But is this true?
Tree Aid has been working in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali, mostly with women, and now has evidence of what their programmes have achieved. An independent study looked at the eight years until 20012.
In that time 300,000 trees were planted. And it is the women in the 116 villages and 21 communes who have benefited most.
The trees have helped them improve their food output, increasing security in the difficult months – the ‘hunger months’ – before the next harvest, when there is often little or nothing to eat.
But it has also provided an income for the 4,454 people who have started small businesses. Eight out of ten of these are women.
So what are the results?
They are modest, but encouraging. In Burkina Faso incomes have risen by 37% and in Mali by 13%.
The villagers now produce 27 different products, ranging from soap and cooking oil to raw materials for cosmetics, food and drinks. Most are sold in local markets, within 20 kilometres of where they live.
Loans that were taken out to get these enterprises off the ground have almost always been repaid, so the villagers have not been left sinking deeper into debt.
Overall, the independent evaluation concluded that:
“TREE AID partners were unanimous in recognizing the high level of achievement of results, and especially the quality of the activities that have undoubtedly contributed to improving the living conditions of the beneficiaries“.
These are the economic benefits, but there has been a wider environmental benefit too.
The report found that local government has been encouraged by the results and has increased its work to help manage the forests. And in the case of Mali, the success of the project has prompted the authorities to allocate additional areas of land for community enterprises.
So what needs to be improved?
- The project introduced appropriate technology to improve the quality of non-timber forest products through improved processing. Community enterprises still need further training to ensure these are managed and maintained effectively.
- More work is needed to develop a market information system that can be easily accessed and used by rural smallholders to inform their decision making in marketing and negotiating prices.
- There is a need to develop working partnerships with larger commercial businesses including international companies so as to develop larger markets for smallholder entrepreneurs.
- There is a need to continue to build the capacity of local authorities as key agencies in supporting the development of rural smallholder businesses.
- There is an ongoing need to support the development of businesses to ensure they are viable and grow in the long-term through e.g. the development of cooperative unions or trade associations.