Innovation is a key to improving the rights and livelihoods of farmers and small land holders while encouraging them to plant trees and effectively restore landscapes. During a regional knowledge exchange in Thailand, the Tree Bank offered one such innovation.
A Thai farmer and former University professor by the name of Dr. Krirk Meemungkit greeted a gathering of 68 farmers and small land holder organisations at a knowledge exchange in Bangkok hosted by RECOFTC - The Center for People and Forest – with a challenge to “Plant trees in the minds of people to help them see the value in trees.”
Krirk was one of a handful of participants involved in the workshop who works locally with a unique civil society organisation, the Tree Bank, in a community about three hours from the capital. The diverse group that he addressed at the exchange gathering is intimately familiar with the challenges of valuing trees as an integrated component of land use for small farmers and land holders. Along with Krirk, the other exchange participants originating from Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand and Viet Nam contributed a tremendous wealth of knowledge on farmer and small holder issues across much of Asia. Participants gathered strength by learning from one another and ultimately seeing that despite a farmer’s origin, they share similar struggles with land tenure, policy, access to markets and desire to improve livelihoods. They were eager to hear more about Tree Bank and its use of data to motivate farmers to plant trees on their land.
Tree Bank is an innovative volunteer organisation focused on motivating farmers to plant and grow trees by assigning monetary value to individual trees, and promoting ownership of the trees and the rights to harvest them. The first branch of Tree Bank was established in Chumporn Province in 2007 and has spread nationwide with more than 3,000 branches and more than 300,000 members. A defining advantage of Tree Bank is that it manages a database that assigns values and documents living trees on farms and other small plots. It eventually aims to be able to demonstrate real returns on investment for small land holders so that they are better able to realise the financial potential in planting trees as opposed to other land uses. Through the systematic valuation of trees, both existing and planted, the hope is that trees will eventually be treated as both collateral towards bank loans and a legitimate financial investment with an annual return. As a farmer’s trees grow, the more valuable they become. This innovative investment concept, coupled with long-ingrained cultural and societal traditions around planting trees in Thailand, set the stage for the rapid growth of Tree Bank. The efforts of its members could be instrumental in bringing about widespread landscape change from farm to farm – increasing tree cover and garnering positive impacts on ecosystem function along the way.
Wanlee Cheunkaosamui, a 40 year old woman from Chumporn Province was one of the first farmers in her province to join the Tree Bank group nine years ago when she started her work as a community data collector. Since 2010, with the support of RECOFTC and the GEF Small Grants Programme, Wanlee has been in charge of collecting data on the trees planted locally by Tree Bank members. By recording data on species, ages and girth of the trees in a customised database, she is able to project the timber volumes, monetary values and amount of carbon sequestered, and forecast the future worth of a farmer’s investment. This is powerfully important data for a farmer or small land holder to have on record.
“I want to prove to the government that even the humble communities are able to do data collection,” says Wanlee.
Wanlee voluntarily teaches data collection techniques to other members in her Tree Bank branch. She has engendered a great expectation for significant changes in the Thai small farming system in the spirit of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s encouragement towards self-sufficiency through diverse land use strategies in farmer and land holder plots. In this respect, Tree Bank asks its members to plant no less than five species of trees, to both enhance the collection of harvestable of non-timber forest products and to encourage biodiversity amidst integrated farming and forestry strategies. Wanlee strongly believes that these practices, coupled with good data collection, can help farmers understand the potential value of living trees, and ultimately strengthen their positions in the society.
Tree Bank is a shining example of locally driven innovation to increase the livelihoods strategies of small farmers and small holders while genuinely incentivising people to plant trees as part of a diverse set of land use approaches. As the international group of farmers and small holder organisations from the knowledge exchange gathering in Bangkok learned of the Tree Bank concept, many considered its applicability in their own countries. In the end, regardless of what a similar endeavour may look like in Myanmar, Viet Nam or in another one of the exchange participant’s countries, lively and intensely knowledgeable discussions of innovations in the Asian small farmer and land holder sector were sparked. The millions of farmers and others represented by the gathering stand to gain from this sharing of ideas, and in turn, so do the rest of us as we each continue to build upon the value we see in trees.
The information exchange event was organised by the International Family Forestry Alliance (IFFA), the Asian Farmers Association for sustainable rural development (AFA), and was hosted by RECOFTC - The Center for People and Forests. The event took place with support of the Forest & Farm Facility (FFF). Hosted at FAO, the FFF is a global partnership between FAO, IIED, IUCN, and AgriCord that aims to promote sustainable forest and farm management by supporting local, national, regional and international forest and farm producer organisations for improved livelihoods and decision-making over forest and farm landscapes.