Why small-scale forest businesses - not big ones - are right for Africa

by Jeffrey Campbell, FAO | FAO
Monday, 7 September 2015 10:00 GMT

A guide poses at the foot of a fromager (kapok) tree which is part of an open air museum on Diola culture in a forest near Cap Skirring, Senegal, May 7, 2015. REUTERS/David Lewis

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Forest businesses are fighting the myth of scale: that bigger is more efficient

At roadside markets in Nakuru County, Kenya, women’s groups sell bottles of rich red wild honey and home-made bamboo baskets. They sit at most major crossroads next to people selling charcoal, fuelwood, furniture, poles and building materials produced by the many small local sawmills.

This economic activity has transformed the county’s landscape, covering it with trees and hundreds of small businesses over the past 10 to 15 years. 

The trees that fuel this economy represent another remarkable growth story, coming from small nursery producers now numbering 200 families. The producers have formed the Nakuru County Nursery Association and, along with the women’s groups and their fellow vendors, represent Africa’s best hope for rural rejuvenation, healthy forests and mitigation of climate change across the continent. 

Forest and farm producers - families, communities and indigenous peoples - living in and around forests together comprise the largest forestry private sector in terms of the number of producers and the aggregate income they provide.

They are the wood cutters; honey collectors; farmers; furniture makers; basket makers, charcoal producers, and more. And they are rarely included - or even considered - by negotiating large-scale land and forest deals, nor in development plans by many governments or international partners.

That’s because these forest producers are fighting the myth of scale: the idea that bigger is more efficient, and that the cost of business is lower when dealing with large companies. But the result of their omission is tragic and far more costly: massive deforestation, the hollowing out of the rural economy, and a flood of unemployed rural youth converging in overcrowded cities. 

As the World Forestry Congress convenes in Durban, South Africa, forest producers should be embraced and inserted at the center of strategies to protect forests, and to ensure that the strategies benefit both local people and the global environment.

We have already witnessed the impacts when local producers are ignored in development plans. According to the Land Matrix, approximately 130 million hectares of land (or more than 52.7 million football fields) has been acquired globally in settled and impending land deals over the last 15 years. Such acquisitions nearly always displace local people who often lack secure rights to the land and natural resources that their enterprises have used sustainably for years.  These land deals move people off the land, and machines on to it.

Today, 1.3 billion people live in or adjacent to forests.  They depend on forest resources and surrounding land for food, fuel, medicine, building materials, and livelihoods. If the largest yet mostly invisible private sector in forest production continues to be driven from these forested landscapes, the results will be disastrous.

The alternative is simple: Support smallholder forest producer groups through strengthening their property rights and their organizations. Invest in them. This will strengthen the rural economy, promote job growth, and enable rural producers to compete with large-scale companies whose operations are guided by the imperative of maximizing profits alone for distant owners, rather than sustaining the resources base. For forest producers, the two are inseparable. Their role in forest protection is not a pipe dream. 

We see increasing evidence that where trees are being planted at scale, where forests are better protected, and where biodiversity is nurtured is primarily on smallholders’ lands, in community forests, and on the lands of indigenous peoples.

--In Burkina Faso, a producer group launched in 2012 now includes 1,000 forest producers in 20 villages. While producing and marketing products made from baobab, shea, desert date, gum Arabic, tamarind and honey, they have also planted more than 75,000 trees. They are in a race against time, as the country loses over 4 percent of its forests every year.

--In Ethiopia, 1,350 members of the Birbirsa Natural Resource Conservation Cooperative harvest berries from wild coffee plants growing in one of the world’s last tropical forest refuges of wild Arabica coffee. Cooperative members also produce honey, grow crops and livestock. Selling directly to specialty export markets, they earn three times the local price.  Their rights to access the wild coffee resources come with obligations to protect and monitor the forest.

--In Gambia, the village of Tumani established an ecotourism resort to save their threatened mangrove forests. The village sources everything for their resort locally, including organic vegetables from the community garden and fuel, food and building materials from the forest. They invest the profits into forest management and village development, using the proceeds on education for the village children, solar panels, water supply improvements, and a mini-van to taxi guests between the village and the regional capital of Brikama.

As producer groups grow in size and influence, they are promoting the sustainable use of forest resources. Without their full scale involvement it is extremely unlikely that adaptation and mitigation to climate change can ever be achieved. Global deforestation contributes upwards of 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and every tree planted is an opportunity to capture carbon.

To ensure that the world’s forests continue to be looked after, smallholder and community forest producers need to be supported.  Their organisations provide a fire line against deforestation and climate change, and enable the growth of prosperous rural areas.  African producers can lead the way.

Jeffrey Campbell is manager of the Forest and Farm Facility at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).