Organisers of the world’s biggest conference on forestry have been criticised for failing to include community groups from African countries – seen as key to halting and reversing deforestation.
Over 2,000 delegates converge in Durban, South Africa, this week for the fourteenth World Forestry Congress, the first to be held on the African continent.
However, while forestry companies, government departments, international NGOs and universities are well represented, only a handful of community forestry organisations will be attending.
Andy Egan, chief executive of the International Tree Foundation (ITF), said: “Given that the congress happens only once every six years and this is the first time it’s been held in Africa, it seems like a missed opportunity not to have involved the community organisations at the forefront of the fight against deforestation.
“There is increasing recognition of the important role that smallholder farmers make in promoting reforestation and agroforestry – yet their voices are not going to be heard at the congress because very few of them will be there.”
Literature promoting the congress, sponsored by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, stresses the importance of empowering local communities.
The introduction to a pre-conference seminar on community-based forestry states: “The congress will show that investment in forestry is an investment in people … people are at the centre of sustainable development.”
However Mr Egan said he could not find many grassroots community forestry groups on the attendance list.
ITF, whose founder helped instigate the first World Forestry Congress in 1926, works with 70 community forestry groups in 12 African countries. But Mr Egan said only two would be attending the conference, one of whom is being sponsored by International Tree Foundation.
“This is not surprising because typically the cost of flights, registration fees and hotel accomodation in Durban come to £1,200 – which is well beyond the resources of these organisations – and there are no bursaries available to help cover these costs,” he said.
“This seems like a serious oversight because community-based organisations play a critical role in terms of dealing with the impacts of deforestation and doing something about it.”
Arthur Kambombe, programme director for Temwa, an ITF partner in Malawi, said he had hoped to attend congress but could not afford to – and he knew of no other community forestry groups who could.
“I would have loved to come and share our experiences with other colleagues from around the world and learn how other people are tackling the issues that we are grappling with,” he said.
Mr Kambombe added: “If you look at the composition of those who are there, you might think it is an elitist kind of gathering with people looking at papers and research and celebrating what they have done.
“Of course it is important to have big organisations and governments, but at the end of the day the major issues are in developing countries.
“It’s not just money they are looking for – we also need to be heard. We could share the podium with these researchers because we are also researchers in our own right – and the experiences we have every day mean we have something to contribute.”
Paulino Mugendi, chairperson of Mount Kenya Environmental Conservation, also an ITF partner, said he would also like to have attended the congress but knew of no community-based groups who could afford to.
“The main implementers of reforestation are being left out – the ones who do the actual work in terms of reforesting all these deforested areas and replanting,” he said.
“Then if you look how the congress is composed, it is those who do capacity-building but not the actual implementers of the activities on the ground.
“We are working with communities inside the villages, we know why in most cases deforestation occurs and the problems we have with people cutting down trees and we have lots of ideas about how we can stop it.”
A paper entitled Community-led Forestry for Environmental and Human Well-being 1, by International Tree Foundation, Mount Kenya Environment Conservation, Temwa and Malian partner Sahel Eco, has been accepted by the conference. Mr Egan said ITF had planned to use the congress for the formal launch a new pan-African association for community groups, the African Community Forestry Network. This would not be possible because only one of the 30 groups who had expressed an interest could attend.
The congress comes at a time of increasing recognition of the importance of involving forest people and indigenous groups in strategies to reverse global deforestation. This is accepted in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, due to be signed by world governments in New York later this month. Carbon emissions from deforestation will also be an important part of the agenda at the UN conference on Climate Change in Paris in December.