|About the Author|
Bob Chard is an RFS member living in Somerset with a long term interest in forestry and rural land use. He currently works on climate change adaptation issues, including a project to develop Tropical Hardwood Importation Substitute (THIS) trees, in his own woodland creation scheme.
Pictures: Mike Goldwater/ TREE Aid
Those of you who support Tree Aid will know that this UK based charity now funds the planting of more than a million fruit and nut trees every year in the Sahel countries of Africa. Most of those trees are planted by community enterprises as part of sophisticated agroforestry land improvement projects. Having lived in Northern Nigeria myself I believe there are some agroforestry practices there which could usefully be adopted in UK. Perhaps the most useful is a legal concept which is called “economic trees” in local land laws.
Economic trees is a common situation in Nigeria where the owner of permanent arable land is not the owner of commercially productive trees which are growing on that land. In English land law terminology it is just another type of partial ownership rights to land, such as, for example, sporting rights, mineral rights or wayleaves. In the case of economic trees the right is always time limited, usually to the commercial life of the trees. The tree owner’s rights include rights to access, cultivate and harvest agreed labelled trees, as well as rights to sell, purchase or inherit such trees. There are various ways in which economic trees can be created or purchased, including one off payments, crop sharing, annual payments and ownership transfer payments.
The great advantage of this arrangement for agroforestry is that the arable farmer does not need to learn anything about silviculture or the marketing of tree products in order to get an income from agroforestry trees, as well as nutrient recycling benefits of trees. Also, the aspiring tree owner does not have the inconvenience of having to buy costly land before he or she becomes a fruit or nut orchard entrepreneur. In fact in Nigeria many economic trees are owned by widows and grandmothers who use them like pension funds. This idea merits serious consideration in UK as means by which farmers who own unmanaged woodlands could gain income from forestry in partnership with economic trees investors who would have a minimum entry level of 1 ha. at a relatively low stocking density.
For example Durham CC is seeking to divest its management interest in woodlands created on restored colliery tips to local communities, such as for example Bear Park village, while still retaining land ownership. If the community interest in the woodlands is vested in a not for profit Industrial and Provident society that society could sell economic tree rights to any local resident subject to terms and conditions. That has the merit that individual residents could choose to own trees for different products or benefits such as woodfuel, apples, nature conservation or quality timber. A similar legal arrangement could be used to create new woodlots and shelterbelts on the almost treeless Somerset Levels, allowing farmers to diversify income at low risk and with no loss of land ownership. This might achieve a useful contribution to the evolving strategy to tackle flooding and flood risks.