Publications / Schumacher Center Lecture

Community Forestry Associations

This is a transcript of Robert Swann’s introduction to an  E.F.  Schumacher Society Lecture at Simon’s Rock from the early 1980s.  Swann discusses the creation of Community Forestry Associations as a method for community control over forest management – ideas heavily influenced by his and Dr. Schumacher’s experiences in India. Text in brackets here represents speaker notes.


I want to welcome you on behalf of the Schumacher Society and Simon’s Rock College. This is the second conference sponsored by the Schumacher Society and we think appropriately on a subject which was very close to Dr. Schumacher’s heart. In the latter part of his life his interest turned increasingly to trees, tree crops, and forestry, as you will be able to see in the film which we are showing this afternoon, and which was the last film he made before his death in 1977.

In the preface to the book on Forest Farming, Schumacher recounts this interesting personal note:  [story of Richard  Gregg, my own experience with tree crops…]

It is important to note that while Fritz Schumacher was the advocate of decentralized, regional based and village based economic planning — he came to the recognition of such a position from a world perspective. His message to Western nations to take care in the growing and planting of trees came from his experience in Asia and other developing areas which made him realize how important trees were to the health and well being of the people and the whole economy of the villages of India, Burma, Africa, etc.

Much of Schumacher’s thinking in his book, Small is Beautiful, was influenced by Gandhi and the work of Buddhist economists. He acted as an economic consultant in India and spoke of that experience:

Traveling through India, I came to the conclusion that there was no salvation for India except through trees. I advised my Indian friends as follows:

“The Good Lord has not disinherited any of his children and as far as India is concerned he has given her a variety of trees, unsurpassed anywhere in the world. There are trees for almost all human needs. One of the greatest teachers of India was the Buddha who included in his teaching the obligation of every good Buddhist that he should plant and see to the establishment of one tree at least every five years. As long as this was observed, the whole large area of India was covered with trees, free of dust, with plenty of water, plenty of shade, plenty of food and materials. Just imagine you could establish an ideology which made it obligatory for every able-bodied person in India, man, woman, and child, to do that little thing — to plant and see to the establishment of one tree a year, five years running. This, in a five year period, would give you 2,000 million established trees. Anyone can work it out on the back of an envelope that the economic value of such an enterprise, intelligently conducted, would be greater than anything that has ever been promised by any of India’s five year plans. It could be done without a penny of foreign aid; there is no problem of savings and investment. It would produce foodstuffs, fibers, building material, shade, water, almost anything that man really needs.”

As a fuel economist (you may know that Schumacher for a long time worked with the Coal Board in England), he was very much interested in trees as a source of energy. On a world wide basis trees represent the major source of renewable energy. In developing countries no less than one and one half billion people derive at least 90% of their energy requirements from wood and charcoal.” These figures come from the National Academy of Sciences book on firewood crops.

Schumacher had predicted the energy crisis some fifteen years before it became apparent to almost everyone, and he also foresaw the coming world wide food crisis. He strongly believed that trees could play an important role in providing food in many parts of the world where trees could be planted on hillsides, rocky places and deserts where agricultural crops could not grow.

When Schumacher met President Carter in 1977, the President asked him what he could do to “help the cause”. Schumacher suggested that he should plant a fruit tree on some conspicuous public occasion, because such a gesture could be important for stimulating interest in trees for food as well as energy. That Fritz followed his own advice is evident in the work he did at his own home — cutting down an acre of brush to plant fruit trees.

It seems appropriate that we should follow the E.F. Schumacher Society lectures in October on small farms and regional planning for food production, with a conference on trees and forestry. Particularly in New England and the Northeast where trees occupy 70-80% of the land mass and are the major, but most underutilized, natural resource in the region. Why is it true that the forests are underutilized?

