At school, you are taught to start an essay with something which will grab the reader’s attention. So here it is: forestry needs a new direction. To illustrate this, we have chosen a subject which is absolutely central to FPG’s mission – forestry for people (F4P).
Forestry for People has, for a very long time (nearly 20 years in fact), been a subject more talked about than practised. It was way back in 1994 that the ‘Forests and People in Rural Areas Initiative’ (FAPIRA) was established with a purpose to:
- ‘promote the social value of woodlands and ways of deriving the greatest social benefits from woods and forests in rural areas, particularly for local people’, and
- ‘build on the growing recognition that rural communities can derive a much wider and more valuable range of social benefits from forests and forestry than has generally been taken into account’.
FAPIRA published a discussion paper ‘Forestry and People in Rural Scotland’ which highlighted experience of other countries where ‘forestry …provides one whole dimension to the web of social networks based on agriculture, recreation, hunting and other local activities and institutions. These interlocking networks underpin social cohesion and help support diversity and flexibility in employment and income options. Forestry is not something done just by foresters. The community is engaged in targeting and securing benefits for themselves.’
What’s striking, reading these words after 20 years, is how valid the arguments still are, and how little has really changed, despite all the rhetoric around a wider set of social objectives. That is not to say that there hasn’t been some progress:
- the Scottish Forestry Strategy introduced basic provisions for social and community matters;
- Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) established the Forestry for People Advisory Panel in 2000 which generated advice on a broad range of topics aimed at furthering the involvement of people in forestry;
- incentives were developed to support social forestry (Woodland in and Around Towns and the Forestry for people Challenge Fund);
- health and education are increasingly prominent in forestry.
However, within ‘social forestry’ much FCS attention has been on models where facilities and services are provided for people, who are essentially “passive consumers” rather than being actively involved in managing woods themselves. In contrast, the community woodland movement sees people as active players in all aspects, as owners and decision makers, aware of – and responding to – a much wider range of their own local needs. Community woodlands have blossomed, and there are now around 200 groups. This is land reform, and reform of forestry, in action. And by demonstrating that this model works, the community woodland movement has attracted what seems to be, at least on the face of it, significant political support. Unfortunately however, community woodlands receive more support in the form of official rhetoric than money. Contrast, for example, the £9million over 4 years for the Scottish Land Fund for the entire community land sector with the £7.4million cost of a single FCS purchase to ‘save’ Rothiemurchus for the nation.
However, it is perhaps the ‘official political’ focus on community forestry that begins to hint at one of the issues: too often, forestry for people has been conflated with community forestry, when in fact F4P is much broader. Community forestry is only one approach for delivering the wider agenda of forestry for people. While we think community forestry deserves all the support it can get from whichever quarter, other aspects of F4P must not be overlooked.
Another issue is that the structures through which communities can take on ownership of assets such as State forests are tightly prescribed and controlled by the Scottish Government via its “agency tentacles”. Introducing more flexibility in how communities are defined would help many more local and regional groups to own, lease and manage State assets.
One key aspect of community forestry – and where it differs from ‘industrial’ forestry – is that aims and objectives of management are determined locally, which typically means that there is an increased focus on responding to local needs and markets. Another type of local woodland owner often motivated to deliver local benefits is the individual “citizen owner” of smaller areas of woodland, often rooted in their communities. FPG sees a role for more small scale forest owners, who as individual members of the community can in their own way deliver F4P.
How significant could this contribution be? It is hard to say, because we know very little about forest ownership. It’s an irony that through the sterling work of the National Forest Inventory, we know in great detail how much woodland of various types we have, and the condition it is in but we know very little about the people who own those same woods. Official UK statistics on ownership amount to a crude breakdown between ‘Forestry Commission’ and ‘non-Forestry Commission’ which is odd, because what ultimately determines the fate of those woodlands are the motivations, and hence choices, made by woodland owners. That is why FPG decided to highlight ownership as an issue, and published scoping research in 2012 that revealed, for example, that Scotland had just circa 4,000 woodland owners.
That’s virtually the lowest forest ownership per head of population of any other European country and a huge contrast with our European neighbours. The Scandinavian countries, with which we have become fond of comparing ourselves of late, have hundreds of thousands of woodland owners. And they have a tradition of family forestry that we can only dream of, which has real consequences for how forestry is managed, and for whom. Our tradition of “family forestry” is confined to the landed gentry passing on their estates; there is no such tradition amongst the hoi polloi, because ordinary people rarely get to own woods.
FPG sees many advantages in fostering family forestry, borrowing the best from both the Scottish family farm tradition and experience in Scandinavia and elsewhere. The development of a woodland culture is a core aspiration of FPG’s; we believe that the importance of woodlands to ordinary people goes beyond employment and recreation. We want to increase the scope for actively engaging people and fulfilling the potential for meaningful participation. However numerous barriers exist which prevent new small scale entrants to forestry.
We argue that forestry needs to be more inclusive and ‘democratic’ as a matter of principle, for reasons of equality and social justice. However any politician would tell you that principles don’t win you elections. Nevertheless, FPG believes the issue is more pragmatic than that: forestry cannot afford not to change. Forestry needs to be more diverse so as to meet people’s needs in more ways, whilst also spreading risk in an uncertain future. But by its very nature diversity of management is not something which can be prescribed in detail. It arises naturally from the different decisions which individual owners and managers are free to make in their widely differing circumstances. It follows therefore, that there is only one effective way to achieve more diversity: more ‘citizen foresters’ – and more people involved in forestry generally.
We need more forestry for people; and we need forestry by, and with, more people.