Entrepreneurs don't grow on trees
But with a little help from FAO, poor families around the world are starting their own small forest businesses
Rome, 13 February 2007 - An innovative new approach from FAO is helping poor people around the world turn trees into cash income - without felling the trees.
"It's not just timber companies that benefit from forests -- about 1.6 billion people worldwide depend on them for all or part of their livelihoods," says Sophie Grouwels of FAO's Forestry Department. "And they often do so in ways that don't always involve cutting down trees, but through harvesting of renewable, non-wood forest products."
Fruits, nuts, herbs and spices, resins, gums, fibres -- all these non-wood forest products (NWFPs) provide poor families around the world with food, nutrition and income. Indeed, some 80 percent of the population of developing countries use such products in one way or another to meet health and nutritional needs, according to FAO.
"We believe that people could do even more with these renewable resources in order to fight hunger and poverty," says Grouwels. "Perhaps there are more efficient ways to harvest them. Maybe they could be processed into a product that sells for more in local markets, or even marketed overseas. All of these things could help people produce more food or earn more money for their families."
Tapping the wealth of forests without hurting them
That is why FAO's Forestry Department established its Community-based Tree and Forest Enterprise Development (CBED) Programme with funding from the Norwegian government, she says.
The project helps poor communities set up, sustain and grow small businesses while giving them incentives to better manage and protect their resource base, allowing them to tap the wealth of nearby forest resources without depleting them.
In CBED projects, FAO teams up with government extension agents and non-governmental organizations to work with forest communities and learn how they are making use of the available forest products. Using a participatory learning process, detailed surveys of local forest resources are conducted, studies of local and regional markets are undertaken, and new product, manufacturing and marketing opportunities are identified. At the same time, the communities draw up management plans for the sustainable use of the targeted natural resources and develop business plans for pilot enterprises, which run from harvesting, production and processing to marketing.
Project in Laos shows model's potential
FAO recently collaborated with the government of the Lao People's Democratic Republic to implement a CBED project in that country, where 41 percent of the national territory is covered by forests and 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas.
Six pilot projects were established in the poorest part of the country, where annual household incomes average from US$200 to US$800.
The project’s results so far have been extremely encouraging.
In Ban Lack village, where a grassroots cooperative was already engaged in manufacturing rattan table and chair sets, project participants learned new designs and bettered their production techniques in order to improve product quality and lower production costs. Now they are earning 20 percent more on each set they sell, and are selling more thanks to a new roadside sales point. A group of women in nearby Ban Nathong village identified a new market for mushrooms, established a growing house, made connections with retailers, and boosted their monthly incomes by US$108.
All in all, ten community-level businesses employing 239 people were established. Increases in the incomes of participating households ranged from US$5 to US$70 per month -- 15 to 50 percent more than they were making before.
"The villagers not only improved their incomes, but also acquired important business skills and experience and drafted up sustainable resource management plans for the NWFPs upon which their livelihoods depend," notes Sophie Grouwels.
At the same time, small village development funds were established using the profits as a way to provide locals with access to the credit they needed to create new or scale-up existing operations, she adds.
"What we hope is that these 10 pilot projects will be the inspiration for 10, 20, 50 more," Grouwels says. "At the end of the day, what we want to leave behind are not 10 projects but a new reservoir of knowledge and know-how that will be a catalyst for more development."
Policy reforms needed
Helping forest communities help themselves is only part of the solution, according to Grouwels.
Governments need to make a more explicit link between anti-poverty efforts, forest resource management and economic development programmes, she says.
This is why FAO's CBED project also brings national and local officials into the process early on, to educate them and provide them with the awareness and knowledge needed to continue providing communities with the necessary support.
And after pilot projects have been established, FAO meets with policy-makers and planners to talk about larger structural and legal bottlenecks that inhibit small-scale forest enterprise development, with an eye to effecting reforms.
EU gets into business in African rainforest
A new Community-based Tree and Forest Enterprise Development scheme recently started up in the Congo River basin, benefiting from €3 million worth of funding from the European Union.
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