Ask the Conservationist

Can Planting Trees Help Alleviate Poverty?

A reader from Sri Lanka is involved in a community effort to plant trees in order to improve livelihoods and generate income through carbon credits. But what are the mechanics of such an effort? And the benefits? We asked two Conservancy experts to weigh in.

Prasad Ranjan Attygalle, of Maharagama, Sri Lanka, writes:

I am involved in a community project that aims to improve livelihoods in poverty stricken pockets of rural Sri Lanka. We intend to take up tree planting at the household level as a possible long-term income source through carbon credits.

The issue lies in assessment techniques and verifying the growth parameters at the household level. Will you be able to throw some light on this? We intend to grow fruit and timber species in these homesteads, perhaps with vertical strata.

Craig Leisher, senior social science advisor with the Conservancy, replies:

Hello Prasad Attygalle, nice to see we have a reader in Sri Lanka!

You are on the right track. Community-managed initiatives that benefit both people and nature are one of the most promising areas for conservation in the 21st century.

It makes a lot of sense. Local people have the greatest stake in ensuring the sustainable management of local resources because they are the ones who generally depend most on these resources. Empowering communities to be good stewards of their local area is one of the most sustainable and cost-effective ways to ensure that nature continues to provide the resources on which local livelihoods depend.

One of the best ways to increase the benefits nature provides is to increase the volume of the goods that people value such as more trees, more firewood or more water. Restoring the natural health of an area can often increase the biomass generated. The challenge is to make the gains ecologically, economically and socially sustainable.

For tree planting such as you are doing, the ecological sustainability is straight forward: plant species that are known to do well in the area. The economic sustainability in the case of carbon credits as you propose requires a sustainable source of payment to protect the reforested areas. This could come from the carbon credit payments in principle. (My colleague, Jack Hurd, discusses the question of carbon credits more below.)

It's the social sustainability, however, that causes most community-based tree planting initiatives to fail. If the community does not see tangible benefits from the initiative, it is unlikely to stand the test of time. Long-term rights to the resources, a conflict resolution mechanism and strong local leadership are known to be important for social sustainability.

Finally, monitoring the initiative's social and ecological impacts are critical. Start with a baseline socioeconomic assessment where you measure wealth, education and health in the local communities and in similar “control” communities that lack the tree planting initiative. Then do an ecological baseline such as standing timber volume. Being able to show measurable benefits is important to the continued support of the community and donors. Finally, don’t reinvent the wheel. Learn as much as you can from other tree plantations that have carbon credits.

And Jack Hurd, director of the Conservancy’s Asia-Pacific Forest Program, adds:

The development of community woodlot programs can be an important component of livelihood improvement. This is particularly true when monocrops are eschewed in favor of a variety of different tree species. Depending on the species cultivated, woodlots can provide wood for fuel, fruits and construction material. If such programs are pursued across a wide area—say, through a systematic approach involving multiple communities—they can have additional benefits such as creating habitat and bringing about subtle changes in the micro-climate.

Using community woodlots to generate carbon credits, which can then be sold on the market, has potential. However, the situation is complicated, and it will be important to get very good local advice.

For example, if you’re looking to generate credits for the voluntary market, it would be necessary to comply with the guidelines of the Climate Community and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA) and/or Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) and have such compliance verified before the credits could be marketed globally. And if you’re looking to position the project as part of an emerging nationally approved compliance program, there could be other requirements you’d need to address (although the exact nature of these requirements remains unclear as the global "rules of the game” are still being settled by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC).

If the woodlot project is really an anti-poverty program, then an important design component would be to accurately determine how it would offset existing costs the community members incur in their subsistence living. For example, if fuelwood collection is consuming vast amounts of time and energy on a daily basis, then the program might want to be geared specifically toward removing that need by cultivating trees that would be able to offset the gathering activity. Or, if the community has access to local markets, then fruit trees could make for the best approach. I would suggest that meeting the fundamental subsistence needs should be a woodlot program’s primary goal, with the secondary being providing cash income through existing market opportunities.

Generating income from a speculative carbon market may be possible and even necessary for a program like this, but the design process will be complex and it will almost certainly not be sufficient to address the persistent poverty in the local community. As such, I would seek good advice on similar, local projects as well as sound technical assistance that can help community members understand what they are getting into in advance.

Originally posted in July 2011.


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