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Alternative forest economies

Three stories from Ghana and Indonesia on renewing agriculture and tourism

Marta Abbà
a story by
Marta Abbà
Alternative forest economies

Ghana is experimenting with projects centered on cocoa and shea butter production, driven by women’s empowerment. In Bali, efforts to save the forests from overtourism involve artists, photographers, and journalists highlighting their struggles. The outcome of the clash between extractive and regenerative economies remains unwritten

Tyres, surgical gloves, rain boots and medical devices, but also earplugs and toys are just some of the uses of natural rubber. Between 1993 and 2016, 4.1 million hectares of forest were destroyed to get the milk sap of the Hevea brasiliensis1 from which to make it. A global slaughter, but most evident in Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam, where plantations are small and scattered, run by farmers often without rights and with no choice but to meet market demands.

In Europe, as of 29 June 20232, anyone exporting or placing rubber on the continental market must prove that they have not contributed to deforestation. A positive step, but one that risks not being enough: by 2030, 2.7 to 5.3 million hectares of additional plantations will be needed to meet the demand. A study by the Bangor University (UK) study published in Conservation Letters3 and entitled Rubber’s inclusion in zero-deforestation legislation is necessary but not sufficient to reduce impacts on biodiversity clearly states that we must «support the millions of small farmers involved to maintain or increase production from existing plantations, without degrading land or water».Rubber exemplifies a forest resource where regenerative and extractive economic models clash. The ending is yet to be written.

Cocoa rooted in women’s empowerment

Amidst the foliage and dramatic news, there are stories of other world forests saved by the logic of regeneration, made to prevail over that of economic profit alone.

The first comes from Ghana and concerns two key resources: cocoa and shea butter. Both are at the centre of national projects, implemented within the framework of the World Bank’s REDD+ – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation4 programme (Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, FCPF) with the objective of «reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation over twenty years (2016 – 2036) and promoting sustainable forest management, conservation of forest carbon stocks and enhancement of carbon sinks to conserve biological diversity».

In the case of cocoa, the focus has been on the High Forest Zone (HFZ) and some other specific growing areas of this tree, «working with the Ghana Cocoa Board on socio-economic development, increasing the yield of agricultural land by introducing more climate-friendly practices, and preventing the expansion of cocoa plantations into forest land», explains Tessia Ama Boatemaa Boateng, a member of the National REDD+ Secretariat (NRS), the body that leads the Ghana Forestry Commission’s climate change initiatives.

Tessia Ama Boatemaa Boateng is the Measurement, Reporting and Verification Officer of the National REDD+ Secretariat (NRS), which also serves as the Climate Change Directorate of the Forestry Commission, the body responsible for the sustainable development of Ghana’s forest and wildlife resources. She took part in the numerous projects being implemented at the NRS, gained experience in community engagement, organising events, benefit sharing agreements, estimating emission reductions. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Geography and Resource Development from the University of Ghana and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Tropical Forestry from Bangor University. She is also a registered expert in Ghana and holds a Certificate of Competence in Forestry and Other Land Uses and Introduction to Crosscutting Issues from the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute.

Learn more about the Forestry Commission Ghana

«The Ghana Cocoa Forest REDD+ Programme», she continues, «is the world’s first commodity-based climate initiative. Launched in 2019, we expect to receive a total of about USD 21.8 million to reduce emissions by almost 4.4 tonnes of CO2. In 2023, we distributed the first payment of USD 4.8 million, using 69% of it to support agricultural production and the development of projects to raise awareness in local communities about the importance of forest conservation».

Behind these numbers lies the recognition of a problem and a comprehensive programme to solve it, developed by listening carefully to those who live in the forests, not just responding to their basic needs, but embracing the socio-cultural complexity they present. «The impacts of the climate crisis often disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and marginalised groups, such as women, children and the poor, who are also often excluded from decision-making processes and access to resources and information related to climate projects» Boatemaa Boateng explains. «Ghanaian society follows patriarchal logics that make it even more difficult for women to be involved; this was a significant challenge for us. To address this, we reserved positions for women on the programme’s hotspot management board, also ensuring a minimum of 40% female participation in meetings and activities. As a result, most of the livelihood activities introduced as an alternative to deforestation have strengthened the ability of women, in particular, to earn extra income, for example through beekeeping or the cultivation of snails and vegetables».

Milestones of the REDD+ Ghana programme. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the consent of the author and REDD+ Ghana.

