We need more integrity between the treatment of forests at home and abroad

World Forest Week at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is an opportunity to reflect on the motives and mood of forest authorities and NGOs across many different nations. In the current climate of financial austerity, Duncan Macqueen reflects on what two different donor nations are prioritising and supporting abroad and compares this to their treatment of forests at home.

A large group of people sit under a tree and talk.

One prominent forest donor nation, Sweden, has 69% forest cover – only around 1% of the world’s total – but supplies roughly 10% of the world’s value-added forest product. Some donor countries (such as Sweden) have invested heavily in locally-controlled forests at home. Forest lands are distributed across multiple smallholder forest farmers (some 2.9% of the total population). To put it another way, 268,000 individuals own a forest holding that is on average 66 hectares in size. Forestry is a collective effort and a large proportion of these forest farm owners are members of large cooperatives. The capital – both business capacity and finance – within these co-operatives, is enormous.

For example, Södra, located in the South of Sweden, has 51,000 members owning 36,000 forest plots.

Södra owns and runs pulp mills, sawmills and bioenergy companies and manages independent contractors who harvest and transport wood using state-of-the-art technology. This ensures the company is efficient and globally competitive, with net sales of US$ 2.7 billion. Towns within the Södra catchment, such as Vaxjo in the South of Sweden, derive a substantial portion of their food and timber from member forest farms and much of their energy comes from a strongly supported and locally-sourced wood pellet bioelectricity plant.

Many Swedish donor representatives (often forest farm owners in their own right) intrinsically understand the integrated nature of forest farming, and the link between food, fuel and fibre production. They also understand the need to invest in building the capacity of smallholder producer organisations both in the global north and south to help unleash private sector investment in small-scale forest farms to make sustainable land use systems profitable.

Is it for this reason that the government of Sweden has been supporting a series of dialogues convened by The Forest Dialogue (TFD) on ‘Investing in Locally Controlled Forestry’ [PDF] and are  also supporting the launch this week of the new Forest and Farm Facility? This independent multi-donor trust fund will channel enabling investments into local organisations of forest farm producer groups in the global south. The aim is to improve their capacity to negotiate secure commercial forest and farm rights with decision-makers, develop business capacity at a scale that is attractive to investors and break into competitive value-added markets. The outcome will be improved food, fuel and fibre security and sustainable forest management in their respective countries.  

A second prominent donor nation, the UK, has only 12% forest cover, one of the lowest percentages of any country in either Europe or the world. Forested land holdings in the UK are held by substantially fewer private landholders than in Sweden. In Scotland, for example, forest land is consolidated in the hands of a few – notably landed estates and forestry investors [PDF]. Only 4017 owners or 0.1% of the population own private forests (the lowest of any European nations). Compared with a Europe where only 1.6% of forested land holdings are over 50 ha in size, in Scotland 55% of forested land holdings exceed 50 ha. The average size is 232 ha making these land parcels three times larger than the average in any other European country. Many owners are not even there to oversee operations: 55% are absentee owners and 32% live outside Scotland altogether. Collective action amongst these owners is weak with the result that Scotland and the UK are small players in the global pulp, sawn timber and bio-electricity markets.

This leaves the UK peculiarly dependent on imports. For example, energy security fears are driving bio-electricity plant development, but these are usually cited near the coast due to dependency on wood pellet imports – and often the subject of fierce local opposition (eliminating for example one newly proposed bio-electricity plant in Edinburgh).

With such heavy import dependence, it is little surprise that UK donor representatives (at the Department for International Development, Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs and Department of Energy and Climate change) favour a development approach built on the leverage provided by trade. The UK government has been a strong champion of procurement laws and voluntary partnership agreements to ensure that only legally harvested timber is imported into the EU from other countries, as set out in the EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) action plan. This trade lever can be a force for driving legality (and possibly sustainability) into larger export-scale forestry operations in the South.

Yet it offers little to the majority of domestic market forest farm smallholders in those countries whose production does not target export markets. UK donor representatives have so far declined to support the new Forest and Farm Facility which is built on the logic developed through the ‘Investing in Locally Controlled Forestry’ initiative.

Does the inequitable pattern of UK forest land ownership prejudice UK donor representatives against ‘investing in locally-controlled forestry’? Are they less likely to intrinsically understand how integrated smallholder forest farming can deliver globally competitive forest industries? Has the paucity of globally competitive forest farm cooperatives in the UK robbed us of an approach that might prove an abiding solution to sustainable food, fuel and fibre production from forest farm producer groups in the South?  

Of course, these two very different donor contexts and approaches both have strengths and need not necessarily be mutually exclusive. A ‘Guide to Investing in Locally Controlled Forestry’ will show how to mix enabling investments of the type proposed in the new Forest and Farm Facility with asset investment to help local and often domestically-oriented food, fuel and fibre producer groups take the next step up. Meanwhile, the extension of the FLEGT approach to other export-driven sectors, such as food, fuel and fibre, which are strong drivers of deforestation, will provide a useful complement in driving sustainability in larger export-oriented firms.

And in these austere times, both approaches could give much needed direction to where the money certainly is – Reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD+), a scheme that is searching for the right mix of incentives to landowners (both local smallholders and large corporates) to keep their forests standing and managed sustainably.

Nevertheless, in one single and threatened global biosphere, we need to make sure that what we want to see ‘out there’ is also what we invest in back home – and in that regard, the integrity of the Swedish approach has much to recommend it.

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