Small scale Bolivian farmers take up community reforestation

A unique community based forestry project in Bolivia aims to give farmers long-term financial incentives to keep trees standing

Arbolivia is a community-based forestry project working with a small group of farmers to stop land conversion and ‘slash and burn' agricultural practices that have helped see the destruction of Bolivia's forests rise at an alarming rate.

The project, created in 2007 out of a Food and Agricultural Organisation pilot reforestation programme, is run jointly by Dutch investment company Sicirec and Bolivian sustainable agroforestry NGO Cetefor.

During the 1990s, Bolivia's deforestation rate more than doubled and around 270,000 hectares per year of forest cover are destroyed every year.

More than 1,000 smallholder farmers have signed up to participate in Arbolivia's scheme, agreeing to plant at least one hectare of their land with hardwood trees in exchange for 50 per cent of timber revenues accrued at the end of the trees' 20 - 35 year maturity cycle.

John Fleetwood, co-founder of the Cochabamba Project Ltd, a UK industrial and providence society (IPS) which raises funds for Arbolivia says, ‘Normally, with a plantation based project, all the profits would go out to the investor, who would just pay the farmers something for maintenance. That's what's truly different about this project'.

Fleetwood insists that farmers selling timber on the international market could generate US$100,000 per hectare. ‘Obviously, for a Bolivian farmer earning $ 2,300 per year, the prospect of having $50,000 is...quite attractive.'

Tackling the root cause

Granted resettlement rights by the Bolivian government in the country's lowland tropical forest, Andean subsistence farmers were left with no choice but to gradually slash and burn through their properties to make room for crops; continuing the cycle when the land would no longer yield a sufficient harvest.

Arbolivia's tree planting project is complemented by sustainable agricultural management training to enable farmers to secure a livelihood without compromising their environment. Trained technicians are employed to advise farmers on intercropping and appropriate plant and tree species to prevent flooding and help improve the quality of the soil composition.

Fleetwood claims that other reforestation programmes fail by not providing farmers with the knowledge and means of moving away from "slash and burn" practices.

‘If you don't address the root cause then there's going to be some more trees chopped down somewhere else if the farmers don't have enough income,' he says.

Future benefits

Farmers are paid $90 in annual maintenance fees for the first three years, while seeds and saplings of 14 different tree species are provided from Arbolivia's own nurseries. Smallholders are left to decide between the planting of slow, medium, and fast growing species, on the advice of forestry technicians. The first thinning of these trees is due for 2015.

Fast-growing trees can generate profits early on, but at a lower rate due to the inferior quality of the hardwood, whereas a higher yield is expected from the planting of slow-growing trees, such as the native almendrillo or foreign teak.

The downside for stakeholders is the waiting time of up to 30 years before they enjoy a return on their investment. This is the reason farmers have come to treat this project as a comfortable pension or an inheritance for their children.

‘What they want to do is give their children choice. They enjoy farming, but the message we got is that they want their children to be able to get further education in La Paz or wherever,' explains Fleetwood.

To date 1,521 hectares have been planted with an assortment of fourteen hardwood tree varieties. Another 300 hectares (or 20 per cent) of trees farmers are contractually obligated to conserve.

Cultivating a variety of organically grown species, interspersed with the farmers' own rice or corn crops, the plantations are nothing like what Fleetwood refers to as the ‘green deserts,' of other monoculture forestry plantations.

Climate change and carbon offsets

The Arbolivia project has Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) accreditation, which means that 20 per cent of the funding comes from carbon credits currently sold to the Belgian government, with 40 per cent input from investors and another 40 per cent input ‘in kind' from farmers (value of land and labour).

Pressed on whether carbon offset schemes could act as a loophole for industrial countries to avoid more austere caps on emissions, Fleetwood argues that the controversy behind the ‘business as usual' ineffectiveness of carbon offsets rests on the individual investor's perspective and should not negate the fact that this particular project is ‘a good thing.'

‘The investment will plant 4,000 native trees, which does have an impact in an area which is under intense pressure of further deforestation,' he says.

Despite the project's expected potential for carbon absorption, carbon credits have merely been used to help finance Arbolivia's large overhead (it has 40 employees), while the programme remains focused on improving farmer's livelihoods and preventing further deforestation.

Theodora Tsentas is a freelance journalist

Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Community Affairs Editor


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