How Agro-Forestry Can Help Developing Economies

--by: Ed "Redwood" Ring

We hear a lot about the notion of sustainable forestry, a fine idea, though often misconstrued. Any good capitalist should love sustainable forestry, since such a practice guarantees perpetual profits. But the word "sustainable," at least among our right-wing brethren, seems be regarded as a code word for government intervention, socialism, central planning; a real nightmare. These connotations are false. The real meaning of the word sustainable is perpetual profit.

One of the reasons that reforestation is taking so long is because it is a process largely driven by charity funds instead of investment funds. If deforested lands aren't immediately viable candidates for monocultural plantations, the traditional capitalist investors stay out, and the lands remain empty of trees. What if capitalism were harnessed (instead of feared) by people who believe in reforesting the earth? What if they took all that money and became atypical investors, instead of donors?

Large investors would help estate owners establish plantations with diverse species of flora, harvested sustainably, yielding a perpetual cash-flow that would be hedged by virtue of its diversity against economic turbulence.

Small investors and micro-investors would help small farmers establish stands of trees on their properties for fuel wood, fruit, nuts and timber. Again, harvested sustainably, these stands of trees would yield a perpetual abundance of products for the farmers to consume and to sell.

Which brings us to sustainable nurseries. Why do the nurseries dry up when the aid money stops? Why aren't billions of trees per year being grown and profitably sold to landowners large and small? Why aren't hundreds of thousands of profit-making nurseries operating throughout our deforested world, growing and selling these trees?

There are long term trends of ineluctable force that will make sustainable tree nurseries, i.e., profitable tree nurseries, more and more common. The algebra is compelling: (1) The world's population is increasing, requiring vastly more consumption of tree products each year. (2) The number of trees in the world is falling. This phenomenon, while not in aggregate as dire as some would have us believe, is acutely felt in many regions, and in the regions where reforestation does outstrip deforestation, the quality of the reforestation is questionable. (3) Here's the clincher. For a variety of reasons, aid money for tree nurseries and reforesting is slowing down. All three of these trends point to one fact, the cost of trees for basic needs, fuel and food, is going up, but the need for trees will not abate; tree growing is getting more profitable.

Small farmers will not only plant more trees on their land to grow their own fuel and food instead of paying higher and higher prices to buy it, but they will also grow trees for other small farmers to buy, in micro-nurseries financed by micro-loans. A part-time enterprise growing and selling a few thousand trees per year can yield an income that could make the difference between subsistence and prosperity for many small farmers in the developing world.

Financial sustainability as well as ecological sustainability are keys to reforesting the earth. Profit and environmentalism can be aligned.

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