Small is not just beautiful


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Big companies are not the only ones that can make money from forests. Small farmers and communities can also earn cash. If given a chance they can compete successfully in a number of markets. That sometimes leads them to destroy forests, but sometimes it has the opposite effect. Government policies often discourage small-scale commercial forestry production, when they should promote it. Private companies, NGOs, and grassroots organizations can provide new markets and crucial support services. So says “A New Agenda for Forest Conservation and Poverty Reduction, Making Markets Work for Low-Income Producers” by Sara Scherr, Andy White and David Kaimowitz, recently published by Forest Trends, CIFOR, and IUCN.

Small-scale producers have advantages:

* They control at least one quarter of forests in developing countries.

* Many have farms near rapidly growing urban markets or pulp mills.

* Their diversified production systems help protect them from price changes and other risks.

* They can use under-utilized labor and land for forestry activities.

* Countries with few forests have to rely largely on trees grown on small farms.

* "Fair trade" markets provide higher prices for things small farmers and communities produce.

So why don’t small-scale producers sell more forestry products?

Actually, they sell more than people realize. But much of it is never recoded. Governments keep very poor statistics of the fuelwood, charcoal, poles, medicinal plants, bushmeat, furniture, handicrafts, and timber for local houses that low income producers sell. Besides, a large portion of small-scale commercial forestry is technically illegal.

The other problem is that many governments simply don’t give small producers a chance. They only give concessions to big companies. Poor farmers cannot comply with their bureaucratic rules and lack connections and money for bribes to get around them. Very few government – or even NGO – programs give small producers the business services they need to compete. For markets to show their true potential we will have to find ways to level the playing field.

Forestry markets are not for everyone. Many families are simply too poor or isolated to make a go of it. For them forests are mostly “safety nets” to keep things from getting even worse. As the book explains, there are certain markets where small producers are never likely to be able to compete because they require too much money or large distribution networks to break in. Still, for many other producers, small is not just beautiful. It is also good business.


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Further reading

To have a free electronic copy of this book you can download from Forest Trends’s website at: while to request a hard copy of this book you can write Anne Thiel at:

To send comments or queries to the authors you can write Sara Scherr at:

The full reference for the document is: S. Scherr, A. White, and D. Kaimowitz. 2004. “A New Agenda for Forest Conservation and Poverty Reduction, Making Markets Work for Low-Income Producers”, Washington D.C.: Forest Trends, CIFOR, and IUCN.

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