When it comes to getting more from Europe’s rural resources, it’s community that counts. In a small corner of rural Belgium, an inspirational initiative has sprung up which will help build a more economically and environmentally resilient Europe.
Almost 100,000 people in the region of Wallonia own forestland; however, the vast majority of these are small areas, gained through inheritance. For Wallonia, this poses a difficulty. The cost of managing these plots in an economically efficient way can be too high for many owners, who often lack the specialist skills and knowledge to make the most of the resources at their disposal. This in turn reduces the availability of these resources to the wider economy, preventing woodlands from being regenerated and reducing their potentially environmentally positive impact. While the regional government offers various schemes for small forest owners, uptake rates were very small.
Luckily LEADER offered a solution. This rural development methodology combines the knowledge and experience of the rural community with that of sector-specific specialists and governmental organisations in order to improve rural life. Using the principles laid out by LEADER, local people in the municipalities of Assesse, Gesves and Ohey set up a local action group (LAG) called ‘Tiges et Chavées’, with support from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD). Through Tigre et Chavees the local government was able to set up a scheme with high levels of participation from local forest owners which was directly tailored to their needs.
The results include: the establishment of a database of timber companies operating in the area; demonstrations to over 350 small owners on efficient forest management; and diagnostic checks from private experts for 55 forest owners. To date this has led to the sale of €76,000 of hardwood, firewood and softwood lumber.
These financial advantages can be combined with environmental benefits. Not only has an extra 1.6 hectares of forest been planted as a result of the scheme, but the increased professionalism of the forest management techniques used by local forest owners is having a clear environmental impact. These management methods - known as ‘Pro Silva’ - take a more natural approach, meaning less intervention and fewer negative environmental effects of forestry work.
Individual schemes were also started to target specific issues, such as the prevalence of damaging bark beetles in many of the woodlands in the area. Through the scheme, forest owners worked to remove wood that had been attacked by insects, helping to protect the health of the woodlands as a whole.
The work ‘Tiges et Chavées’ shows how local communities working together can discover new resources and make the best use of them. By applying the LEADER principle, the forest owners of Assesse, Gesves and Ohey have found a way to best work with specialists to make their local area more economically vibrant, whilst helping the environment and contributing to their broader community through the promotion of education and outreach.