In the king's wake
As part of a recent meeting in Bangkok, forest and farm producers heard about initiatives that add value to forest products and motivate farmers to plant trees – particularly significant in light of progressive ideas on sustainability championed by Thailand's late king.
Thailand's beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch, died in October 2016. Among the many things for which he was adored by his people was commitment to a 'self-sufficiency economy'. This involved enhancing the multi-purpose benefits of forests – fruit, timber and firewood for daily use – for which he thought it "essential to grow different types of trees".
It was fitting that in the year of mourning following the king's death, 80 representatives of forest and farm producer groups from eight countries across Asia met in Bangkok.
The aim of the knowledge exchange forum was to promote rights and livelihoods of foresters and farmers through producer organisations. It was funded by the Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) through IUCN, one of the FFF alliance's three partners including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and IIED.
We exchanged lessons on best practice and innovations in five key areas promoting:
- Rights to secure tenure
- Sustainable forest and farm management
- Sustainable livelihoods through market access
- Significant participation in governance structures, and
- Associations to defend the interests of forest and farm producers.
Together, these areas form a minimum set of preconditions for viable businesses run by rural producers – none are optional. And there were many lessons from different country groups that had advanced in particular areas.
Participants from Cambodia shared how they had secured community forest land rights while from Vietnam we heard stories of the rapid emergence of businesses based on Acacia timber, star anise and cinnamon. Participants from Nepal explained how forest associations and national federations are self-organising to protect their members' interests, and so on.
The power of working together
Stronger associations are an effective entry point for pursuing the other four preconditions: strength in numbers is critical for lobbying government for secure tenure, for negotiating fair prices in markets, or restoring forest landscapes at scale. They are the agency that can integrate climate resilience and improve livelihoods across forest and farm landscapes.
For that very reason, FFF funded the International Family Forest Alliance (IFFA) to organise this knowledge exchange at the Centre for People and Forests (RECOFTC) with strong support from the Asian Farmers Association for sustainable rural development (AFA), whose participants represented the association's huge constituency of tens of millions across Asia.
Much learning came from listening to approaches and tactics used by different producer organisations from different countries. And there was further opportunity to build skills from the field when we visited one of the 3,000 branches of Thailand's Tree Bank Foundation.
This is a social organisation that involves 300,000 farmer volunteers across Thailand in planting millions of trees on their farms, including
diverse varieties of native trees such as teak (at least five species per plot).
For farmers, the incentive comes in part from the future value of the trees, but also in response to the late king's thinking on self-sufficiency economy and tree planting.
Members keep detailed records of every tree that is planted, its volume, the standing value (based on 2010 prices per species) and the carbon sequestered and embedded in that tree. No mean feat for 300,000 members.
These records help farmers calculate the value of their standing trees. It also provides options for the future – and there are three options that deserve particular mention:
- First, detailed record keeping of this type could connect huge numbers of farmers to climate finance coming through programmes such as REDD+. Such climate finance could incentivise tree planting across national landscapes such as Thailand, mobilising farmers and rewarding their carbon sequestration efforts on a huge scale.
- Second, record keeping could enable farmers to use trees as collateral to secure loans from banks for their businesses. Indeed, so good was this idea that the Thai Bank of Agriculture and Cooperatives copied the Tree Bank Foundation's model. The bank (under the same name, Tree Bank) offers loans to farmers, where trees are used as collateral. Interest rates depends on the farmer's credit history but can be as low as 7.5 per cent, secured against on-farm trees.
- The Tree Bank Foundation is lobbying for a third option: a new law that would channel a proportion of tax revenue (from wood and furniture industries) as grants to incentivise tree growers who would receive five per cent of the value of the tree every year for 20 years, when the tree is mature.
Although not yet in place, a corporation has opted voluntarily to pay such an incentive as part of its corporate social responsibility in one province of Thailand. The Tree Bank Foundation is also considering mobilising finance from its own large membership to set up such an incentive fund.
Visiting the small farm of Tree Bank Foundation member Mrs Thong Bo, it was impressive to see just how much can be produced from 1/3 hectare of land if you integrate different components – chickens, frogs and edible crickets. Their manure fertilises vegetables and fruit and timber trees, which in turn are used to feed the animals.
The trees contribute food, energy (through a small charcoal kiln), green manure, shade, and of course beauty! They can now also provide collateral for loans and may be a future source of carbon income.
Producer organisations such as the (entirely voluntary) Tree Bank Foundation unite farmers to provide such climate resilient landscape restoration at scale – a fitting tribute to the king whose words inspired a people.