Training and support for a different shea butter

The focus on the local population and the awareness that their active involvement can unleash powerful and concrete project energies are also the foundation of the Ghana Shea Landscape Emission Reductions Project (GSLERP)5. This project is dedicated to shea butter and the nearly 400 million trees from which it is derived, primarily located in the northern region of Ghana. Here they are strongly threatened by climate change, as well as by unscrupulous agricultural production practices and the growing reliance on wood for coal and energy production.

«With this programme, we aim to reduce CO2 emissions by 6.13 tonnes over the first 7 years and by 25.24 tonnes in the subsequent years» explains Boatemaa Boateng. As with other initiatives, the focus of the activities launched in 2022 is on supporting local populations, not in a charitable but in a generative way, to jointly chart new paths that respect both the forest and their needs. One notable example is the innovative Taungya system, which involves agroforestry rehabilitation through the allocation of portions of degraded land, to be cultivated following the natural rhythms dictated by the tree canopies. This participatory approach to restoring shea parks «effectively enhances the adaptive capacities of flora, fauna, and the local population, and strengthens existing community resources through efficient nut collection, which is in high demand in the cosmetics sector» Boateng explains.

For the entire region, they represent a crucial source of livelihood, especially for women who, thanks to this project, have access to many shea seedlings and learn how to process and market them.

Whether it is cocoa or shea, the regenerative projects against deforestation initiated by Ghana place women at the center but involve local communities as a whole, providing the skills and knowledge necessary to manage climate crisis-related projects. «Often, these are missing skills, making them even more vulnerable and powerless, but we have overcome this obstacle» says Boatemaa Boateng, discussing numerous awareness and training initiatives, including technical ones, to acquire practical and “ready-to-use” climate resilience skills.

The same approach is adopted in the Forest and Farm Facility programme, implemented under the Forestry Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, now in its second phase. In this case, forest and farm producers are supported, making them the main agents of change capable of creating “climate-resilient landscapes” in the transition zones, high forest, and savannah where they live. To maximise the chances of success, traditional climate change awareness and training initiatives have been complemented by intersectoral meetings involving multiple stakeholders, both locally and nationally, to create the necessary synergies.


Overtourism threatening Bali

Saving forest biodiversity requires listening and collaboration, whether the forests are threatened by the climate crisis, reckless cocoa and shea nut production, or overcrowding from tourism, better known as overtourism. In many areas, this phenomenon accompanies extreme events, sometimes becoming the primary concern. This is particularly evident in Bali. In this postcard-perfect location, native communities have been fighting against mass tourism for centuries, especially in the Alas Mertajati Forest and near Lake Tamblingan, unfortunately located just three hours by car from the spas, yoga centers, marine resorts, and tourist shops of southern Bali.

In 2023 alone, 4.5 million international visitors arrived in this area, as many as the island’s native inhabitants. This influx has encouraged the destruction of more forests and mangroves and the draining of new wetlands to make way for new hotels, resorts, and shopping centers. This type of tourism is called “4S tourism”: Sea, Sun, Sand, and Self, because it excludes the “C” of local Culture, mutual Comprehension, or respectful Coexistence.

Indonesia is well acquainted with this issue: according to Global Forest Watch, its tropical rainforest, the third-largest in the world, lost 4.12 million hectares of forest cover from 2001 to 2022, primarily due to overtourism. This phenomenon drives native inhabitants to demand a role in shaping the present and future of their ancestral lands. Since their voices go unheard, two groups seemingly on the sidelines of the scene have joined forces to try and amplify their message.

Art and journalism to raise awareness

With the Kisah Rimba (Jungle Story) project6, part of the “Food Estate Program Destroying Indonesia’s Small Islands” and supported by the Pulitzer Center Rainforest Journalist Fund (RJF), international journalists and Balinese artists collaborated to create artworks that highlight the current threats to forests and the food security of local communities.

Shots from the Bali Kisah Rimba project exhibition curated by Made Bayak. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of the author.

The exhibition7 took place in Denpasar, Bali, in December 2023, allowing many tourists to become aware of the injustices faced by local indigenous farmers, which exacerbate the already existing social inequalities in the region. «It was supposed to take place in Jakarta, but I suggested moving it to Bali, the real international gateway, to attract a larger audience» says Made Bayak, the Balinese artist who curated the initiative. «In order to consistently engage them, we also organised a series of events, workshops, and opportunities to meet with the communities of Bali itself». Bayak tries to convey what he sees happening in his homeland:

More and more land is being eroded by mass tourism, constantly at work to create new buildings that damage our forests, which are also precious sources of clean water for us.

