Community Forests International is a New Brunswick-based environmental non-profit, working to connect people and their communities to the forests that sustain them. This interview with two of the co-founders, Daimen Hardie and Zach Melanson, has been edited for length and readability.
You operate in rural Africa (Pemba Island, in the semi-autonomous region of Zanzibar in Tanzania) and rural Canada (New Brunswick). What is it about having your feet planted in both worlds that helps you achieve impact?
Daimen: When we founded Forests Intl. in 2008, we worked with our partners in Pemba to create a sister organization called Community Forests Pemba, with its own board of directors and employees. There was a lot of autonomy for each organization from the very beginning.
And so we’ve been going to these islands in the Indian Ocean for many years. That means being on the frontlines of the climate crisis. People are dealing with the effects every day. The issue isn’t academic or abstract. That lights a fire under us.
When our colleague Mbarouk Mussa Omar came to New Brunswick, he was struck by some of the similarities he saw. Some of the root causes of the climate change problem are almost identical between rural Canada and Zanzibar, but the specific actions to address the problems are quite different.
Zach: Seeing the climate change in two different places helps you see the same problem from many different sides. You start learning and applying techniques learned in Zanzibar back here in rural Canada, and vice versa. We relish these opportunities to share knowledge.
The range of your work is extremely diverse, from running an innovation school (Whaelghinbran Farm) to creating a social enterprise (Jaza Energy), to community owned forests, to promoting carbon storage markets. For anyone coming fresh to your work, how do you describe your unique offering?
Zach: We often say we are an enterprising charity or a start-up. We are driven to fight climate change and help local communities adapt and thrive. We’re focused on having a meaningful impact in helping rural communities. They are right on the frontlines, they depend on the environment. In cities, we rely, in turn, on rural communities. However, there’s rarely the same level of innovation being brought to rural communities as there is in cities, but it’s really important that this happens.
Daimen: Adaptability and diversity is part of our unique offering because climate change is such a complex issue. As an organization, we need to adapt too. We have to act with imperfect information, but action is key at this time of urgency. This makes it important to learn every step of the way.
Finding ways for humans to thrive alongside natural systems is really critical at this moment.
You’ve gone from planting trees to far more complex partnerships, relationships and collaborative work — but you’re still focused on trees! How does this orientation equip you to help build a rural green economy for Atlantic Canada?
Daimen: We founded this organization in a tree planting camp. That’s how Zach and I paid our way through school. As rural New Brunswickers, that was one of the work opportunities available to us. This experience didn’t fully align with our ambitions and values. That’s why we created our own opportunity. That entrepreneurial spirit has remained with us, as well as being inspired by having a connection to the natural world.
In New Brunswick, the Acadian Forest is one of the most diverse but also most endangered forests in the world. This was also one of the first places in Canada to be colonized, and so the landscape has been mined a lot, but natural systems want to grow and bounce back, so we’re inspired by that too. We also take practical inspiration from ecosystems. Finding ways for humans to thrive alongside natural systems is really critical at this moment.
Zach: Forests have always been important to us. Forests are a fast way to mobilize against climate change — first of all, by not cutting them all down. They also provide a whole range of “ecosystem services” that we haven’t really valued until recently. Forests are now our best chance at mitigating against climate change catastrophe.
What are some of the indicators you use to measure your success? These could be hard numbers (i.e. trees planted, carbon sequestered) and broader indicators — cultural shifts you’re seeing, relationships you’re building, etc.
Daimen: We collect a lot of data. Our main partner internationally is the European Union, which has very robust reporting. For us, one of the most important measures is income. In Zanzibar, we try to make climate change mitigation and adaptation a day job. Seventy-eight percent of the people we work with improve their incomes. Ninety-four percent of the women we work with control the income they make.
Zach: As Daimen said, if people don’t have a financial incentive to adapt, they won’t do it. In Canada, the carbon sequestration potential of forests is an important part of this. How do we value this in a monetary way? In our current system, a tree is not worth anything when it’s alive. But it is worth something dead. So people will continue to cut down trees because of that incentive, while really, in the long term, they’re worth much more to us if they stay standing.
We’re creating incentives and pathways to do forestry sustainably. We can create ways for people to get paid to do two things: cutting trees and saving trees — making both economically feasible and environmentally responsible.
Putting a price on pollution is key. For rural communities, like where I am, a price on carbon would bring in an incredible amount of money. We have a remarkable forest here and the world needs forests more than ever. Let’s have people managing forests to fight climate change right here in Canada, which would be an economic boon.
What have you learned over the years with Community Forests International that has come as a surprise to you, or defied the expectations you had going into this?
Zach: When we started, I was naive and didn’t know where it would go. I just thought it was a valuable thing to try. It was a bit audacious to start an international charity in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis — especially having no money, no rich uncle to help us! So I think it’s quite amazing how much we’ve achieved in 10 years. We’ve helped 35,000 people in Zanzibar create new income, plant over 2.5 million trees and secure access to energy and water infrastructure. And we’re helping find viable alternatives to the clearcut forestry. You can get a lot done, even as a small team focused on changing big systems.
Daimen: Individuals, companies and governments want to make positive change but they face barriers to acting. I’ve been surprised how little support allies actually need to overcome those barriers and move to impactful, positive shifts. The counterpoint to that is that I’m constantly shocked that for some major players, the climate crisis is literally part of the plan – it’s an external cost of business that has been known about and rationalized for decades. I’ve changed my approach to partnerships recently by imagining the greatest possible outcomes instead of investing too much energy preparing for less than ideal scenarios.