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Local knowledge mixed with scientific enquiry lets indigenous community enterprises profit from forests, reports Joel Winston.
Spanning over 650 million hectares globally and boasting plentiful resources, community-run forests provide important income for 400 million indigenous people who generate up to US$100 billion annually, according to a recent report by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). 
They provide a variety of opportunities and products, from fruits to herbal medicines, but to make the most of what they have to offer some communities are now combining their traditional practices with new technologies.
So how can Community Forest Enterprises (CFEs) best mix modern scientific practices and indigenous knowledge so they thrive as sustainable alternatives to private and government-owned logging companies?
Indigenous brain drain
The Keystone Foundation works with indigenous communities in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, India. The Foundation started by supporting honey gatherers, but soon expanded to other forest products including coffee, spices and grains.
T Balachander, Keystone’s programme coordinator, says one problem is that indigenous people are leaving the forests, both to find urban employment and because of government forest control — amenities, salaries and development opportunities are better for those who move out of the forests.
“Indigenous knowledge is lost because people’s connections with forests have been systematically reduced,” explains Balachander. “So not everyone necessarily knows all the sustainable harvest practices. We realised we needed to work on reviving knowledge.”
“The idea is to ask ‘what is the technology that can work there?’, and then develop it appropriately, using relevant ideas and locally-available materials.”
T Balachander, Keystone Foundation
The first stage in reviving traditional knowledge, he suggests, is working with neighbouring communities to share teachings.
“But when we find that there’s a gap, then we try and plug in other world views and bring in scientific methods,” says Balachander.
For example, Keystone and their communities have scientifically analysed methods for extracting resins from trees, examining how different incisions and timings affect harvests.
And for honey harvesting, which involves hanging by rope ladders from cliffs surrounded by thousands of bees, communities tested methods that leave some colonies untouched, to ensure a sustainable supply.
Ensuring sustainability is a common theme for many CFEs, and the IIED report on investing in locally controlled forestry shows how community forests help slow deforestation, protect biodiversity, and could be an important tool for mitigating climate change.
Keystone’s efforts to integrate new knowledge into traditional practices may also make indigenous communities more resilient to climate change.
“People are finding that the old harvesting methods no longer work,” says Balachander. “Changes in rainfall affect plant flowering and the anticipated readiness of a honeycomb for harvest. So the things we assume as constant are now changing, and it becomes important to review and reflect.”
Beyond the harvest
Efforts to modernise community forest enterprises are also applying knowledge and technologies to the manufacturing, processing, and marketing processes.
The Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) Exchange Programme for South and Southeast Asia operates in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Working with indigenous communities that manufacture textiles, it uses the latest market research to add value to CFE resources, for example suggesting new products such as notebooks, bags and tablecloths that appeal widely on an international market.
The programme has also introduced new manufacturing technologies, including looms that provide easier, faster and finer weaving. And sometimes new manufacturing technologies have even revived traditional processes.
Dying and drying
“Years before, communities would produce natural dyes for their products, but they soon forgot how to do this once chemical dyes became more well-known,” says Ruth Canlas, an NTFP facilitator.
Canlas and her colleagues worked with the government’s Department of Science and Technology in the Philippines to develop a new formula for natural dyes, and reintroduced this to communities.
“Because it’s natural, it’s very easy for them to find the resources to manufacture it, for example, from guava leaves, or even the bark of trees.”
For Keystone’s communities in India, post-harvest drying urgently needed modernisation. Many perishable forest products, including fruits, are traditionally sun-dried in the open, often leading to contamination and lost quality and value. However, modern drying machines were clearly not suitable.
“Half of technology is the people that use it,” explains Balachander. “If you have a fancy machine that nobody knows how to operate, then it won’t be used. And if you bring in a machine that requires a three-phase electricity connection, flowing water, or needs to be carried by vehicle, then it won’t even get there in the first place.”
