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Scaling up sustainable forestry projects key to attracting finance

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An aerial view of Burkina Faso, Africa. Photo by D. Tiveau/CIFOR
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Paul Hol assesses the age of a teak tree in a plantation in Ghana.
©Form International

Continuing this new interview series on inclusive landscape finance, we hear from the corporate sector.

Paul Hol, CEO of FORM International, shares his views with Tropenbos International’s Nick Pasiecznik on what is already being achieved and, more importantly, what still needs to be done to attract more investment for reforestation of degraded forest landscapes.

FORM International is a forest management and services company that manages forest assets in Africa and delivers a range of management and financial services. It is coinvestor in the investment company Sustainable Forestry Investments (SFI).

 “The main issues are the lack of projects and the problem of scale,” states Paul. “There is also a need for stakeholder involvement, but financial sustainability and a sound business case are paramount to success.”

How are you involved in sustainable forest landscapes?

FORM International has supported sustainable forest management for more than 25 years, assisting Sustainable Forestry Investment (SFI) to attract more than USD 60 million of investment, directly benefiting more than 2,400 employees. Founded in 1992, FORM International has provided innovative services to support the implementation of best practices. In 2007, we focused our operations through the establishment of FORM Ghana Ltd.

The transformation of a degraded forest area in the Tain II Forest Reserve, Ghana, between 2014 and 2018. ©FORM International

This FSC certified plantation company integrates large-scale reforestation of degraded forest land with the needs of local villagers and the environment, while not compromising economic viability. Today, FORM Ghana manages some 18,000 hectares in close collaboration with smallholders and communities. Following successes here, SFI Tanzania Ltd. was set up in 2013 and now sustainably manages timber and sisal production on 10,000 hectares of formerly degraded forest in the Tanga region.

The transformation of a degraded forest area in the Tain II Forest Reserve, Ghana, between 2014 and 2018. ©FORM International


In parallel, FORM International partnered with SFI in 2009. SFI is an investment company based in the Netherlands. While FORM International implements projects, SFI attracts institutional and impact investors who share FORM’s belief in sustainable reforestation and who want to make a real contribution on a large scale.

It is aiming to secure investments of about USD 150 million by 2022, and wants to increase the area of reforested land to 40,000 hectares. This commitment was made during COP 21 in Paris in 2015, in partnership with the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), which is an initiative of the World Resources Institute and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, a program of the African Union.

Read also: Forest finance partnerships more productive than competition

You have invested in sustainable forestry, but why have so few other organizations followed suit?

There is plenty of money, but there are too few ‘good’ projects! And it not just the lack of project ideas, but also the problem of bringing good projects to scale. The Netherlands Platform for Microfinance (NPM), for example, has significant capital to invest, but they, and similar institutions, cannot finance just a handful of farmers. To ensure impact at a large scale, we need vehicles or mechanisms that are effective and adaptable.

A very simple way to develop project ideas would be to gather a group of experts together, and send them around the world to identify good land-use practices that can be translated into bankable projects and would benefit communities and the environment.

However, there are two prerequisites. First is the essential need to listen to people, lots of different people, to understand their land-use interests. Second is the need to develop a ‘technical concept’ that works for one hectare, but that can also be scaled up. Importantly, a structure is needed to handle the finance aspects in a uniform way – and this requires organizing farmers into formal groups or associations.

What must not be forgotten is the overriding element for success, which is financial sustainability. At the moment, we are making efforts towards environmental restoration in a rather chaotic and haphazard way. Some organizations focus on protecting a single species or ecosystem, for example, others focus on a single commodity, while what we obviously need is something much broader than that.

Specifically, how is your organization addressing inclusive finance, and what are your experiences and key lessons?

We have the knowledge – look how we made this work in Europe. We started with the ‘technical concept’, mapping soil and climate types, and linked this to inputs and financial returns. Governments were strongly involved. But we didn’t consider long-term impacts.

Teak afforestation in Akumadan, Ghana – putting forests back where they once were.
©FORM International

We do include sustainability in our technical concepts, though we are still only at the early stages of analyzing, testing and determining the best ways forward. Once we do find the right answer, doors will open to accessing more finance, and convincing other stakeholders to participate

As a plantation company, we and others like us are in a key position to offer ‘good’ projects to investors, and to scale them up, i.e. to overcome the main obstacles in offering finance for reforestation. But how do we define ‘good’?

By using transparent and globally agreed standards. FORM International’s plantations are certified according to the Forest Stewardship Council’s Ten Principles for Sustainable Forest Management, or to other certification standards with similar sustainability principles.

