This past February I had my first opportunity to visit our partner ASRI and colleagues. I’d like to tell you about one new and particularly innovative initiative I saw called the Garden to Forest program. It’s illustrative of how we approach the conjoined challenges of human development and conservation of our natural world.
The Garden to Forest program is a reforestation initiative that provides economic incentives and technical support for slash-and-burn farmers to help them transition to sustainable agroforestry. The program is an enormous opportunity for rapid reforestation and biodiversity enrichment.
ASRI negotiates agreements between owners of ‘illegal’ gardens (small farms) and the National Park administration. I say ‘illegal’ because the gardens are technically inside the boundaries of Gunung Palung National Park (GPNP). Farmers commit not to clear additional land, in exchange for legal rights to harvest non-timber forest products. ASRI also provides materials and helps farmers re-plant their gardens with native tree seedlings, some of which produce marketable fruit or other products farmers can sell.
Our planting target of 1,000 seedlings per hectare of garden will ultimately establish a closed canopy. A percentage of the seedlings are fast-growing nitrogen-fixing legumes, producing beans that farmers can sell and orangutans and other wildlife can eat. The majority of the seedlings are a mix of 15 to 30 native hardwood species, some of which will also produce valuable non-timber products like fruits. Although we don’t completely return gardens to natural forested conditions, this method improves farmers’ livelihoods, limits rainforest loss, and restores native canopy cover for orangutans, sun bears, clouded leopards, hornbills, and thousands of other species.
When talking with the farmers and the ASRI staff, I could see the impact of our respectful, radical listening. ASRI started with a pilot project in one of the villages where active slash-and-burn practice is common inside the Park. They held a series of community meetings and secured the participation of 28 farmers managing 14 hectares of illegal gardens. Then they negotiated a contract between farmers, the Park administration, and ASRI. Thanks to our generous donors, we were able to provide funds to help each farmer establish a native tree nursery on their land, which ASRI stocks with seedlings. We also build farmers’ business management mindedness so they can effectively access markets with their products.
We are now scaling the program to multiple villages. We are in the process of securing the seedlings and obtaining planting permits from GPNP. Next, we will help the farmers transplant seedlings from the nurseries to their gardens during the planting season - November to December 2017. We will monitor seedling growth and survival and assess the economic success and needs of the farmers. I look forward to sharing photos and stories as those gardens slowly but surely transform into forest canopy – forest that supports the livelihood of the farmers and preserves GPNP’s biodiversity.
The Garden to Forest program differs from intensive reforestation techniques in its ease of scalability (farmers learn to do the work themselves), its relatively low costs, and community engagement opportunities. It’s the kind of win-win-win (farmer, ecosystem, park administration) solutions that are not rocket science, that are distinctly possible, that help script a hopeful narrative to supplant so much of the pessimism and dystopia clouding social and political efforts to preserve our planet.
I’m grateful to each of you for making win-win solutions possible, for doing your part to protect our planet, and for championing the narrative of hope – even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.