Rural Canadians are known for a do-it-yourself approach to living and in the Maritimes, that approach is taken to a whole new level. Skills that are dwindling in other parts of Canada, such as home butchery, pressing cider, cutting and splitting firewood or scything grass, are alive and well on the East Coast.
So what happened when some young Atlantic Canadians took this DIY approach on the road? The result was Community Forests International (CFI), an international organization formed in 2007 by Jeff Schnurr, a tree planter from Sackville, New Brunswick.
The idea came to Schnurr while he and some friends were backpacking on the small island of Pemba, Tanzania. After years of clearing land to grow crops, build houses and produce charcoal, much of Pemba had been deforested. Noting the tree planting skills of Schnurr and his friends, Pembans asked if they too could plant trees – and more importantly, how they could go about it. The Canadians jumped at the chance to help out, except for one hurdle. Tropical forests are very different from forests in the Great White North.
Using their practical tree planting experience and lessons learned from back home, Schnurr and his colleagues looked to the islanders for the local skills and knowledge that would be required to reforest Pemba. Combined with a strong local work ethic and a strong desire to plant trees that would benefit the community, turned out to be a winning approach.
The result was an upheaval of the typical international aid mentality, whereby Pembans relied on funds and knowledge flowing to their island from outside sources. Instead, CFI worked as friends and collaborators to develop community-led change.
In six years, the group has worked with over 1,800 Pembans to plant over 1 million trees.
“We have planted these trees because we want to help our families,” says Fatma Rashid Seif, a community member and tree planter. ”We have planted to provide incomes and food, but we have planted also because we want our children to know these trees.”
And the benefits don’t stop there. “Everything we do always has a livelihood component,” says Schnurr, now Executive Director of CFI. “So if you plant trees, sometimes it’s for conservation, but sometimes it’s for timber or for fuel wood.”
CFI and Pembans have also planted over 60 acres of food crops between the rows of planted forests. They’ve built eight rural solar energy systems to power homes and community hubs and built rainwater storage facilities capable of collecting over 350,000 litres of water. Stoves have been innovated to use less wood for cooking, and cement bricks have been replaced with sustainable, earth blocks.
Although the original scope of the project was to work in five communities around Pemba, information has begun to spread. “We had a carpenter come to put a roof on a rainwater harvesting system. He saw one community planting trees, went back home and started his own nursery,” Schnurr says.
The organization’s next big idea is to build a Rural Innovation Campus in Pemba that will allow DIYers from around the world to come to the island to learn and share their knowledge with other rural land-use innovators. CFI has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help them fundraise for this project, which expires later this week.
After two years working on Pemba, Community Forests International returned to the Maritimes in 2009 looking for ways to test their beliefs and share knowledge on home turf.
“Although the regions are different our vision is the same,” Schnurr says.
Watching Pembans steward their land and make a living in the process, and driven by a desire to bridge the environmental and economic divide often found in rural Canada, CFI has started organizing workshops in restoration forestry, beekeeping, timber framing and food forest gardening. So far, over 400 participants have taken part in these workshops, creating a strong network of local homesteaders, DIYers and rural change agents.
“There are tremendous links and inspiration to be gained between our Maritime culture and those found in other places around the world, such as Pemba,” Schnurr says. ““We believe that communities can change the way they work on the land to improve our planet’s forests. We believe in solutions and we believe in community.”