How groups are repopulating Scotland with trees and children


What does the skeleton of a Noah’s Ark do on top of a hill overlooking an arm of the Atlantic Ocean in western Scotland? “While countries discuss the climate crisis, I wanted to remember that the seas are rising and we must all be in the same boat to save the planet”, says its builder, Daniel Blair.

To build the boat, almost 30 meters long and 5 meters high, Blair used wood that he took from another project he conceived 25 years ago: a community forest, surrounded by small properties where young families rebuild the original forests and repopulate cities. emptied by aging and the rural exodus.

On a Wednesday in November, while the COP26 climate conference was taking place in Glasgow (70 km west of there in a straight line, but 130 km away along the roads that border the region’s lochs), the Scottish builder welcomed leaders indigenous people, invited to tell how they preserve their forests.

They also came to see the Kilfinan Community Forest, one of dozens of initiatives that took advantage of a reform in local land tenure laws to change the landscape and socioeconomic dynamics of Scotland, one of the most land-rich countries in the world.

A tiny fraction of the Scottish population, 0.025%, owns 67% of rural areas.

Such inequality was produced by the forced eviction of peasants in the late 18th century, “when the elite understood that they would profit more from sheep and deer than from people”, says Calum MacLeod, director of public policy at Community Land Scotland, which advises more than hundred community-owned entities in the country.

The expulsion, in addition to forcing the emigration of Scots to Australia, the United States and Canada, also led to the destruction of the original forests – formed by oak, birch, willow and ash – in place of which pastures or large commercial plantations of Pine trees.

When Blair arrived in the Tighnabruaich region, where Kilfinan was installed, “there was just a huge dark patch of conifers,” he says, dressed in a bonnet, boots, a winter jacket and a kilt.

A lack of species diversity and commercial forest cycles, where trees are cut every 30 to 40 years, have depleted the soil and wildlife, driving away mammals, reptiles, birds and insects.

“The village was also dying; the young people had abandoned it,” says Blair, prompting him to conceive an “intentional ecovillage” on the edge of the small town. “So the ecovillage would benefit from having a school, a market, a pub and a post office, and Tighnabruaich would gain new residents, young families, children.

The opportunity for change came at the end of the last decade, when legislation began to encourage a change in land use, giving priority to purchases to communities, and more guarantees to tenants, called “crofters”, also for forest areas.

The security generated by the legal reform has sparked two waves of “crofters,” says Gordon Gray Stephens, founder of Native Woods, which advises on rebuilding native forests at Kilfinan.

After a first wave of local farmers, families or young people came from different regions of the country, many of them from urban backgrounds, looking for an alternative way of life that would help fight the climate crisis.

Tenants must maintain forest cover, but they can also form orchards, practice agriculture and livestock farming integrated with forestry, cultivate vegetable gardens or set up flower greenhouses and seedling nurseries.

In 2010, residents of Kilfinan Parish purchased a commercial forest, expanded in 2015 with another conifer area acquired from the government. In total, the land on behalf of the local community now amounts to 561 hectares (the equivalent of four Ibirapuera parks).

At the same time, in 2010, Community Land Scotland emerged, to advise on the creation of joint properties. Eleven years later, the community areas in Scotland occupy more than 200 thousand hectares (5 times the Guanabara Bay), where 25 thousand people live.

“When communities buy the land they live and work on, they are free to reinvigorate their areas and improve the prospects of future generations,” argues MacLeod.

The reverse is also true: management and care by a community is the main factor in conserving forests, shows the analysis of 3,100 peer-reviewed studies by Neil Dawson, a researcher at the University of East Anglia.

The results, published in the journal Ecology and Society, support a new battle by these groups of farmers against so-called “green latifundia”, large areas where companies install forests to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

What the Scottish researcher’s work shows, and the Scottish hosts and their indigenous visitors argue, is that communities are the main driver of environmental conservation as well as promoting social justice.

This is also the principle underlying the announcement, made during the COP, of a fund of at least US$ 1.7 billion (almost R$ 10 billion) destined directly to peoples fighting to protect their territories or demarcate them.

