Let’s be honest: most of us can’t afford to dedicate our entire lives to being “environmentally friendly,” especially in developing countries that offer limited economic opportunities to their people.
On top of the everyday challenges of earning money, maintaining a household and paying for necessities in an ever-more hostile economy, many of the world’s less privileged citizens face the growing problems of landscape degradation, deforestation and desertification – not to mention the looming threat of the climate crisis.
But nature still has gifts to offer, and communities can capitalize on them by going into business with her. In rural areas, community businesses can help alleviate poverty, better conserve natural landscapes, and slow brain drain to cities and urban areas. Viable economic opportunities at the community level can also help preserve cultural groups and family ties.
Although each case is unique, there is an increasing body of successful pilot projects run in partnership with organizations like the Resilient Landscapes Coalition, the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF).
The business case for communities
The term “community business” can refer to any type of enterprise run by a local community for the benefit of its people. In a sustainable development context, they are often centered on renewable resources like forests. For example, a community forest enterprise can support the production of sustainable timber, agroforestry or charcoal, as well as harvest and sell non-timber forest products including honey, fruits, mushrooms and medicinal plants.
Many traditional communities already have proven management strategies that can benefit nature. In fact, a recent study shows that Indigenous-managed land can be even more biodiverse than national parks and other protected areas.
Finding the right market niche, however, can be challenging. Communities are not like traditional “businesses”, says CIFOR scientist Amy Duchelle in an article for Forests News, and trying to make community businesses behave the same way will likely result in disappointment.
Nevertheless, proponents of community-led initiatives must make the business case to potential investors and build new supply chains with supporting infrastructure, including buyers, shippers, business advisors, social and environmental scientists, accountants and legal experts. Much like a tree, community business needs favorable conditions to grow, and some ‘species’ are more delicate than others.
Similar to how farmers need good seeds, community businesses must be sown from a good-quality idea or plan, which requires members to come together and identify needs and opportunities. Scientists and consultants can also help community members make their business case with targeted research and technical support for their project.
Enabling conditions for community business
Once the seed is planted, success hinges on its enabling conditions. The burgeoning community business must be watered with financial investments and fertilized with supporting legislation and supply chains.
However, there can often be a mismatch between green projects and investors with the resources to help them grow. In other words, there are currently more raw opportunities than fertile ground for developing community businesses.
Even when there are investors or microfinance loans in place, the community management structure can be threatened by more powerful private or government stakeholders.
After all, what incentives does a company have to buy raw materials from smallholders when they could simply buy up the land and mass-produce timber, oil palm or other products on plantations? Similarly, why should a lawmaker protect community tenure rights when larger companies can deliver faster growth to the national economy and achieve global recognition?
To answer these questions, we need to look at long-term solutions and understand the consequences of short-sighted profit seeking.
Innovative strategies like this oil palm role-playing game in Indonesia can help bring stakeholders together to act out the consequences of different economic and policy decisions in a fun, no-stakes environment. It can also help humanize different stakeholders and promote mutual understanding and respect between companies, smallholder farmers and community leaders.
Meanwhile, scientific organizations can work with communities to provide scientific evidence, technical support, networking, and policy advocacy for these green opportunities. However, the road will still be long and challenging.
Even when the ‘seed’ and outside enabling conditions are favorable, the roots of a successful community business are internal. Communities who go into business together will need to have internal management structures and benefit distributions that equitably benefit all members.
Often, these business relationships can draw on time-tested Indigenous governance laws. However, certain norms and traditions can also perpetuate inequalities between men and women or between those of different social classes, leading to conflict. This is another area where community businesses can benefit from expert guidance, such as educational courses and modules to promote good management and social equity.
Today, there are more resources and success stories for community business than ever before. But it remains a constant uphill battle to push past political inertia and short-termism towards a more prosperous future for local communities and their enterprises.