Read also: Strengthening producer organizations is key to making finance inclusive and effective

What examples do you have of successful or promising ‘model’ approaches or innovations?

We feel that the three specific pillars of our unique investment concept offer one possible model. First, establish a good relationship with traditional landowners, farmers and local communities to ensure that plantation development will be beneficial for all, leading to a stable and long-term situation. Second, respect strict ecological and environmental standards. And third, develop plantations in a way that will allow us to meet target returns on investment.

We also need to continue to set realistic goals – and to build momentum to ensure that we meet them. For example, I led the organization of ‘Forests for the Future: New Forests for Africa’ in Accra, Ghana, in March 2016, to discuss the implementation of reforestation goals in the AFR100.

What is your vision on how best to increase finance and investment in sustainable forestry?

We must understand local needs and concerns. If landscape restoration is to succeed, it needs stakeholder involvement in a way that is financially attractive and sustainable. This means ‘inclusive finance’. This is a term that is now being used to describe what we have been doing for some time regarding reforestation of degraded lands. What makes it different from other forms of finance is that it includes local people, right from the start.

I also believe in voluntary and spontaneous development. It cannot be forced – but it can be helped. Consultant advisors, for example, will fail if they try to implement a one-size-fits-all system to build bridges between smallholders and investors.

But they can support a better positioning of farmers, organizations and companies, and build the capacities of smallholders and their organizations as a basis for what might follow organically.

I strongly believe that people can help to build such important relationships, but only in the region they work in and know, culturally, socially and economically. They can then assist in formulating and putting into place adapted, tailor-made approaches, developed from hands-on experience. Importantly, this must involve the expansion of links with local governments.

Government support for, and cooperation in this kind of project is essential, but private sector involvement is crucial to drive success, attract much-needed investments and achieve the third component of sustainability, i.e. increase the financial independence and improve the financial position of all stakeholders involved.

Forest and landscape restoration is one of the answers to climate change, but in most cases it will not be the main motivation for participants, and is likely to be different for each land user. To make such projects successful, we need each other, and every single partner – company, authority or farmer – to see the added value of participation.

By Nick Pasiecznik, Tropenbos International.

This interview has also been published on the Tropenbos International website.

This article was produced by Tropenbos International and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA). FTA is the world’s largest research for development program to enhance the role of forests, trees and agroforestry in sustainable development and food security and to address climate change. CIFOR leads FTA in partnership with Bioversity International, CATIE, CIRAD, INBAR, ICRAF and TBI. FTA’s work is supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund. 

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  • Shaping a stronger global agenda for forests, trees and agroforestry at CFS44

Shaping a stronger global agenda for forests, trees and agroforestry at CFS44

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A farmer fertilizes his rice field in Rammang-rammang village, South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by T. Saputro/CIFOR
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Trees and forests play critical roles in landscapes and value chains, contributing to sustainable agricultural development. They are also key to achieving food security and nutrition, and thus the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

At the recent Committee on World Food Security (CFS) 44, the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) coorganized two side events: one on feminism, forests and food security and one on sustainable forestry for food security and nutrition, where panelists discussed how to move forward on the implementation of the recent High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) report on sustainable forestry for food security and nutrition and CFS policy recommendations.

Read more: High Level Panel of Experts launches landmark report on sustainable forestry

The latter side event, organized with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the government of the Netherlands, Tropenbos International, the Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative (SIANI) and MARS, Incorporated, honed in on priorities relating to research for development.

Titled Forests, trees and agroforestry for food security, nutrition and the SDGs: Research and partners, toward a joint action agenda, the discussion on Oct. 11 contributed to CFS44’s discussions on sustainable forestry for food security and nutrition, and aimed to shape a stronger global agenda for forests, trees and agroforestry.

A village in Mount Halimun Salak National Park, West Java, Indonesia. Photo by A. Erlangga/CIFOR

In particular, the event sought to show how major initiatives intend to position themselves, enhance their synergies, and better work with all stakeholders to implement the CFS recommendations on sustainable forestry for food security and nutrition. The discussion also aimed to contribute to knowledge sharing and clarifying stakeholder expectations in terms of priority demands toward research and development partners. Furthermore, FTA hoped to identify ways and means for better articulation between major international initiatives, and identify priority demands as the program continues in its second phase.

The well-attended talk illustrated how key research for development points will be used in FTA’s prioritization process, with FTA considered well-placed to address the implications of the HLPE report. After introductions by FAO’s Eva Muller and myself, a number of panelists discussed the topics at hand, while audience members both in the room and online also had the opportunity to participate in the discussion.

