In 1111 the Prince Bishop of Trentino granted autonomy to the villagers of the Valley of Fiemme in the Italian Alps. In exchange for the villagers sending him 24 soldiers each year he allowed them to handle their own affairs. Ever since, the Magnifica Communita, a democratic local institution, has managed the valley’s forests and pastures, which belong collectively to its inhabitants. Today, although they stopped sending soldiers a long time ago, the Magnifica Communita owns its own modern sawmill and other forestry enterprises, and its operations have been certified under Forest Stewardship Council standards.
Of course, not all European forests are like the Valley of Fiemme. Few communally – owned forests remain. Even so, smallholders and communities play a major role in modern European forestry. "Communities and Forest Management in Western Europe", produced by Sally Jeanrenaud for the World Conservation Union (IUCN), documents that.
Twelve million European families own and manage forests, which average only 11 hectares in size. Such family-owned forests account for a large portion of the two-thirds of European forests that are privately-owned. In Finland, 70% of forest production comes from family-owned forests and in southern Sweden families own 80% of forestland. Over the last few decades, these family forests have undergone rapid change. Many owners moved to cities or now earn large portions of their incomes from off-farm activities. Recreational uses of forests have become more important. Still, Europe’s relatively equitable ownership of forest resources encourages broad participation in decisions about forests.
Many European small forest owners belong to organizations that provide information, training, and marketing services and represent their interests in policy discussions. Sometimes these associations have their own processing facilities. One association in Sweden, for example, has 33,000 members, who together own 1.7 million hectares of forest and produce ten million cubic meters of timber each year. The association’s members also own a wood-processing company that operates six sawmills and several other processing plants.
Local governments also own significant forest areas in Belgium, France, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. In France, for example, 11,000 local communes own 2.6 million hectares of forest and in 1995 those forests generated over half of all the income that came from publicly-owned forests. The Federation of French Forest Communes regularly presses national policy makers to take into account local interests. Jeanrenaud’s book also provides many examples where European governments are implementing participatory policy processes that allow greater input from a wide variety of local groups concerned with forests.
So there is nothing folkloric about getting the volk (common people) involved in forestry. It works in the Valley of Fiemme, in Sweden, and in many other places in Europe. Rather than some archaic remnant of the past, it may well be the model for the future.
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