“People care when they’re really involved,” says Michaela Blair, Daniel’s wife. “If you live in the city and only come here on weekends, you don’t understand the ecosystem, you don’t feel that the forest belongs to everyone. People who live here started to volunteer, because they understand that the forest belongs to them, to their children. and grandchildren.”

The forests purchased by the Kilfinan community were ripe, ready to be cut, and some were cut down to help pay off the debt. In place, seedlings of native species were planted.

For the past ten years, the trees on the site have fed the sawmill where Ji Cunningham, a Dutchman who moved to the site attracted by the new proposal, works.

“I had never heard of community forestry until I came here, and it’s very different from working in a private, profit-seeking company,” he says, as he turns logs into planks and fence posts.

The wood is sold to stores in the region, feeds a community furniture factory and is used to build houses on the property. The energy comes from a small hydroelectric plant, which takes advantage of the natural waterfalls of a stream.

A government agency helps implement the forestry plan, which, in addition to guaranteeing income from wood, includes rebuilding the original flora, to recover plant and animal biodiversity.

It is not enough, for this, to plant or create; it is also necessary to eliminate invasive species — the worst of which is the rhododendron, an Asian plant also called “espirradeira” in Brazil. In addition, reforestation has to be done in the correct order, in layers, from bushes and pioneer trees, which grow in full sun, to the more leafy ones that sprout in the shade of their predecessors.

It is also necessary to control the deer population, which expanded with the disappearance of wolves, their natural predators, and today hinders the regeneration of forests, because it tramples or eats the seedlings before they can develop.

Around the Tighnabruaich community forest, there are already three “crofts” and another seven are in the approval process, says Michaela, mother of Angus, 8, as she shows off the outdoor space where about 40 children have classes once a week. week.

“There is a lot of opportunity for learning, and we want to encourage children to love the community forest, so they want to stay involved as they grow up, because they will be the main beneficiaries.”

Michaela says that it has always been her and Daniel’s goal to attract more families to the region, “for social, economic and environmental reasons”: “We wanted to have more people with us who wanted to grow their food, raise their children, and this is happening. school is doing well, there are more children, the habitat is improving, the forest is being taken care of”.

The revitalization of the local school is one of the positive consequences of the ecovillage, but its advocates know that, in order to consolidate it, creating qualified job opportunities for the youngest is essential.

Mary-Lou Anderson, 43, and her partner had been looking for a similar community for several years when they found Kilfinan in 2015. They came with their two children in a motorhome, and the first few years were difficult, she says, as her partner’s job required for him to spend the week in Glasgow.

The boost to remote work given by the pandemic not only helped the family, which today builds their house and rebuilds a forest of oaks and other species, but also pointed a path for these communities: to attract young professionals who can do a good part of their work. online, as artists and consultants.

Therefore, in addition to managing the land, cutting down commercial forests and replanting forests, the community has set up a mental health service, plans a playground and promotes educational events. For restaurants and hotels in the region, it supplies vegetables, fruits and deer meat.

It has also built houses for rent — for “genuinely affordable” values, according to Michaela, something increasingly valued in Europe, which is experiencing strong inflation in housing prices — and it is possible to buy land to build your own house, with wood from the forest. community. The income is reinvested in Kilfinan.

The group has also created a paid summer exchange program, where 16-18 year olds can learn botany, woodworking, practical civil engineering, path design, risk and health assessment, first aid and safety skills.

For now, Mary-Lou’s children, aged 8 and 15, are not thinking about moving to a big city when they grow up. The youngest says he wants to be a carpenter. The oldest, now a teenager, is very involved with the community forest and talks about working in environmental institutions, “but what he likes most is driving big tractors”.

With her family at the end of the afternoon, at Noah’s Ark, the educator says goodbye to the indigenous leaders who are preparing to return to Glasgow and concludes, alongside her young son: “We know that we will not see the forest grown, but we are doing it for the environment and for the children. So that they can see the forest in all its glory and maturity”.

The journalist traveled to Tighnabruaich at the invitation of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities (GATV)


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