Smallholders — our best hope for sustainability

FSC certified acacia small holders in Phu Loc district, Vietnam. © James Morgan / WWF

Vietnam is one of the world’s largest exporters of wood and wood products. Overall exports in 2016 were valued at nearly $7 billion. Yet its forests, ravaged by war and degraded by logging and land clearance, contain almost no untouched primary forest and the country imports a significant amount of timber, some still from unsustainable sources that drive deforestation in neighbouring countries.

The Greater Mekong region as a whole, with only 13 per cent of its primary forest remaining, could become one of 11 global ‘deforestation fronts’ if nothing is done.

Deforestation is a never-ending story — but there is hope.

With market demand for sustainability growing, the Vietnamese government is increasing domestic production, aiming to certify 500,000 of the country’s 6.7 million hectares of production forest by 2020. More significantly perhaps, in Thua Thien Hue Province in the foothills of the Annamite Mountains in Central Vietnam, hundreds of smallholders have joined forces to produce sustainable acacia now being used in outdoor furniture around the world.

Securing certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) — the most credible independent international scheme for responsible forest management — smallholders in the Phu Loc district supply retail giant IKEA whose Äpplarö garden range is made from certified acacia. Part of a larger association of 241 small forest owners in Thua Thien Hue Province, working formally together is a result of involvement in WWF’s regional Sustainable Bamboo Acacia & Rattan Project (SBARP).

An aerial view of an acacia plantation in Phu Loc district Vietnam. The plantation is divided up between a number of small holders. © James Morgan / WWF

A joint venture with home furnishing giant and WWF corporate partner, IKEA, SBARP promotes responsible production by small-scale producers across Vietnam, Lao PDR and Cambodia, supports government forest restoration plans and helps the private sector meet legal requirements. So far under the project in Vietnam, a total of 15,831 hectares of forest have been certified, 11,006 of which are acacia; and Thua Thien Hue’s group certification approach, first developed in Quang Tri Province, is now being applied in Quang Nam.

This is a small-scale industry aiming for a big impact: if it can be brought to scale it will benefit Vietnam’s communities and its forests.

Pioneering a group approach and sharing costs, responsibilities and commitment has made certification easier for smallholders but it has not been straightforward. Extending rotation and growing periods to meet FSC requirements, for example, puts plantations at risk of typhoon damage and can limit short-term income.

Collaboration, investment and perseverance are key in overcoming challenges.

Scansia Pacific Co., a Vietnamese IKEA supplier, supports smallholders with certification assessment and training costs, offering loans with an interest rate 2 per cent lower than commercial banks, and buys all storm-damaged trees at market price. And what Scansia are doing is shaped by IKEA: using certified wood from Vietnamese smallholders is part of a wider sustainability strategy, including an ambitious commitment to obtain all timber from more sustainable sources (FSC certified or recycled) by 2020 — a target already met in Vietnam.

Acacia being processed into parts for garden furniture at Minh An Co. The factory processes 100% FSC timber supplying only Scansia Pacific Co. © James Morgan / WWF

Previously, acacia production was just a way for people to survive. Now it is a professional market-driven commodity. Smallholder incomes and social standing are improving. Certified acacia grown for timber fetches two and a half or three times more than that grown for pulp. Mindsets are changing, and households exchange experiences, help one another and care for their environment.

“Prior to my participation in the project, we had no training on seedling quality and environmental protection. Some people slashed and burnt, causing forest fires. We regularly had quarrels and disputes”, says Mr. Ho Duc Luc from Hoa Loc village. “Now the good news is we’ve sold our certified timber and have a more stable income. Not just my wife but also my children say I made the right decision!”

What is urgently needed is replication and scaling. According to the Tropical Forest Alliance and IDH, the sustainable trade initiative, volumes of small-scale commodity production globally mean tackling deforestation cannot be addressed only by working with big players. Rapidly increasing uptake of sustainable production by small-scale producers and their integration into the international market is necessary if multinationals and governments are to achieve much vaunted commitments to end deforestation such as the New York Declaration on Forests.

Acacia being processed into parts for garden furniture at Minh An Co. © James Morgan / WWF

Vietnam alone has around 1.5 million households who manage about 70 per cent of its production forest. These smallholders can help shape a sustainable forest sector but WWF’s Impact in the Forest report shows deforestation-free enterprise in Southeast Asia remains in its infancy.

We need to make faster progress and certify larger areas to meet market demand. This requires investment and collaboration at landscape and jurisdictional levels.

This week in Zurich, ISEAL’s 2017 Global Sustainability Standards Conference will consider the future of trust and how standards can provide certainty in an uncertain world. If accessible and inclusive, our experience is that they can help smallholders deliver conservation, improve livelihoods and expand supply.

A local FSC trained harvesting team at work in Phu Loc district, Vietnam. © James Morgan / WWF

While multi-nationals must shape sustainable supply chains, and deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, our best chance for sustainability may be in the hands of the millions of smallholders around the world who work the forests and fields that underpin the global economy. We must do everything we can to enable them to produce quality products, engage in business planning, gain access to the international market, and secure a fair return.

Tam Le Viet is the Rattan, Bamboo & Acacia Project Manager from the WWF Greater Mekong Programme.