Smallholder farmers who live in and around tropical forests are critical to protecting forest landscapes. Too often, conservations and governments dismiss them as a threat or an inconvenience.
As a researcher in tropical forestry I travel to tropical forest areas in Africa, Asia and Latin America. As I do so, I am struck by four things, firstly, just how many people live in and around tropical forests.
Global estimates suggest there are roughly 1.3 billion forest-dependent people in and around the world's remaining forests. Almost all of them are farmers (bar a few hunter gatherers and landless individuals). Almost all of them use the forest to fuel their stoves, furnish their houses and feed their children.
For them, the forest and farm landscape is one integrated reality – unlike many sectoral government agencies who fail to grasp that integrated whole.
And when they sell into primarily local markets, it is often a mix of agricultural and forest produce. Such is their collective scale that locally controlled forest and farm landscapes (that encompass indigenous, community and family smallholders) probably comprise the biggest rural private sector. It is they who have the agency to control what goes down in the forest.
The second thing that strikes me is the negativity with which many outsiders regard these forest-dependent people.
Conservationists worry about their encroachment into biodiversity rich areas. Industrialists worry that they will impede access to valuable natural resources. Authorities worry that these people are too uneducated to drive development and generate revenues.
Plans hatched at national (and even international) levels often leave them out of the picture altogether – or attempt to buy them off with trinkets, a half-completed school here, a small percentage of tax revenues there.
The results are seen in human misery and conflict in very many places where the interests of conservation or industrialised agriculture sweep them aside.
A third thing that strikes me is just how misplaced that negativity is. Local people live with the consequences of their land use decisions. They seem, in the main, to be doing a rather good job of balancing competing claims between local public goods (food, fuel, construction material, cosmetics, dyes, medicines, soil fertility, water flows etc.) and global public goods (carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, and so on) across rural landscapes.
Evidence from comparative analysis suggests that locally controlled forests are generally better for the forest and people than either protected areas or large-scale industrial business models.
Admittedly, at very high population densities local people have no option but to clear forests for agriculture, and we will just have to live with that, but in general they tend to be rather good at balancing environmental and social issues.
Locally controlled forest and farm landscapes (that encompass indigenous, community and family smallholders) probably comprise the biggest rural private sector. It is they who have the agency to control what goes down in the forest.
The final thing that strikes me is just how slow governments are to unleash the economic potential of local controlled forestry.
Four basic preconditions are needed: secure forest tenure, technical support, business know-how and organisation to achieve scale efficiencies and voice in decision-making.
Putting those conditions in place requires investment of different sorts by different actors: sweat (physical labour on the land by local producers), support (by government and NGO service providers) and cash (from finance agencies and value chain partners).
China grasped this with its forest tenure reform a decade or so ago, backed by 1,000 one-stop shops for forest land registration, conflict resolution, insurance and credit.
By 2012, more than 90 million forestry farms had been granted certificates for forest management. Some 115,000 forest cooperatives had formed. Forest farmers were responsible for 70 per cent of China's afforestation of 2.9 million hectares per year between 2000 and 2010. That tree planting effort decreased by about one third the net global rate of deforestation.
While that spectacular progress was most definitely 'made in China', there is much the governments elsewhere can and must do – if we are to halt deforestation while reducing poverty.