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7 min read

Community-led forestry and climate justice in Timor-Leste: WithOneSeed

Profile of Dom O'Donnell
Written by Dom O'DonnellPosted on 2/8/2021

“Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely encourage tree planting but just planting a sapling is not enough,” says Andrew Mahar AM, Co-Founder and Project Director at WithOneSeed.

“At WithOneSeed, we don’t just plant trees – we grow them.”

A joint project of the xpand Foundation and Foundasuan Ho Musan Ida, WithOneSeed has been developing and running the largest community-led forestry program in Timor-Leste since 2010.

“Our approach is to work in partnership with small landholder subsistence farming communities,” explains Andrew.

“We pay tree farmers an annual incentive payment to nurture their trees on their own land, giving our trees a much higher survival rate.”

“It’s about climate justice, sustaining development and achieving climate regulation at local and national levels in Timor-Leste.”

Joining Australian Communities Foundation in 2012, WithOneSeed has been using a Future Fund over the past decade to give people the opportunity to make tax-deductible donations towards the program.

In this Q&A, we chat with Andrew about the WithOneSeed model and the importance of taking a community-led approach to forestry in the fight for climate justice.

Tell us about the work of the WithOneSeed program and its impact.

AM: It’s about climate justice, sustaining development and achieving climate regulation at local and national levels in Timor-Leste.

By working with small landholder subsistence farming communities, WithOneSeed is developing capacity for these communities to build local economies, participate in environmental education and establish partnerships to produce a more equal and just world.

Having been developed and refined over the past ten years in Baguia, the program now supports 10 of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals by helping to:

  • end poverty and hunger and promote sustainable farming and lifelong learning
  • promote decent work, sustainable agricultural communities and economic growth
  • combat climate change, manage forests and reverse land degradation
  • encourage local, national and global partnerships for sustainable development
  • empower women and children, and particularly girls, by increasing family income, facilitating children’s education and creating family job prospects.

How does WithOneSeed differ from other tree planting initiatives?

Often many tree projects make grand claims about the millions of trees planted or the huge areas that are being planted without any mechanism to monitor the survival rate let alone the growth rate of the trees they claim to have planted. Low survival rates not only make the return-on-investment low; they also bring into question claims about benefits to the planet. 

WithOneSeed is about growing trees, not just planting trees. Our annual incentive payments to tree farmers have given us a 74 per cent survival rate for trees planted. We also monitor the growth of the trees on an annual basis using a purpose-built community forestry management platform, TreeO2.

The reason for monitoring, which includes physically counting every tree planted, is two-fold. The first is we pay the tree farmer for every tree they keep alive. The second is we calculate the carbon stored in the new forests growing under the management of smallholder farmers, and then sell the carbon through international carbon markets, before returning the income to the subsistence tree farming communities.

Where did the idea come from and how did you get started?

It was really a chance meeting with a husband-and-wife couple from Baguia in Timor-Leste. At the time, I was reading Tim Flannery’s landmark essay on climate change, Now or Never.

“the idea of protecting the rainforest had long passed and there was a need to start replacing the forest…”

Flannery advocates for the need to protect the rainforest in the Asia Pacific for two reasons. The first: the more trees on the planet, the more carbon that can be drawn down and stored. The second is that these rainforests provide the livelihoods for many indigenous communities.

The Timorese couple, John and Leopoldina, knew that the idea of protecting the rainforest had long passed and there was a need to start replacing the forest and the livelihoods of their communities. Together, we co-founded WithOneSeed.

WithOneSeed founding staff members with Co-Founders Andrew Mahar and Leopoldina Guterres.

How does WithOneSeed measure the impact it’s having?

WithOneSeed is the first internationally certified smallholder community carbon forestry program under the Gold Standard Foundation in the Asia Pacific region. Being Gold Standard certified requires the program to undergo regular performance audits which hold the program to account, verifying activities both in relation to the carbon store and Sustainable Development Goals.

The TreeO2 community forestry management platform also provides transparency and accountability: TreeO2 holds data on every tree planted, growth rates, survival rates, species and farmer details.

We started in 2010 with 12 farmers who planted 3,000 trees in the first year. Today, there are over 980 tree farmers engaged in managing around 200,000 trees.

Key achievements so far include:

  • Over 5% of Baguia farmers directly involved
  • 30% of Baguia population benefitting financially from WithOneSeed
  • Over 60,000 t CO2e removed from the world’s atmosphere
  • More than 40,000 CarbonSocial carbon credits sold internationally to companies and individuals working toward carbon neutrality
  • Establishment of the Foundasuan Rai Matak (Green Land Foundation) in late 2019 to manage expansion across Timor-Leste to be managed and directed by Timorese for Timorese.

What are WithOneSeed’s plans for the future?

WithOneSeed is now partnering with Oxfam and Foundation Ho Musan Ida in Timor-Leste with significant funding from the European Union to take the program to four other municipalities in Timor-Leste.

“We have a plan to democratise carbon markets and to continue to open up the opportunity for smallholder farmers to generate an income from ‘growing’ trees.”

We’re now also expanding beyond Timor-Leste with a small grant to pilot the program with the Australian Agroforestry Network in the Otway Ranges, Victoria.

We have a plan to democratise carbon markets and to continue to open up the opportunity for smallholder farmers to generate an income from ‘growing’ trees. We have a model, developed in the least developed country in the region, now being implemented in the most developed country in the region. The demand for high-quality carbon offsets is rising and the time is now to push ahead.

How can people get involved?

While we have been quietly going about our business and proving the model works, we are now interested in connecting more with the ACF community and anyone looking to support the program.

Individuals and organisations can contribute either directly or through the WithOneSeed ‘adopt a tree’ program, where they can support the farmers growing trees, or they can work toward net-zero emissions by purchasing high-quality carbon credits from WithOneSeed.

We’re also exploring interest in impact investments in the TreeO2 platform.

The work we have done to date has been organic and we are now looking to make quick progress to have an impact on achieving climate justice and getting the world to net-zero as quickly as possible.

If you are interested in getting involved, you can support the fund with a direct donation below or fundholders can log in to request a grant. If you are interested in learning more or partnering with WithOneSeed, please contact us.

With One Seed

Supporting subsistence communities in Timor Leste to make environments substainable, and supporting universal education and global partnerships.

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