I think there are several reasons, perhaps the most important are:

*** Size of forestland holding are relatively small. Landowners of small holdings, many of whom are farmers, are often either too busy to seriously manage their own woodlot, or feel too uncertain about how to go about it, — or £eel they can’t afford professional help in the woodlot.

*** Average time which land is held by one owner often discourages owners from making long term commitments to forest management programs.

*** Forest management costs also tend to be relatively high in the early years and thereby discourage professional help especially for the small land owners. However, the energy component as a by-product of selective thinning, has improved the economic outlook.

In an effort to overcome these problems, a number of programs have developed in the Northeast to insure good forest management. Today we’ll hear about several of these programs from our speakers.

I would like the conference to consider the question of how we can encourage greater participation in our associations by members of the community as a whole — members who are not landowners. We have tried to convey in the announcement of the conference how the forests, as a natural resource, are important to the community as a whole in terms of environmental benefits, employment, energy, food, etc. The question is: how can we implement in practice the interests of a regional community in the healthy management of the forests a community that probably consists of more non-owners than owners of forests. Perhaps a Community Forestry Association could provide the forum for a more broad-based discussion and activity in the forests.

I think there could be real mutual benefits to both owners and non-owners in such association. For example: as the present recession deepens into depression (I’m not optimistic about Reagan economics bringing us out of the recession) a major problem for forest owners, including farmers, will be how to pay for labor to work in the woods, or to plant new trees which are needed. At the same time unemployment, especially among young people, is increasing and unemployment benefits and welfare are decreasing while inflation takes its toll on living standards. In this situation a Community Forestry Association could provide a means by which to organize work groups (of unemployed or underemployed) which, under professional forestry supervision, could provide the labor for working in the woods with payments being in cords of wood.

In her book on Barter, Annie Proulx points out that during the depression of the 1930’s many towns and cities organized unemployed people to work in the woods. They were either paid in cords of wood or were given script (or vouchers) with which to purchase food at local stores or from farmers, who in turn were paid in cords of wood.

In Korea, with government assistance and prodding, whole villages have undertaken management and reforestation of thousands of acres of land most of which was and is privately owned. Owners have received a portion of the income from the produce (for firewood and lumber) and villagers are paid in wood.     A surplus, in fact, has accumulated and this is placed in a fund for further village development.

In India, I visited villages in the Himalayan Mountains which has organized themselves and were replanting vast acreages of denuded hillsides at their own expense and volunteer labor. They had organized in part to protect themselves from the continuous cutting of the forests which resulted in landslides and floods, often wiping out an entire village. This was known as the “Chipko” or “hug the trees” movement in India because the people, organized in groups, would literally hug the trees in order to prevent outside contractors from indiscriminately cutting down trees so badly needed to prevent erosion.

My reading of these movements is that it is the enthusiasm of the group working together which creates the energy to accomplish these tasks which seem almost overwhelming to the individual. I feel that Community Forestry Associations might play a similar role here in the US in that they could tackle the seemingly overwhelming job of properly managing the forests of New England. In California, the tree people have done a remarkable job of reforesting suburban areas in an effort to improve the atmosphere of Southern California.

Finally, I would hope that Community Forestry Associations could help bridge the gap between forestry and agriculture, in that the associations would promote the concept of agro-forestry, forest farming, emphasizing the potential of trees to raise fruits, nuts and forage crop, we can enlist the interest and energy of the community as food priced continue to rise in the growing food crisis.

My hope is that today by learning what is being done in other parts of New England and the Northeast, we will all be inspired to return to our communities, to plant trees, work in the woods, and organize Community Forestry Associations which will revitalize the forests and our communities as well.



Publication By

Robert Swann

Robert (Bob) Swann was the founder of the E. F. Schumacher Society, now the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. In 1974 E. F. Schumacher asked Robert Swann to start a sister organization to his own Intermediate Technology Development Group, but it was not until 1980, when prompted by Resurgence editor Satish Kumar, that Swann organized the E. F. … Continued

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