at the regional and global level. These grants will help link the many national and various international networks that represent forest and farm producers and forest rights holders to pursue a shared agenda. They will also help bring local success stories to the notice of global decision-makers to facilitate successful local-level investments, and help shape international and national policies and actions through the sharing of knowledge and experience among local forest and farm producers.

"Smallholder forest-farm enterprises are at a significant power disadvantage in pressing their needs when in competition with connected urban elites" (Photo: Duncan Macqueen/IIED)

Thirty years on from Robert Chamber's book there is still too much 'fear' of getting involved with the complex mish-mash of forest and farm producers' integrated needs. Single-issue agendas driven by outsider interest continue to dominate.

It is of great significance then, that the FFF programme is expanding and that the FAO is hosting this new Forest and Farm Facility – exactly the sort of facility that a United Nations agency ought to be hosting.  The FFF merits our support in its attempt to get resources to those who matter.

Duncan Macqueen is principal researcher in IIED's natural resources group (Duncan.macqueen@iied.org).

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