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Investment in small-scale farmers ‘could have big payoff’ in the fight against climate change, poverty

  • New research released at the World Forestry Congress finds small-scale farmers and producers of forest products can help rural economies grow, as well as help defend against global problems such as deforestation and climate change.
  • Smallholder agriculture and agroforestry practices tend to keep more carbon sequestered, provide better habitat for wildlife, and produce a wider range of resources and commodities than do big plantations.
  • The authors recommend increased investment in the world’s 1.3 billion smallholders.

When small-scale farmers and producers of forest products band together, they can help rural economies grow, and they constitute a critical but often unrecognized line of defense against global problems such as deforestation and climate change, according to new research.

With dozens of case studies from around the world, a pair of reports released Monday at the World Forestry Congress in Durban, South Africa, seeks to show that the world’s 1.3 billion small-scale agriculturalists and foresters, including indigenous groups and local communities, are economically and ecologically influential. The reports recommend investment in them as part of the solution to rural poverty, loss of forest, and rising carbon levels in our atmosphere.

“As we’re looking for investments for the future” – the title of this year’s World Forestry Congress is Investing in a Sustainable Future – “it’s an opportunity to say, ‘Let’s direct the investments finally to those who have the biggest stake in making sure that we achieve our objectives,’” said Jeffrey Campbell, a contributor to one of the reports and manager of the Forest Farm Facility (FFF) at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). FFF teamed up with several other international organizations to produce and publish the research.

Campbell said that having the forestry conference in Africa (for the first time in the event’s 90-year history), combined with the imminent release of the UN sustainable development goals and the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris, makes this a critical time to highlight the importance of an often-overlooked segment of society.

An agroforestry plot of beetlenut palms in Indonesia. Instead of outright clearing to make room for cropland, farmers who engage in agroforestry grow crops within forests, preserving biodiversity and diversifying yields in the process. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Private investment is increasingly seen as a development solution for countries beset with poverty. As a result, focus has been on investment in large-scale, plantation agriculture, sidelining the massive small-scale private sector, Campbell said. But smallholder agriculture and forestry compare favorably with big plantations in terms of the environmental and economic benefits they provide, he added.

“It’s a big wakeup call from my perspective,” he said in an interview with

Traditionally, the case for large-scale agriculture, which typically centers on the production of a single crop and can come at the expense of standing forests and land that once supported many small-scale farmers, has been built on the idea that it’s more efficient.

But efficient at what? The drive behind large-scale agriculture is mostly for higher profits, usually for just a handful of people, Campbell said. Small-scale agroforestry, on the other hand, tends to be more equitable – that is, profits find their way into the pockets of more people.

“I would argue that [profit] distribution in the context of sustainable development goals is a key part of efficiency that’s been totally ignored,” he added. “And if we look at the degree to which smaller scale enterprises distribute income, profits, benefits, and livelihood, we can probably argue they’re much more efficient.”

The research suggests that local populations’ vested interest in protecting the forest that provides their livelihoods is one reason they’re better stewards, Campbell said. “They have a much more localized stake in the ongoing sustainability.”

Also, most small agroforestry produces a suite of products, not just one, Campbell said. As a result, local economies that rely on the harvest of such products as timber, honey and fruit, and charcoal are more robust and less subject to swings in market demand and disrupting forces like drought than those that have doubled down on a single crop or commodity.

“A diversified rural economy makes a lot of sense,” Campbell said.

Another positive is that these products can be collected without destroying the forest. Hence, the small-scale approach often outdistances large-scale plantations in its environmental benefits. Biodiversity stands a better chance, and more trees left standing mean more carbon-siphoning photosynthesis, thus holding the line in the battle against climate change.

But this global group of “forest and farm producers” still needs help, even though they collectively add up to a seventh of the world’s population.

“Smallholders have to struggle to be recognized,” said Geoffrey Wanyama, director of the Farm Forestry Smallholder Producers Association of Kenya. FF-SPAK, as the organization is known, is designed to build the capacity of some 10,000 smallholders in six regions in Kenya and “give them a voice” in policy decisions.

“It gives them strength in numbers,” Wanyama said. “It also gives them some kind of platform where they can engage in issues around farm forestry.”

FF-SPAK members hold a field meeting in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Forestry Farm Facility.
FF-SPAK members hold a field meeting in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Forestry Farm Facility.

FF-SPAK, with support from international organizations, helps forest farmers develop business plans, a skill that requires training and enables the farmers to turn their work into a meaningful profit.

“They have many ideas, but maybe those ideas are not bankable,” Wanyama said. “They don’t often have the skills to make good business plans.”

The Forest Farm Facility similarly provides a year-long market analysis training program, with similar goals of helping small-scale entrepreneurs understand market demand and start viable businesses. Currently, the organization works in 10 countries, but Campbell said that 40 others are eager to join forces with FFF.

Financing for forest farmers is also a concern, so groups like FF-SPAK work to ensure loans are available, Wanyama said. In Kenya, beekeepers and tree farmers don’t have the same access to funding from banks that may be available to small-scale corn or tea farmers.

The organization also holds technical trainings, for example, on how to start and maintain a tree nursery. That’s particularly important to help meet the demand for firewood in Kenya, Wanyama pointed out, where some 80 percent of the population depends on it for cooking.

Kenya is setting an example in this area, Campbell said. “The push from government to help farmers plant trees has helped transform the landscape in a way,” he added.

Worldwide, 2.5 billion people use fuel wood to cook their food. By helping them to plant trees and earn a living, governments can transform a group that could be causing deforestation and instead help them become a solution to the problem, according to Campbell.

“If you’re going to meet targets for restoring tree cover, you’ve got to involve smallholders,” he said.

And that’s the idea behind this latest push to empower in these forest and farm organizations.

“This is where investment could have big payoff, and there’s an opportunity to look at smallholder producers and appreciate the scale at which they operate,” Campbell said. “Locally controlled forest businesses, [as well as] forest and producer organizations, are an absolutely important part of the solution.”

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