The 21st of March is the official first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. The day of the equinox, in which plants start to blossom and sprout as warm air begins to invade our latitudes. Not only this, this day is also celebrated throughout the world as the International Day of Forests, established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2012, to raise awareness of the importance of all types of forests and trees for biodiversity and the livelihood of human communities around the globe.
Trees and forested areas cover one third of the Earth’s land, playing a key role in enhancing plant and animal diversity and in regulating carbon fluxes, mitigating the impact of anthropogenic climate changes. Additionally, forests are crucial resources for sustaining communities around the world. Water, flood prevention, fruits, leaves, branches, and wood are only a few of the key ecosystem services that they entail. Lastly, forests are of increasing importance for urban areas, providing a cooling green infrastructure in which citizens benefit from recreational activities and healthy lifestyles.
In rural areas, forests are a prominent feature of the landscape, especially when demographic changes increase spontaneous afforestation in former farmlands. For these reasons, forests are often the source of innovative projects aiming to alleviate social, environmental, and economic burdens of rural communities.
SIMRA database collected several examples of forest-based social innovations, spanning agroforestry schemes in Guadalupe, community woodlands in the UK or central Europe, to fire prevention groups in Spain and Portugal. Here is a selection of these forest initiatives:
Promoting fire prevention in Mediterranean landscapes
Wildfire risk has grown in the Mediterranean basin, both in terms of burnt area and fire occurrence. One of the major causes of wildfire virulence is land abandonment, which leads to increasing fuel accumulation. Fire prevention is then a key activity to reduce wildfire risk. This can include awareness activities with local communities, as well as ad-hoc forest management (e.g. thinning to reduce fuel accumulation, prescribed fires). Several social innovation initiatives have also been developed to tackle the issue of wildfires. Since 1986 in Catalonia region (Spain), forest owners, in collaboration with municipalities, have been organising themselves voluntarily to protect their land against wildfires. Since then, 300 Forest Defence Groups (FDGs) have been established in the region. Today these groups perform several activities, including support for fire prevention, preparedness, fire suppression and post-fire reforestation within their municipal area, as well as lending a helping hand to their neighbours when needed. Analogous groups have also been created in the Valecian community (ACIF). Another interesting example from the SIMRA database is EconoMountain, a Portuguese initiative that attempts to lower wildfire risks by developing participatory partnerships with shepherds to implement controlled grazing by goats, so reducing forest fuel accumulation. Similarly, the Mosaico project in Extremadura, Spain, intends to stimulate and consolidate multi-actors participatory initiatives to restore and improve the landscape resilience to wildfire risk.
Community woodlands and carbon forestry
Community woodlands are woodlands supported and controlled by community groups. These groups often use their wood resources to revitalise the community (often a small and isolated settlement), ensuring its long term economic, social, and cultural sustainability. An example from SIMRA database is the Lochcarron Community Development Company, set in a small village of Scotland, UK. This company aims to establish a multipurpose forest management scheme for the community woodland, improving the sustainable production of fuel wood whilst also setting up recreational and educational services.
Another example of community forests are Central European forest commons (in SIMRA we have examples from Slovenia, and Slovakia), historical regimes for managing woodland resources in mountainous rural areas. These commons are now re-established to respond to new community needs such as carbon-smart forestry for mitigating climate change effects, increasing forests’ resilience to future natural disturbances and to establish a more cost-effective forest management.
Agroforestry, as the combination of agricultural and forest production schemes, is recognised as a powerful way of producing diverse, profitable and sustainable land-use systems. This makes it a possible source of social innovations as it is happening in Guadeloupe (France) where the SYAPROVAG (Union of Guadeloupian agricultural vanilla producers) is promoting a project aiming to improve forest owners’ livelihoods via the multifuctionality enhancement of the forests, combined with vanilla production.
Social Forester entrepreneurs
Finally, it is worth mentioning forestry as a source of inspiration for developing social enterprises. In this respect we can look at SocialForest, a Spanish company dedicated to forest management, focusing on training and social integration of vulnerable groups (immigrants, unemployed youth) in the forest labour force. Another example is Boschivivi, a non-profit Italian initiative aiming to support the use of burial woods for reducing the ecological footprint of cemetery practices, and investing in forest conservation activities.