A Social Forestry Programme

by Nick Brown. 

In an earlier issue of Footsteps (No 5, December 1990) Dr Julian Evans introduced the idea of community involvement in forestry. Most agencies and governments involved in forestry in poorer countries now recognise that forestry programmes can only really be successful in the long term if they involve the community. They must take into account the needs and hopes of the local people who depend for their survival on the land around them. If the local community is ignored, they will never feel the forest is ‘theirs’. Any attempts to replant forests or to manage them in the long term are likely to fail in the end.

It is easy to say that the needs and feelings of the local people must be considered. However, it is not always easy to understand these needs and to identify the neediest people. It often happens that while some people in a community think one thing - others may disagree. A course of action that may benefit one farmer may be a disaster for another. Sometimes it is impossible to design a project where the benefits are shared out equally. To illustrate these problems, I would like to look at a social forestry programme in Ratnapura, Sri Lanka.

The first attempt

Deforestation (removal of forests) is a serious problem in Sri Lanka, particularly in the hilly areas where heavy rains can erode precious topsoil at frightening speed once the forest is cut down. Deforestation has been caused mainly by villagers cutting and burning government-owned forest to make way for annual crops such as cowpea and red onions, or tea and cinnamon in the wetter areas. The first attempts to reforest areas in Ratnapura district did not consider the views or needs of the villagers - they were simply barred from the land. Forests were replanted by the Government Forest Department. The result was that many plantations failed after a few years due to villagers burning the trees and replanting food crops.

The second attempt

After a while, a ‘village reforestation’ programme was started, funded by the Dutch Government. Before planting, a series of village meetings was held. The problems of soil erosion and water shortages were discussed with the villagers. The villagers’ views and concerns were listened to. Finally, a scheme was agreed together. The villagers were paid to grow trees and plant them on behalf of the Forest Programme. This was more successful than earlier schemes, but still suffered from some fire damage and lack of interest from the villagers in maintaining the trees after planting.

It became apparent that there were a number of reasons for this. Although the new forests were planted by local people, they were still not allowed to collect firewood, food or other products from the forest. They still did not feel the forest was theirs. 

The third attempt

How could this difficulty be overcome? It was agreed that some land would be leased to farmers to plant crops between the trees (agroforestry). Soil erosion would be reduced as the farmers would build terraces for the crops. In theory this was a good system. However, in practice it was almost impossible to ensure that the leases were distributed fairly. When a village meeting was called, the people who spoke up were the more powerful men in the village - they usually owned good land and, perhaps, a shop. The poor farmers, who had recently migrated to the village and who owned no land at all, often did not even attend the meetings. However, they were often responsible for most of the deforestation on steeply sloping land. The good land was already owned by older residents of the village.

Other ideas

Agroforestry could not be recommended on the steeper land (with slopes over 40%) because of the risk of soil erosion. This land should be replanted just as forest. Maybe this land could be leased to the village community as a whole so that the whole village could benefit? But the sense of community in villages is not strong enough for this to work. Everyone would take too much timber for themselves and the forest would quickly be destroyed.

Another idea was to lease small parts of this forest land to farmers as well, but there were similar problems in selecting farmers fairly.

Another concern was that women had very little part in the village discussions. They rarely spoke and never came forward to apply for leases, although it is common for Sri Lankan women to run their own enterprises. This meant, for example, that the species of trees chosen by villagers tended to be trees that were good for building - the traditional job of men - and not those which provided fruit or plentiful firewood - the traditional work of women. Work that received payment, such as tree nursery care, was mostly given to men.

It was agreed that 50% of the tree nursery work should be given to women. Also, because there was a great need for training in tree nursery and planting techniques, two villagers from every village joining the scheme would receive training. One of these would always be a woman.

The programme today

The social forestry programme has now been running for seven years. It has had a good success rate in replanting steep forest slopes. However, much re-thinking of methods has been necessary, as well as much time in listening to the village people. In the end, success can only be measured in the long term - will forests still remain in future years?

The most important issue for anyone involved in forestry programmes in other countries is to understand that each society, culture and village is different. No one technique will work everywhere, and it involves much time and difficult work in deciding which is the most appropriate method. In the end, we are most likely to be successful if we think of deforestation as a social problem not a physical one. Hence the name: ‘social forestry’!

Nick Brown is a forester who spent two years as a VSO, working on the social forestry programme at Ratnapura, Sri Lanka.