Cutting trees, not traditions

Farmers meeting to discuss forest certification (Photo: Merryn Lagaida)

Much as their parents did, villagers in Kebumen base their farming practices on subsistence cropping and financial need. Upon becoming engaged in forest certification, however, they learn that their practices must change if they want their timber products certified as ‘sustainable’. They are promised that doing so is not only good for the environment, but ultimately also for their hip pockets.

Farmer groups in the Kebumen district achieved forest certification in 2009. This was an important occasion, prompting celebrations within the local community and attracting international media attention. The farmers involved were very proud to achieve international market recognition for their sustainable forest management, and excited at the prospect of learning about and developing sustainable initiatives.

But three years on, their future as sustainable farmers looks less than promising. Proving difficult to develop and even to sustain, the tough standards of forest certification have challenged traditional harvesting practices and failed to account for local farmers’ basic needs.

Forest certification in the community

When most of us think of a forest, we think of a landscape covered by trees. Traditionally, these landscapes have been successful breeding grounds for forest certification schemes, particularly in Europe and North America. But forest certification is now expanding into developing countries, which means that the communities targeted often harvest timber in landscapes that are likely to be more diverse than the forest of our imagination. Indeed, many local communities in Central Java that are considered suitable targets for forest certification are not ‘forest-dependent’. In most, farmers harvest agricultural crops such as rice and tapioca and small amounts of timber, providing them with economic stability and encouraging ecological diversity.

Where they’ve been introduced, the focus of forest certification schemes on timber products has displaced this subsistence cropping and interrupted labour cycles. Needless to say, the focus on trees ignores the reality that non-timber products are cheaper to produce, immediately beneficial, require less sophisticated management and provide more accessible markets.

It is no wonder, then, that economic benefits are rarely mentioned when farmers in the Kebumen district discuss their experiences of forest certification. As of 2012, most farmers in the district were yet to sell any timber. But, after all, mahogany trees take twenty to thirty years to mature.

Local livelihoods

Traditionally, local farmers met their needs through subsistence farming for food and a harvesting behaviour known locally as tebang butuh (fell as needed), in which trees acted as a kind of savings account for larger expenses like school fees and cultivation costs. One of the biggest problems with the demands of the forest certification system has been that it has effectively turned these savings accounts into 30-year term deposits that only pay real dividends if they are left unharvested.

But financial demands arise unexpectedly, forcing farmers to harvest their trees before they are big enough to comply with forest certification standards. One farmer, Saputro, believes that the harvest cut in his area will always be small because most farmers need to pay school fees and spend time harvesting rice to feed their families. A farmer from a different area, Sismadi, still hasn’t sold any certified timber because of the his ongoing struggle to meet familial expenses.

When these financial demands arise, both famers insist that it is better to harvest young trees than their agricultural crops, as they receive a much larger sum for timber. In these cases, however, the timber is considered to have been unsustainably produced and thus ineligible for certification. Farmers are then forced to sell their logs to local traders at a much lower price.

Limited options

NGOs who have been working with local communities in Central Java believe that the deeply held tebang butuh culture is a short-sighted approach that stops farmers from getting the best returns from their land. These NGOs, which partner with potential buyers in Europe and North America, urge local communities to meet the requirements of forest certification so that they can compete in the international market.

But what choice do local farmers actually have? In some districts, NGOs make small loans available so that farmers can meet their obligations without harvesting young trees. This is only possible, however, if the NGO commits to funding the forest certification project long-term. In Wonogiri, for example, an NGO-established micro-finance program means that households can invest in income-generating activities and so meet their livelihood expenses while still fulfilling orders from international buyers. With support from the local government, international organisations and significant investments from the NGO, these farmers have achieved financial stability and have thrived in the community forest certification market.

However, this is not the case in the Kebumen district, where all the revenue that famer groups receive for their timber products is spent on keeping the forest certification process operating. Once they have paid for training programs, surveillance and annual audits, there are no funds left to run a loan and savings program. For these farmer groups, forest certification is simply not financially compatible with the realities of livelihood.

Prescribing a solution

For business interests, forest certification is a no brainer. Players in the timber industry can use forest certification to enhance their reputation and source new profits. It’s perfect – business methods can be used to address environmental problems for business gains.

But the benefits are not as obvious in most community forestry systems. Kebumen is not the only district where farmers are struggling to make ends meet in a system that seems to be more interested in providing community-produced timber for business than in helping farmers find a way to make an environmentally sustainable living. There have been similar reports from the Gunung Kidul district and others in East Java, West Papua and Sulawesi.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that forest certification disempowers local farmers through the application of protocols that fail to recognise and accommodate traditional practices and needs. As a result of the strictness of its standards, forest certification has failed to produce a community forest model that can be used to meet the diverse needs of farmer groups. Rather than playing to local strengths and abilities, forest certification creates new demands and, ultimately, new problems.

Forest certification cannot, therefore, be seen purely as a means through which timber industries can improve their environmental performance. It must also be viewed in relation to those that work within its schemes. Forest certification should not be pursued merely because trees can be certified. For farmers like Saputro and Sismadi, who need to pay school fees and harvest rice for their families, environmental sustainability should only be one part of the solution. The other part can be found much closer to home, in consultation with the farmers themselves.

Merryn Lagaida ( recently completed Honours in Asian Studies at the University of Sydney.

Source: Merryn Lagaida / Inside Indonesia

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