Forest and Farm Facility

The giving trees: Celebrating the reciprocal relationship between forests and local communities

Preserving tree species is a natural way of life for rural and indigenous communities living in symbiosis and reciprocity with forests, and therefore contributing to the long-term health of our planet. These communities over the world take care of the forest while forests offer a vast abundance of products that benefit human health and wellbeing.

Landscape of Chiuri plantation site ©IUCN/AmitPudyal

In the remote mountain village of Makwanpur in Nepal, the Chepang, an indigenous tribe relies on the Chiuri tree for their livelihood and cultural practices. From the bark, leaf, and fruit of the tree (Diploknema butyracea or the 'Indian Butter Tree'), they extract oil and butter, which are used as shampoo, soap, lip balm, and more. They even use it as an anti-inflammatory medicine for rheumatism and inflammation. 

The Chepang are not alone in receiving many benefits from their forests. Around the world, forests contain a cornucopia of medicinal plants used for centuries by indigenous and rural communities. These communities depend on the forests for their livelihood, rituals, and health. At the same time, the forests rely on these communities for their safeguard and sustainable management.

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition and celebration of these reciprocal relationships between local communities and forests. To this end, since 2012 the Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) has supported Indigenous Peoples and women’s groups, smallholders and grassroots organizations around the world strengthened their organizational capacity and engaged in sustainable forest management and agroecology practices to diversify their products, improve their livelihoods and the health of their forests.

The gifts of the forest

The close relationship between the local communities and the forest, often across centuries, has led to the development of unique forms of traditional ecological knowledge unrivalled in scope and depth. Preserving tree species is natural for the way of life of the Chepang communities and many other indigenous groups all over the world.

The Chiuri tree, or Indian Butter Tree, is central to Chepang livelihoods and culture. ©IUCN/AmitPudyal
Chepang communities in Makwanpur and Chitwan districts of Nepal. ©IUCN/AmitPudyal

In the Gaindakot region of Nepal, practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine use Triphala to treat various stomach issues. Triphala consists of a mixture of native plants - Harro (Terminalia chebula), Barro (Terminalia bellirica) and Amala (Emblica officinalis)- found in the local forests that, when combined, offer powerful medicinal qualities.

Meanwhile, in Bolivia, native honey production through indigenous apiculture systems has been an essential bulwark against COVID-19.

"Through the pandemic period, honey was very useful for children against coughs, for older people and us as youth and adults," recounts Atonia Chores, Secretary of the Association of Honey Producers of Lomerío in Bolivia (APMIL). Medicinal honey is also used by indigenous women for wound healing for scars from surgery of women who give birth, and pollen as an energizer.

The association works with native bees that are endemic to the region. This means that there is already a wealth of knowledge of the benefits of the honey produced and ensures that the local biomes are respected and not taken advantage of.

Valuing indigenous wisdom

The forest is only capable of providing these benefits when carefully looked after. Here indigenous knowledge remains significant, and transmitting from generation to generation, documenting and sharing knowledge is the key to sustainable practices.

One of the core areas of work for APMIL has been sharing knowledge through exchange visits and trainings with local women about the importance of bees and the honey they produce.

"It's healing; it's ecological, and it's more natural. It benefits us greatly," shared Rosa Soriocó, one of APMIL's honeybee producers.

Sharing this knowledge has helped protect native bees, a crucial part of forest ecosystems, from emerging threats like fire and climate change.

Women Honey Producers of Lomerío in Bolivia from APMIL Association. ©FAO/BorisFernandez
A variety of honey products for medicinal use from youth to elders. ©FAO/BorisFernandez

In neighbouring Panama, the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB) is a space where Indigenous governments and community forest organizations can meet to coordinate and exchange knowledge at regional level.

As part of one initiative, the Coordinator of Women Territorial Leaders of Mesoamerica (CMLT), a subsection of AMPB dedicated to women's knowledge and experiences, wrote three books documenting and disseminating ancestral knowledge about medicinal plants in the region. The books assembled by Mayangna Indigenous Women in Nicaragua, with Territorial Women Leaders of Mesoamerica and healers contains recipes and information on the unique medicinal properties of hundreds of plants and how to manage, cultivate and prepare them sustainably.

Working together

Collective action underpins the successful application of ancestral knowledge and the sustainable management of forests. Working together, communities can achieve greater impact at scale and address larger issues that affect their forests and livelihoods.

While to many, Star Anise is simply a spice used in cuisine, in Viet Nam, the Thach Ngoa forest and farm collective group uses its leaves and fruits for distillation of essential oil which can cure colds, chronic swelling and back pain. Another herb, Khoi Nhung (Ardisia silvestris), is also used by the Tay ethnic minority group in Viet Nam to treat stomach pain and ulcers and heal wounds.

Star Anise producers of the Thach Ngoa Forest and Farm collective group, in My Phuong commune, Ba Be district, Bac Kan province. ©FAO/ThangPham
The essential oil of Star Anise is distilled to cure colds, chronic swelling and back pain. ©FAO/ThangPham

The production and sale of these medicinal plants on the local market are important livelihood sources for local producers. By organizing together in cooperative groups, the producers have improved their productivity, developed local value chains, earned organic certifications, accessed wider markets and increased their voice in policy and advocacy processes.

As a result, the income of the Thach Ngoa forest and farm collective group has increased by 10-20 percent, and producers have a deeper appreciation of the benefits of collective action, forest certification processes and sustainable forest management.

The wealth of the forest

Forests offer us a vast array of products, each critical to human health and well-being. In return, they ask only that we engage in sustainable practices. In doing so, we make essential contributions towards global biodiversity and climate goals while ensuring the health and well-being of the communities that rely on them.

Traditional knowledge ensures the sustainable use of forest resources and helps maintain the intrinsic connection between people and nature. Celebrating and supporting these reciprocal relationships is key to protect forests and the local communities that call them home.

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