So Keystone needed a local solution. Working with the communities, they designed and built ‘solar rooms’ with roofs made from semi-transparent plastic greenhouse sheets sourced from a local town. Good air circulation meant the building was capable of drying up to twenty tonnes of gooseberries a year. That volume opened up opportunities for more products using preserved gooseberries, increasing the value of products between three- and eight-fold.
Balachander believes that introducing new technologies into indigenous communities needs care, and should respond to specific requirements, using a gradual process similar to software versioning.
“The idea is to ask ‘what is the technology that can work there?’, and then develop it appropriately, using relevant ideas and locally-available materials,” he explains. “And good technology isn’t a gadget with twenty different functions. It should just do one thing, and do it well.”
Sometimes, the old ways are the best. “You can’t just force something new onto [CEFs],” explains Canlas. “It’s about building trust and making clear that you know there’s also knowledge from their own practices. So you’ve got to find that first.”
Silverius Oscar Unggul is vice-president of Telapak, an Indonesian organisation helping community enterprises convert illegal loggers to more sustainable practices. In just eight years their community-logging programme has grown from seven participating families to 45,000.
Unggul says that modern sustainable forest management depends on scientific investigation to discover the best practices for reintroducing indigenous plants lost to illegal logging.
But for much of his work, especially when it comes to harvest planning, a purely scientific approach has its limits.
“It’s difficult because we’re not like the big logging corporations that have large clusters of land and easily plan their logging,” explains Unggul. “Because our communities are separate, having a hectare here, two hectares there, it makes it harder to come up with a formula for deciding where and when to harvest. This means members can become jealous of decisions to harvest another person’s land. So now we’re actually going back to using traditional wisdom.”
Telapak encourages communities to use a traditional negotiation approach — a group discussion called a ‘Musyawarah’. Through prolonged discussion with community elders, the communities try to make fair decisions on harvests, and attempt to resolve any conflicts.
But one area of modern science that is increasingly important for CFEs is data collection and analysis.
Balachander sees modern instruments revolutionising the way Keystone’s communities collect data, including on forest vegetation, bee hive locations, and the economic status of gatherers.
GPS is used to accurately measure locations, digital cameras record their characteristics, and testing kits monitor water and soil quality. The data help inform Keystone’s interventions, and community members who collect data are paid for taking part.
Computer modelling helps the organisation and communities explore different water resource scenarios to encourage better water management, Geographic Information Systems are used to map out community forest claims, and databases monitor community participation to assess the interventions. This computer work is carried out by consultants, volunteers and Keystone staff.
But this type of data collection and analysis doesn’t only fine tune CFEs — those representing them find data can be the only way to prove initiatives’ viability to external investors, government agencies and other stakeholders.
“We’ve been trying to get funding but it’s very difficult,” explains Balachander. “And when you’re trying to say to investors that CFEs are a success, that they’re improving forest cover, or that they’re improving biodiversity, then you need to be able to put up that evidence.”
A global community of communities
The global CFE community is also beginning to realise other benefits of data collection. Individually, CFEs are small and dispersed, but by grouping together and pooling their data, they could demonstrate to investors their impact as a global community. This may make it easier to attract larger investments and help investors balance their investment risks by working across several commodities in different climatic zones, says Balachander.
While CFEs face immense challenges when competing with increasing government and private control of forest resources, looking in depth at their operations reveals many unique strengths.
Mixing traditional and scientific practices allows them to maximise their productivity, while slotting into indigenous cultural settings. That model seems to show enormous potential in many more forest communities, and could perhaps result in a growing global CFE community that pools its resources, shares best practices, and fosters a sustainable yet globally-competitive industry.
But it won’t be an easy task. Even as CFEs hold out a promise for a sustainable future, forest communities continue to face expulsion from forest areas by governments. A recent report from the Rights and Resources Initiative, an organisation working to encourage forest land tenure reforms, found a significant drop in the amount of new forest land formally registered as under community ownership.