Made Bayak attended the Indonesian Art Institute in Denpasar. His grandfather and great-grandfather were readers and writers of lontar (ancient Balinese manuscripts) and authors of many rajahs (mystical Balinese drawings). Since 2010, with the group Sanggar Anak Tanguh (Building Strong Children), he has been organising courses to enhance children’s innate creativity and address the shortcomings of the public education system in Bali. In 2011, during his solo exhibition at the Griya Santrian Gallery (Bali), he organised visits for schools, with themed discussions on the environmental issues represented. In 2023, he was a finalist for Singapore’s Sovereign Art Prize. He regularly exhibits his works in Bali, Germany and Poland, and develops art projects for schools and communities, also realising awareness-raising events on environmental issues. In the future, he hopes to publish a book and create a museum on the plastic that invades Bali. (Pic by Kartika Dewi)

Visit his instagram profile

Changing tone and expression, he talks about what he and other artists have achieved: «We informed visitors about what is happening through our artworks, also gaining significant international media coverage and sparking lively and engaging discussions on the issues we care about. It was gratifying to hear the many questions the artworks provoked in visitors».

In the works of the artist Gennetik, the forest appears as a vital water resource to be preserved for the community, while in Gus Dark’s comics, its importance for food production and monkey life is emphasised. The paintings of Damar x Bayak depict a resort threatening the forest on the small Pari Island, using powerful and engaging symbolism. In a completely different way, the shots of Ulet Ifansasti, a reporter photographer who has faithfully documented the significant impact of the climate crisis on the forests, are also powerfully striking. Through photography, Hafidz Mubarak gave voice to indigenous populations, letting their faces tell the story of life in the forests they are losing year by year. These images are joined by those from the Gfja collective and their photo-educational projects dedicated to the communities, while Slinat “shouted” the suffering of his land by creating large murals depicting the many mangroves destroyed by advancing tourism. In a more delicate yet equally incisive manner, artist Aqil Reza decided to narrate the symbolic value of the forests as keepers of ancient cultures and symbols, echoed in the verses of poet and writer Pranita Dewi.

«In Balinese culture, human beings are born from the womb of a mother created by the elements of the forest, known as Banaspati Raja» Bayak explains. «Rain falls from the sky to make the land fertile so that various seeds can live and develop into a forest (boma). This is the universal concept of the forest in Bali, illustrating the relationship between water source conservation and maintaining the cosmology and life cycles of humans, animals, and plants».

As an artist, Bayak is committed every day to conveying «the environmental damage that is causing severe social inequality. Painting, music, theatre, and other art forms should support and align with local communities to save our environment and culture together: these populations play a fundamental role in the future of this land and, paradoxically, they are the ones who pay the highest price to protect their areas» Bayak says, inviting everyone to look at Bali to truly understand «what forests mean to those who live in them and have always lived in them. Here, every village area has its forest, where various types of plants grow to meet different needs and can also be used by surrounding communities. Those like me who were born here have a strong connection to the forest, having played there throughout our childhood, spending entire days and learning from nature. And nature has taught me many things to this day».

His stance is not against tourism but rather a call to clarify the vision for Bali’s future. «What is happening today is very worrying: only 1% of Bali’s population benefits from this booming sector, and local communities are merely secondary players in the grand field of mass tourism».

The future can still be shaped, however, and Bayak, along with some colleagues, has already started to do so. These projects show that there is ferment and a direction to take: that of conscious co-design. Now, it is up to everyone to move forward together to generate change and regenerate the forest, as it has taught us to do.

  1. Scientific name for the rubber tree, native to the Amazon rainforest but widely cultivated in Asia since the 1800s. For more information see ↩︎
  2. For the text of the European Union law on the availability on the market of certain goods and products associated with deforestation and forest degradation, including natural rubber, see ↩︎
  3. For more on the scientific study published in Conservation Letters showing how the EU law on deforestation-related products is not enough to save forests and regenerate them, see Warren‐Thomas E., Ahrends A., Wang Y., Wang M. M. H., and Jones J. P. G. (2023). Rubber’s inclusion in zero‐deforestation legislation is necessary but not sufficient to reduce impacts on biodiversity. Conservation Letters, 16(5). ↩︎
  4. To visit the REDD+ platform in Ghana, with details and initiated projects: ↩︎
  5. On the Emission Reduction Project related to shea production in Ghana, see https://www ↩︎
  6. On the Pulitzer Center-supported Rainforest Journalist Fund (RJF) project that unites Bali artists and journalists from around the world around the fate of Indonesia’s forests, see Duangdee V. (2024). Artists, Grantees Reflect on Bali Exhibition That Focused on Indonesia Forests, Pulitzer Center. ↩︎
  7. For an overview of the works created and exhibited by the artists for the Indonesian forest project, curated by Made Bayak, see ↩︎


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