Reforestation projects with smallholder farmers: Balancing carbon goals and grower’s needs

By Benjamin Schwegler - Country Representative Indonesia

I have been working at TREEO for over a year now, focusing on implementing nature-based carbon dioxide removal projects in Indonesia. Until now, we have implemented five projects and three further projects are about to start. Developing new projects can already be a challenge. However, the real challenge is to ensure projects are successful in the long term. 

Many projects with environmental and social goals often fail exactly in this regard and are not able to provide long-lasting change. In many cases, project developers are not able to comprehend the real needs of their beneficiaries. By shedding some light on the disparity between carbon goals in general and the needs of remote growers, we hope this article fosters a better understanding and empathy from our readers towards socially oriented nature-based solutions, like how we do it at TREEO.

The real challenge is to ensure projects are successful in the long term.

Carbon goals

Our value proposition at TREEO is the capture of CO2 through tree planting with local growers and the long-term carbon storage in timber products while transforming wood residues into biochar. From this, we could establish quite clear priorities:

  1. Focusing on optimal carbon performance via planting schemes that center on maximizing the amount of planted trees and prioritizing tree species with the highest sequestration potential.
  2. Ensuring the success of project implementation by making sure it is in accordance with its initial long-term planning via following binding rules.
  3. Reducing risks through long-term contracts with growers including penalty systems if contracts are not fully complied with.

Such a strategy may seem convincing at first sight. It prioritizes our business goals by maximizing the sequestered carbon while including measures of risk management. However, there is one main reason why such an approach will ultimately fail: it entirely disregards the perspective of the main shareholder, the growers themselves. To be able to better assess the grower’s needs, a simple change of perspective already helps a lot: at TREEO, growers are not beneficiaries, but customers. 

Grower’s needs

Literature on climate change is clear: there is an urgency for action and Indonesia is among the countries most susceptible to the impacts of climate change. However, climate change remains “non-tangible” and there are more urgent problems that are affecting growers, like poverty. The main goal for growers is certainly not mitigating climate change, but managing their daily struggles and challenges. Growers, therefore, develop a very pragmatic approach toward carbon projects. 

The priorities of growers can be summarized as follows:

1. Diverse Priorities

Growers have a wide range of priorities that they consider when planting trees. Instead of focusing solely on the carbon performance of planting schemes and certain tree species, growers rely on additional monetary streams, including the harvest of fruits & timber as well as the synergy of their trees with their current activities. They might prefer trees that quickly provide shade to avoid the heat of the midday sun or trees whose residues can be used to feed their livestock. Finally, certain species may have cultural or spiritual importance. By limiting growers to certain planting schemes and tree species we intervene with what is overall best for them and further reduce their sense of belonging leading to a high risk of project failure.

2. Adaptability is key

One thing most emerging countries have in common is that nothing remains the same over a long period of time. It is this dynamic character that leads to an intense need for flexibility and adaptation on the grower's side. While certain fruits might have a high market price in one year, they might fall off completely in the next year. Even the value of land might experience an abrupt exponential rise in a matter of months due to sudden infrastructure projects. To cope with this ever-changing nature, growers have developed a culture of flexibility and adaptation. Rigidly following plans over a long period of time is counterintuitive and without implementing a culture of reactive adaptation on our side projects will not endure in the long run

3. Financial safety net

Growers lack a financial safety net and therefore the need for income always occurs suddenly (for example in the case of accidents, natural disasters, or illness). In these cases, growers need to be able to access all of their financial backups even though it might interfere with project goals. A penalty system that targets an optimal carbon output and prevents growers from accessing these backups can therefore have severe consequences for the growers. 

The main goal for growers is certainly not mitigating climate change, but managing their daily struggles and challenges. Growers, therefore, develop a very pragmatic approach toward carbon projects.

TREEO’s solutions

The three mentioned points are just examples of a wide list of objects where carbon goals conflict with the needs of growers. These conflicts remain a main obstacle to why today’s nature-based carbon removals are not scaling well enough. To be able to ensure a fruitful collaboration, the longevity of projects, and a scalable solution, we need to understand the needs of growers and be able to balance carbon goals with grower needs. This also means educating our network and supporters to understand that compromises are needed if we want to ensure the long-term sustainability of our mission. 

TREEO has already taken several measures to balance these conflicting demands. TREEO established a certified product approach with Tree Planting Partners (TPP) as local implementers using certified processes. We approach growers and only plant trees that are requested by growers. On the financial side, TREEO provides growers with annual payments to support their direct monetary necessities. Lastly, by collaborating with Carbon Standards International and the Ithaka Institute, we can set our own rules of the game and design more flexible projects while remaining highly scalable. 

However, there is a constant urge to further understand the needs of growers and develop our product to serve them in the best way. Only if we can manage growers’ needs accordingly will we have the chance to ensure the longevity of projects and scale our business model on a global level and durably remove CO2 from our atmosphere. TREEO perceives growers as our customers, not just as beneficiaries.


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