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

On a Wednesday in November, while the climate conference COP26 was taking place in Glasgow (70 km straight west from there, but 130 km away along the roads that border the region’s “lochs”, the Scottish builder received indigenous leaders in the ark, invited to tell how they preserve

They also came to visit the Kilfinan Community Forest, one of dozens of initiatives ives who have taken advantage of a reform of local land tenure laws to change the landscape and socio-economic 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 expulsion of peasants at the end of the century 18, “when the elite understood that they would have more profit from sheep and deer than with people”, says Calum MacLeod, director of public policy at Community Land Scotland, which advises more than 100 community tenure entities in the country.

The expulsion, in addition to forcing emigration from 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 pine plantations appeared.

When Blair arrived in the Ti region ghnabruaich, where Kilfinan was installed, “what there was was just a huge dark patch of conifers”, he says, dressed in a hat, boots, a warm jacket and a kilt (kilt worn by Scottish men).

The lack of species diversity and the cycles of commercial forests, in which trees are cut every 40 or 2015 years, impoverished the soil and wildlife, driving away mammals, reptiles, birds and insects.

“The village was also dying; the young people had abandoned him”, says Blair, which led 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 changes in land use, prioritizing purchases to communities, and more guarantees to tenants, called “crofters”, also for forested areas.

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

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

Lessers s need to 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 2015 , residents of the parish of Kilfinan purchased a commercial forest, expanded in 2015 with another conifer area acquired from the government. In total, the lands in the name of the local community now reach 561 hectares (the equivalent of four Ibirapuera parks).

At the same time, in 2010, Community Land Scotland was created 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 they live 40 thousand people.

“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 inverse also occurs: the management and care by a community is the main factor of forest conservation, shows the analysis of 3.100 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 of these groups of farmers against the so-called ” green latifundia”, large areas where companies install forests to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

What the Scottish researcher’s work shows, and Scottish hosts and their indigenous visitors define endem, is that communities are the main driver of environmental conservation, in addition to promoting social justice.

This is also the principle that underlies 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 mature, ready to be cut, and part was cut down to help pay off the debt. In the place, seedlings of native species were planted.

In the last ten years, the trees of the place have fed the sawmill where Ji Cunningham works, Dutchman who moved to the place attracted by the new proposal.

“I had never heard of community forestry until I came here, and it is very different from working in a private company, which aims for profit”, he says, as he transforms logs in boards and posts.

The wood is sold to stores in the region, feeds a furniture factory in the community and is used in the construction of 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 to implement the forestry plan, which, in addition to guaranteeing the income from the wood, it includes rebuilding the original flora, to recover plant and animal biodiversity.

It is not enough to plant or create; it is also necessary to eliminate invasive species — the worst one 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 need to control the population of deer, which expanded with the disappearance of wolves, their natural predators, and today harms 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 in which about 40 children have class once a 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, because they will be the main beneficiaries.”

Michaela says that it has always been one of her and Daniel’s goals to attract more people. 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. The 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, to consolidate it, creating qualified job opportunities for young people 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 him to spend the week in Glasgow.

The impetus to remote work given by the pandemic helped not only the family, who today build their house and rebuild a forest of oaks and other species, but also pointed out a way for these communities: to attract young professionals who can do much of their work online, such as artists and consultants.

Therefore, in addition to managing the land, cutting down commercial forests and replanting forests, the community 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 also built houses for rent — at “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 community forest. The income is reinvested in Kilfinan.

The group has also created a paid summer exchange program, in which young people from 16 to 18 years can learn botany, woodworking, practical civil engineering, path design, risk and health assessment, first first aid and safety notions.

For now, Mary-Lou’s children, aged 8 and 15 years, they don’t think about moving to a big city when they grow up. The youngest says he wants to be a carpenter. The eldest, already 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”.

Beside his family in the late afternoon, at Noah’s Ark, the educator says goodbye to the indigenous leaders who are preparing to return to Glasgow and concludes, together with her young son: “We know that we will not see the forest grown, but we are doing it for the environment and 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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