Tropical hardwoods have long been in the environmental spotlight as potentially unsustainable. In Asia, for example, the demand for teak can have serious environmental impacts and disastrous effects on local communities. Much of the world’s teak comes from Indonesia, where native forests are often clear-cut. But one cooperative in Southeast Sulawesi is now producing certified sustainable teak for the international furniture market.

In the Konawe Selatan district, individual families own one or more teak agroforest plots of an average size of less than one hectare. Due to legal restrictions – primarily related to the issue of harvesting and transport permits – most districts have only one or two wood buyers who can therefore gain a monopoly over teak prices. Not being organized into groups means that individual farmers in the district are obliged to sell their teak for very low prices.

Previous attempts at cooperatives had failed due to a general lack of understanding among farmers about how they function. But in 2003, a group of farmers partnered with The Forest Trust (TFT) and Jaringan Untuk Hutan (JAUH, Network for Forests) to organize themselves into a cooperative, Koperasi Hutan Jaya Lestari (KHJL): 46 villages were helped to form farmer groups and elect representatives to come together as founding members. “TFT and JAUH brought very complementary skills,” says Ann Busche of TFT, “that were instrumental in developing a successful community forest cooperative. JAUH brought local expertise in livelihood strategies, community organizing and community decision-making techniques…TFT provided professional expertise on the technical aspects of forest management and wood processing, along with market access to international wood retailers seeking Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified products.”

TFT realized that farmers were managing their teak in a largely sustainable manner and were willing to work towards certification from the (FSC), one of the biggest international forest certification programs. The cooperative’s primary reason for becoming certified was the strong demand for FSC teak among European and American buyers, and the opportunity to sell wood for a higher price directly to TFT member factories in Java.

In May 2005, the cooperative received FSC certification for a group of small forest owners, with an initial membership of 196 individuals covering 152 hectares. This has now grown to 744 members and an area of 750 hectares. Along with FSC certification came official recognition that these farmers provide a significant amount of teak to the international market, leading to changing legislation and the right to manage 4,640 ha of state teak plantation area under the Community Plantation (or ‘HTR’ Hutan Tanaman Rakyat) legislation in 2008.

Moreover, the success of this effort has led to an interest in certification of other smallholder products such as cocoa, cashew nuts, and black pepper; information regarding other forms of labelling, such as fair trade; and links to markets looking for such certified products. KHJL has been used as a model for other TFT supported community forest programs in South East Asia as well.

For these farmers, group formation was the only way to afford FSC certification, obtain the necessary legal permits for wood selling, and link more directly to the international furniture market. As well as ensuring that 30% of profits are divided among members, the cooperative also lobbies government for reform of unjust forestry laws, distributes government aid related to agriculture and forestry and is starting a small loan programme.

This story is based on “Linking Small-Scale Agroforests to International Markets for FSC-Certified Wood: A Case Study of the Cooperative for Sustainable Successful Forests, or ‘KHJL’by Robin Barr. More info in the new TFT handbook “Sustainable Community Forest Management; A Practical Guide to FSC Group Certification for Smallholder Agroforests” at