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Forest traditions make business sense for indigenous people

by Jake Lucas | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 18 November 2013 11:10 GMT

Two men weave a mat out of rattan, a type of small palm used for weaving and craft making, in August 2010 in Naujan, Oriental Mindoro, the Philippines. Photo: Beng Camba, courtesy of Ruth Canlas of the Non-timber Forest Product Exchange.

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Community forest enterprises can help protect threatened forest people - and their forests

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For centuries, indigenous communities in the Philippines have kept the country’s rainforests safe from over-use, thanks to their deep and spiritual respect for nature’s limits.

“Whatever the forests can give, that’s only what they take,” says Ruth Canlas, facilitator for the Philippines branch of the Philippines-based Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange of South and Southeast Asia, a network of NGOs and community-based groups that helps indigenous communities market forest goods from resources other than wood, including honey, medicinal plants and rattan for crafts.

But in the last decade, economic interests seen as good for development – ranging from mining to palm oil cultivation - have overshadowed indigenous people’s way of life, often with devastating effects on the forest.

That has led to a gradual recognition at international level of the important role local communities play in forest conservation. Researchers are finding that, where indigenous people have strong land rights, forests are being preserved.

The U.N.-backed Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) programme, for example, outlines explicit roles for local and indigenous communities. After all, indigenous people depend on the forests they live in for survival, and have a major stake in ensuring they are safeguarded for the future.

“There’s really no question that they would do everything to protect their forests,” says Canlas. “We do not need to come up with (new) projects when what we can do is just support what’s been going on (in those communities) all along.”

With the help of organisations like hers, indigenous people are banding together to form community forest enterprises (CFEs), which combine products from multiple groups to expand production and marketing opportunities.

This enables local people to earn more, allowing them to continue managing and making a living from their forests – and reducing the chance they will be forced off their land to seek work in urban areas.


While the concept sounds attractive, a lack of funds often stands in the way of getting CFEs established. Canlas says it takes money to teach indigenous community members the basics of running a business and to refine their skills to come up with marketable products.

Right now, the people she works with sell most of their products locally or further afield in the Philippines. Canlas says they would like to sell their wild honey in Europe, but the market has been hard to penetrate because people there worry that the product is not safe to eat or may contain chemicals.

Canlas believes such concerns could easily be addressed with better education about where the honey comes from. To achieve an effective marketing push abroad, community forest enterprises need more support from donors and investors, she says.

While she argues that international programmes like REDD+ are failing to provide immediately clear benefits to forest dwellers, she concedes that putting a value on forests – which REDD+ aims to do - could open the door to larger investment in community forest enterprises.

“At least (then) the government would see that it’s viable because people are investing in it,” she adds.

As things stand, many developing countries are struggling to prioritise the rights and wellbeing of indigenous peoples over the interests of industries like mining, logging and palm oil cultivation.


Last year, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) produced a guide to investing in locally controlled forestry, which laid out the methods and advantages of supporting community forest enterprises.

In the past, indigenous groups’ traditions and inherent sense of conservation kept them from producing enough to sell overseas. Now working together as forest enterprises are allowing them to market their products at a larger volume.

“The problem has always been the volume,” Canlas says.

But being part of a forest enterprise has even enabled some indigenous community members to sell goods on the international market, where they can fetch a significantly higher price.

For example, the women Canlas works with have always woven cloth, which they would sell in the local market for just a dollar per piece. But Canlas’ organisation helped them strike a deal with Crate & Barrel, an American homeware and furniture store, where they sell the same amount of cloth for a much more lucrative $15.

“For indigenous communities, weaving is a tradition,” she explains. “So what we’ve done is make something they’re doing really valuable for them.”

Jake Lucas is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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