Charting a “path to recovery and wellbeing” on 2021’s International Day of Forests

Guest blogger David Kaimowitz explains why global ambition to restore the world’s forests will only be achieved if the huge potential of forest and farm producers is realised.

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Insight by 
David Kaimowitz
David Kaimowitz is manager of the Forest and Farm Facility at FAO
19 March 2021
The 2021 'super year' for climate, nature and people
A series of blogs and interviews raising awareness and action on the interlinkages between climate, nature and people throughout 2021's key global milestones
People in a forest looking at trees

Training on tree inventory in Tanzania (Photo: copyright FAO/Benjamin Caldwell)

When Alfayo Mayemba went out on a hot sunny day and counted the trees on his farm in Kombi village in Tanzania, he probably wasn’t thinking about saving the planet. He was thinking about whether he’ll be getting better prices when he sells the wood, which is one way he earns his living.

Far-reaching benefits

Every day, millions of villagers around the world plant and care for trees. Most do it because trees give them fruits, nuts, fuel, wood, medicine, fodder, shade and cash. And each time the villagers plant more trees, they aren’t the only ones who benefit.

Insects that the trees attract pollinate their neighbours’ crops. More trees mean cooler local temperatures and cleaner village streams. They also suck carbon from the air, stabilising the global climate, and provide habitats for myriad animals and plants.

The more trees benefit villagers, the more the villagers will plant and attend to. Or they may simply let the trees grow back naturally, keeping out fire and cattle. Everyone wins, not just the farmers. It is as simple as that.

Thankfully, many governments and other groups, including NGOs, have pledged to restore hundreds of millions of hectares of degraded lands and promote forest landscape restoration. Major government reforestation programmes or large forest plantations are one part of that. But the truth is it will be almost impossible to meet these targets we all care so much about unless small farmers and communities benefit more from trees.

First, villagers need rights to those trees. Why should anyone care for a tree they aren’t allowed to use? Surprisingly, securing rights to trees is still a major problem.

Villagers also need market information, healthy seedlings, permission to sell and good prices for their products. Being organised in groups makes all those things a whole lot easier.

In Mr Mayemba’s native Tanzania, this group may take the form of a tree growers association. Elsewhere, it may be a farmers’ union, cooperative, Indigenous territory or village council. Sadly though, these groups too often get ignored. When governments, big NGOs, international agencies and companies come together, too often they leave out the people who matter the most: the local farmers and foresters and their organisations.

That is also true when it comes to funding: IIED research has shown only about 10% of international climate finance reaches the local level. Farmer and community groups and Indigenous Peoples are often among the last invited or are asked to attend when decisions have already been made.

Engage, organise, collaborate

At the Forest and Farm Facility we are trying to change that. The programme’s four partners – IIED, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), IUCN and Agricord – work with forest and farm organisations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and assist villagers to earn more from their trees by getting information and services and finding better markets. Mr Mayemba, for example, got a higher price for his wood simply by knowing more about what he could offer and selling together with others.

Groups like Mr Mayemba’s Tree Growers Association in Tanzania, the Vietnam National Farmers Union, Bolivia’s National Indigenous Forestry Association, or Zambia’s National Forest Commodities Association bring together tens of millions of producers and are essential for massive forest restoration.

By improving their advocacy and communications skills, many of these farmer and forest groups are finally being taken more seriously by governments and getting a seat at the table. That way they can participate in forestry projects, raise concerns about permits and taxes, get someone to pave their roads, so they can access markets.

To reach the countries’ reforestation targets throughout the tropics, which we have championed, there is going to have to be much more of that. Greater funding for local groups. More consultation. Inclusion of women and youth.

Growing the potential of our super forests

As the cities of Africa and tropical Asia continue to swell, there are huge opportunities to produce fuelwood, charcoal, timber, medicinal plants, bamboo and many other forest products to sell to urban dwellers. Producing these products in a sustainable way could create millions of jobs, right now when they are needed the most for local economies to begin to recover from the pandemic.

Africa currently gets almost 89% of its energy from fuelwood, charcoal, and agricultural residues. If done well, that could be a major boon, rather than environmental disaster.

But a pathway for getting there is only realistic if it involves stronger farmer organisation, with more support from government, funders and NGOs. That is the only viable “path to recovery and wellbeing”, the theme of this year’s International Day of Forests on 21 March.

In this ‘super year’ that embraces global ambition to accelerate climate action, protect biodiversity and tackle rising inequalities, let’s make this is a super year for restoring our forests, enabling the world’s forest and farm producers to thrive.