Strength in numbers: The promise of forest producer organisations

Organisations of forest farmers have much to offer society — if they get the support they need from governments, donors, the private sector and NGOs.

Countryside in Guangxi Autonomous Region, China. Photo: Duncan Macqueen

As a slogan for an international conference on forest producer organisations 'Strength in numbers' seemed particular appropriate to its location in China. At the meeting in Guilin on 25-28 November, Yin Hong, Vice Minister of the Chinese State Forestry Administration, set the tone with her keynote speech. She said: "Forestry is seen as a primary task in developing eco-civilization in China".

When things are thus billed in China, action is guaranteed:

  • By 2012, after five years of the most recent forest tenure reform process, more than 90 million forestry farms had been granted certificates for forest management. Some 115,000 forest cooperatives had formed.
  • China’s afforestation of 2.9 million hectares per year between 2000 and 2010 is almost single handedly responsible for the decrease by about one third in the net global rate of deforestation – and forest farmers had planted about 70 per cent of this new area.
  • Total forest sector output is reported at a staggering US$650 billion.

Speedy reforms

Several other Chinese Government speakers displayed strong political will at the conference, which was co-sponsored by the Forest and Farm Facility, a partnership between IIED, FAO and IUCN.

China has established more than 1000 forest ownership management service centres to deal with disputed land titles and trading. It has introduced the use of forests as collateral for loans. It has rolled-out forest insurance at startling pace. And it has invested in capacity development – including in traditional agricultural knowledge, understory crops and eco-tourism.

There are hopes too that China’s willing engagement in a new IIED-facilitated platform with African forest decision-makers may begin to see shifts in its overseas trade footprint too.

On a well-structured field trip the scale of ambition was breathtaking. Of course, not all is perfect. Independent observers note that the degree of local control, benefit and motivation within such new forest cooperatives varies widely.

There is also something of a monoculture mania in new plantations – softened somewhat by mixing some trees with understory crops and animals: Ginkgo trees with Millettia root, kumquat trees with chickens and so on. But given the speed at which China has rolled out its reforms, that was surely inevitable.

Chickens beneath Kumquat trees (left) and Millettia root grown alongside Ginkgo trees (right)

China is not alone

The 150 participants from 41 countries learned a lot. Of course, many came from countries which do not boast such political will as China. But it would be wrong to conclude China is a unique case – it was apparent that many other countries share its vision of supporting forest producer groups.

Presentations from Bolivia, Brazil, Finland, Germany, Guatemala, Mexico, Nepal and Sweden all hinted at strong commitment to the notion of 'eco-civilization' that Vice-Minister Yin Hong outlined. All subscribe to a vision of increasing rural income from organised groups of rural producers who manage and restore forest landscapes.

The message was clear: Forest producer groups have something to offer society and those that govern it. If we are to limit carbon emissions from deforestation and reduce poverty at the same time, it will only be possible through the sort of landscape scale that organized forestry producer groups can achieve – strength in numbers. I defy anyone to offer any reasonable alternative (corporate land grabs aside).

Four key factors jumped out from the conference speeches as the foundations for successful forest producer group expansion:

  • Secure commercial tenure and dispute resolution
  • Support for producer organization at multiple levels
  • Efforts to develop business capacity
  • Investment (from both public, private sector and cooperative sources)

Whether well-established in some of the countries mentioned above, or more aspirational, as in the country presentations of Cambodia and Ghana – the importance of these four factors went uncontested.

Making it happen

The conference gave much attention to how governments can contribute by: acknowledging the potential of forest producer groups through secure commercial tenure; respecting their autonomy and right to federate; acting as a facilitator and service provider – not enforcer; investing in research and development and business capacity, and so on. Much of this was already on display in China.

The four factors for success also resonated with private sector players. This underlines the importance of an approach known as ‘Investing in Locally Controlled Forestry’ (ILCF) which emerged from a series of 11 dialogues between smallholder, community and indigenous people’s groups and investors. An ILCF guide for investors shows how private sector actors can build in such factors – while making strong economic, social and environmental returns.

But how best can donors and NGOs contribute? Here, the catalytic support, particularly at the early phases of producer group development, was seen to be critical - not with a view to dependency, but in order to fast track such groups toward financial autonomy.

This is the intended role of the Forest Farm Facility (FFF). But the sheer scale of need expressed by participants means it will have its work cut out. Fortunately, generous funding from Sweden, Finland, Germany, USA and the World Bank hosted Programme on Forests (PROFOR) means FFF can expand to four new countries (beyond the six initial pilots of Gambia, Guatemala, Liberia, Myanmar, Nepal and Nicaragua).

But to support producer groups outside China to develop an eco-civilization of Chinese proportions further donor inputs will be needed – a different but very necessary strength in numbers.

Duncan Macqueen is principal researcher in IIED’s Forest Team (duncan.macqueen@iied.org)

Kumquats under plastic to prolong fruit life: Photo: Duncan Macqueen

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