Of the many key points to emerge was the need for responsible investments in value chains, including the fundamental role of the private sector. The panelists agreed upon the need for knowledge about how to incentivize responsible business models, and for reviews and guidelines on different inclusive business models.

Actors must quantify the constraints involved in integrating trees into farms and landscapes, despite a lack of information on successful examples, new techniques, seeds and sourcing. Social inclusiveness and gender are also vital facets of finding solutions, including the need to facilitate women’s participation and empowerment in rural development as well as food security and nutrition.

Ambassador Hans Hoogeveen of the Netherlands, who sat on the panel, outlined the need for a forward-looking perspective and cited agriculture as among the drivers of deforestation. He asked what agriculture can do for forests, and what land use can do for forests. Hoogeveen suggested that actors should focus on the private sector rather than governments. Getting a company like IKEA on board, for example, could create a transformational change, he said.

Muller then followed up on what agriculture and land use can do for forests, stating that an upcoming conference organized by FAO would look at Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15 on sustainably managing forests, combating desertification, halting and reversing land degradation and halting biodiversity loss, as well as the more ambitious goal of increasing forests by 3 percent by 2030. FAO will disseminate knowledge and provide technical support, she said, adding that countries would need support, data, knowledge and innovative governance solutions.

In my role in the discussion, I described the HLPE as a stocktake mechanism, which has presented us with questions about how to move forward. We need to look at the role of trees to address food security and nutrition, climate change and the SDGs. Indeed there is a need for an integrated approach to agriculture and forestry, including the restoration of land and looking at sustainable value chains. FTA aims to inform and support stakeholders from a research perspective.

Read more: Forests as food: New report highlights important relationship between forest landscapes and healthy diets

Moderating the side event, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) Director General Peter Holmgren highlighted the need to work on rights, inclusiveness, value chain connections, entrepreneurship, investments, livelihoods and food security. That is where forestry should move, he said, adding that FTA’s partners could act as a coalition in this manner.

Cecile Ndjebet, President of the African Women’s Network for Community Management of Forests (REFACOF), highlighted the role of women in particular, saying they were key actors to combat hunger, poverty and climate change. Other priorities include investing in underutilized nutritious foods, and linking non-timber forest products to markets.

Rene Boot, Director of Tropenbos International, focused on inclusive business development and business models, as smallholders produce 75 percent of food worldwide. There is clearly a need for inclusive and responsible investments, he said, adding that how to best connect investors was an issue.

A woman picks maize near Yangambi, DRC. Photo by A. Fassio/CIFOR

Kerstin Cisse of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) said agroforestry was a recognized technology and was economically viable. She also highlighted women’s central roles in rural development and food security and nutrition. One challenge was how to make research results available and usable, especially for small-scale farms, she said. Youth and women hold untapped potential that needs to be developed, she added, before outlining the need for new thinking and new questions. 

Additionally, Agusdin Pulungan, President of the Indonesian Farmer and Fisher Society Organization (WAMTI), highlighted challenges for farmers including a lack of information on successful examples, information on new techniques, competing land uses, a lack of equipment, insufficient land availability, and a lack of seeds. It can be difficult for farmers to invest without reserves, he explained, and they need incentives to introduce trees. The role of research for development should be to provide information on incentive schemes, while farmers could be more motivated through good examples and discussion, he said.

The panelists and audience members thus helped to outline a range of issues that will help to prioritize research – relating to integration, protecting forests, intensifying agriculture and working on drivers of land-use change, most of which are outside forests. Demand is growing for agriculture products and the renewable material of wood, so we need to understand how plantations can be sustainable and we need to fight institutional boundaries. 

Indeed, as Holmgren mentioned, this involves the involvement of all stakeholders – from private sector and civil society to communities, as well as governments.

Read more: Sharing better, for better research

The other major messages gained from the side event included that there is a need to invest in underutilized nutritious food crops. Meanwhile, plantations are needed to ensure the growing supply of wood and other products. There is an overall need for integration, as most drivers of change, such as land-use change, exist outside forests.

To devise solutions, actors must integrate agriculture and forestry. A key challenge in this light is how to make research results available and usable, especially for small-scale farms, in light of knowledge and development gaps.

Ultimately, to implement the CFS agenda and achieve global food security, the panelists agreed that countries will need support, data, knowledge and innovative governance solutions, with the involvement of all partners. 

By Vincent Gitz, FTA Director.

The CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) is the world’s largest research for development program to enhance the role of forests, trees and agroforestry in sustainable development and food security and to address climate change. CIFOR leads FTA in partnership with Bioversity International, CATIE, CIRAD, ICRAF, INBAR and TBI. FTA’s work is supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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