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Making a living from — and with — the forest

October 12, 2021

When big lumber companies look at a tropical forest, they see money. And they know just how to get it: Build roads, cut down and sell the tall trees, and pocket the profit.

Many of the island communities that Seacology works with live in intimate connection with forests, and they see something else: a grocery store, water supply, pharmacy, building materials source, and ancestral home. They know that to get what they need from the forest, they must respect and not damage, it. They have always harvested nuts, fruit, vines, seeds, and more for subsistence and trade.

For centuries — in some cases, for millennia — that was enough. But in the modern world, people everywhere need money if they are to participate in local (and global) economies and provide opportunity to their children. Logging, mining, and industrial agriculture companies have been eager to offer deals that provide short-term cash. Many of these deals, however, cause long-term ecological devastation.

A promising alternative is what are called “non-timber forest products.” That term includes anything that naturally grows in a forest, is harvested without cutting trees, and can be sold commercially. There are hundreds of non-timber products. The most obvious are foods like wild honey, truffles, or fruits, such as the popular açaí berry that grows in swampy South American forests. But the list also includes things such as rattan vines, medicinal plants, and bamboo.

Non-timber forest products offer communities sustainable sources of income that don’t require them to sacrifice the forest or their way of life. They help communities resist considerable pressure from powerful interests to exploit natural resources.

Several Seacology projects are helping communities explore sustainable forest products. On the island of Borneo, the village of Sahang is protecting almost 500 acres of rainforest that is rich in biodiversity and home to commercially valuable trees, much sought-after by timber companies. In return, Seacology funded equipment the village wanted to help them process tengkawang (illipe) nuts. Selling the oil, which is used for cooking, soap, and cosmetics, is much more profitable than selling raw nuts. The new equipment makes extracting the oil much quicker and less labor intensive.

Villagers from Sahang plant tengkawang tree seedlings in the Pangajid forest. The native trees are a sustainable alternative to destructive oil palm plantations.

Seacology Field Representative Irman Meilandi, center, joins project partners to demonstrate products made with sustainably grown and processed illipe nuts.

In West Java, we funded bamboo-processing equipment for Mandalamekar Village, which is protecting a large area of highland forest and planting native trees. Many kinds of bamboo grow wild there, but prices for unprocessed bamboo are low. Community members can now turn raw bamboo into a durable and valuable material that can be used to make musical instruments, crafts, and traditional Javanese joglo houses.

These initiatives are great examples of one of Seacology’s bedrock principles: That livelihood efforts, led by local people and supported by organizations like Seacology, can provide both environmental and economic benefits. Improving the quality of life on islands doesn’t require trampling island environments or cultures. We just need to start by listening to the islanders.

Since 2009, Seacology has worked with the people of Mandalamekar Village, protecting hundreds of acres of forest.

The bamboo sustainably produced by the village is a valuable export, and is also used for building local infrastructure, like this livestock pen.