Ye Linchang is a forest ranger near Shufang Town, in Northern Fujiang Province. He’s seen first-hand the difference FSC certification can make in people’s lives.

When the Longtai Company took over the contract for the local bamboo forests in 2013, lives changed. Longtai is a supplier for IKEA and has to match up to the Swedish giant’s rigorous requirements – one of which is, wherever possible, FSC certification.

With the support of WWF and Chinese government agencies, Longtai worked with local producers to help them improve their operations and meet the standard.

Previously, villagers had been clearing slow-growing natural forests to plant fast-growing bamboo, and using large quantities of chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Biodiversity decreased, birds left, pests increased and erosion took hold. The bamboo began to die across large areas.

Longtai’s new sustainable approach, which includes leaving the areas of natural forest and cutting out the chemicals, has brought a dramatic turnaround. The ecological balance is swiftly improving on all fronts, and bamboo production has increased by 16 per cent.

But it’s only by working very closely with the people who live and work in the forests that Longtai is succeeding – and this is what underpins the model of joint smallholder forestry certification. The idea means bringing the scattered independent smallholders who manage a large proportion of forest area in China together into single forest management units or joint ventures. The farmers retain their independence but benefit from a collective framework geared toward long-term sustainability.

Smallholders in China See Fruits of Certification

The story unfolds in a similar way in Shandong.

Zhang Zaijun, a popular farmer in Linyi City in Shandong province joked that when he first learnt about FSC certification, he “had no idea” why trees should be certified. But now, “if you get FSC certified I’ll pay you 15 per cent more for your trees, and I’ll buy them all, no matter how many you have,” he said laughingly.

With support from WWF and IKEA, a major buyer of timber products from the area, the Linyi Forestry Bureau set about designing a programme that would enable small growers to become certified collectively.

Zhang was approached by the Linyi Forestry Bureau to join the joint certification programme, and lead efforts to persuade other villagers to do so. When officials told him he would be able to sell his trees at a higher price, he went to ask the opinion of the owner of a plywood factory who used to buy wood from him.

The response was convincing, and Zhang started to manage his trees in line with FSC principles. The trees grew bigger. And then Zhang introduced the rabbits. Three thousands of them, in hutches five or six floors high. The rabbits thrive in the cool of the forest, and their droppings fertilize the trees – which Zhang estimates have increased their yield by 30-40 per cent.

Some 30 other nearby households have followed Zhang’s example. The villagers’ healthier local ecosystem means they can raise poultry as well as rabbits in the forest, and they also cultivate mushrooms.

In Linyi as a whole, more than 20,000 farmers have joined the programme.

The smallholder certification framework is all about cooperation – WWF, the Chinese government and businesses come together in the field and engage with individuals who, in turn, work together to assure a sustainable future for all.

It’s a model that’s still evolving, but it’s already changing lives.