Expert article
Edit 04 May 2022
by Rossella Soldi

Local action plans for forest bioeconomy development: a mission impossible?

Forest bioeconomy action plan_cover
Local Forest Bioeconomy Action Plan
One of the main objectives of the UFIL project is to contribute developing a local bioeconomy ecosystem which is based on the sustainable exploitation of the municipality’s forest resources. Towards this scope, the project has to conclude its 4-year journey by developing a Forest Bioeconomy Action Plan for Cuenca. According to the original design of UFIL, the action plan is prepared in liaison with other institutional stakeholders at the provincial, regional and national level, envisages collaboration and networking mechanisms among forest-related businesses, and fosters the development of a brand associated to a sustainability seal. But how does a local action plan for forest bioeconomy look like? Do examples of local action plans for forest bioeconomy exist?

While searching for plans prepared by other European local authorities towards the development of forest-based bioeconomies, I came across a French case  that is useful to look at in more detail to see how these planning tools may be shaped locally.

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Across the EU, it is difficult to find published examples of local plans for forest-based bioeconomy development. Some cities in Scandinavian countries strongly base their economy on forests and on wood in particular. But their wood-based economy is already so mature that they do not need an action plan to further focus their interventions on the sector. In addition, these local economies are often developed as part of regional strategies. This is the case, for example, of the Municipality of Joensuu, the capital of North Karelia, in Finland, whose forest bioeconomy is strictly linked to the one of the Region. In fact, the most common scale used to put forward operational forest bioeconomy action plans is the regional level. It is no coincidence that the European Forest Institute’s ‘Bioregions Facility’, whose aim is to support the development of forest bioeconomy, focuses on a regional scale (and North Karelia is one of the three participating regions).

Therefore, a review of locally triggered forest-based bioeconomies has not produced many results, but  I found a good example in the continental part of France, and in particular in the south of the Lorraine region, department of Vosges. Here, an inter-municipal local authority named ‘Pays d'Épinal Coeur des Vosges’ implements a series of actions to promote and value its territory’s wood economy. This web article investigates further this French case and looks at those elements of the French local action plan that may provide UFIL with ideas or models to be replicated in a 'Forest Bioeconomy Action Plan for Cuenca'. The exercise makes sense as the two local authorities are somehow comparable. ‘Pays d'Épinal Coeur des Vosges’ encompasses 168 municipalities for a total of some 140,000 inhabitants and a forest area of about 100,000 ha. The Municipality of Cuenca has slightly more than 55,000 inhabitants and about 77,000 hectares of forest area out of which almost 56,000 hectares are owned by the public sector (mainly by the municipality itself).

Pays d'Épinal Coeur des Vosges’ gathers together three inter-municipal entities. In very simple (actually, simplistic) terms, it aggregates these administrative entities and their municipalities with the aim to cooperate on certain aspects. Aggregation takes the form of so called ‘territorial and rural balance poles’, i.e., collaborative public establishments serving the needs of those territories that are located outside metropolitan areas. If the governance of this sub-regional public establishment is a bit complex, its attitude towards forest resources is very similar to that of the Municipality of Cuenca. The importance of wood in supporting the territory’s economy was acknowledged since the mid-1980s, but it is in late 2011 that these local authorities applied for national funding to develop a wood value chain and a territorial ecosystem around their forest resources. By highlighting the similarity to Cuenca, French local authorities of the ‘Pays d'Épinal Coeur des Vosges’ established a business incubator of wood/forest-related companies, created a collective brand ('Terres de Hêtre') and prepared a Territory Forest Charter  towards the development of a forest ecosystem (Lenglet and Caurla, 2020). This Forest Charter is, in fact, very similar to an action plan and is looked at in more detail in the next sections.

The Territory Forest Charter of the ‘Pays d'Épinal Coeur des Vosges’ (‘the Chart’) is a local initiative and is the result of a consultation process among the stakeholders concerned by the territory’s forests. It was published in 2016. Its appropriateness as an example for the City of Cuenca is evident starting from its scope. The Chart’s overall scope is the involvement and information of the general public about forests, their management and their three main functions: environmental, economic, and social. The Chart’s specific scope is to develop a dynamic and innovative forest-based sector and industry that is able to create businesses and jobs as well as to contribute to the sustainable economic development of rural areas. These general and specific scopes perfectly fit the goals of UFIL. 

By looking at the building elements of the Chart, several opportunities for replication in UFIL are identified.

The Charter is organised into four main sections looking  at (i) the socio-economic  conditions of the territory, (ii) the wood/forest value chain, (iii) the challenges and the strategy, and (iv) the objectives and the action plan.

Opportunity for replication in UFIL. The idea to use the Action Plan as an awareness tool for the general public is worth to be considered. In order to pursue this dissemination scope, an introductory section of the plan could be dedicated to the updated socio-economic analysis of Cuenca and its province as well as of the forest resources (e.g., biomass) and related industry (e.g. number, size and type of the businesses those activities are related to the forest sector). UFIL produced in its second year an analytical document on the state of the art of the above aspects. With respect to the existing document -  that has been also used for training purposes in the project’s innovation lab - the introductory sections would need to be shorter and informative on key facts using an attractive layout, pictures and info-graphics.

Before presenting the lines of action, the Chart clearly identifies the problems and the strategy to address them. This is done in a very brief manner as the focus is kept on proposed solutions (i.e., the action plan) rather than on existing constraints. Challenges/problems are logically derived from the socio-economic analysis and the analysis of the wood/forest value chain made in the introductory sections of the Chart. In addition, challenges/problems are also drawn taking into account the results of the consultations carried out among all relevant stakeholders.

Opportunity for replication in UFIL. UFIL has gained in the last three years enough content (information and knowledge) and feedback from a wide range of stakeholders to be able to derive a short and clear list of challenges. Among the challenges identified by the ‘Pays d'Épinal Coeur des Vosges’ that may be shared by UFIL are the mobilisation of private forest owners, the identification of new uses for forest-related resources and the finding by the local public authorities of a trade-off between forests’ functions. Importantly, among the challenges identified is also found the feasibility of the implementation of the Charter. In fact, if an action plan represents a sort of commitment document for those in charge of its implementation, it also needs to be operative, i.e., not a document for the shelf but a document for concrete interventions/projects/activities.  

outputs of a brainstorming session on the future of UFIL

 

The Chart includes 16 actions grouped around five main objectives. For each action a template is filled. The template includes the following: the level of priority (e.g., high); a brief critical analysis of the issues addressed; the action's objectives; the foreseen activities; the target groups/beneficiaries; the implementing actors/stakeholders; the funding sources potentially available for financing the activities; results indicators for monitoring purposes; and indicative budget needs per year.

Opportunity for replication in UFIL. The way the Chart presents the action plan is comprehensive but at the same time it reflects a degree of flexibility for implementation as activities are kept at a very simple level (headlines) and there is no timeline. Still, the naming of implementing actors/stakeholders and the specification of the funding sources and of the yearly budget clearly demonstrate commitment to implementation. In addition, the identification of results indicators allows the plan to become an accountable and transparent tool, including towards the general public whose awareness the plan intends to raise. The five objectives identified in the Chart can make sense also for UFIL. They are (in brackets are shortly reported the 16 actions): 1. activate and communicate the Charter (defining the leadership of the action plan; promoting the  territory's brand; organizing yearly events; sharing and disseminating); 2. promote research and development as well as the  identification of new wood products (promoting the use of wood in buildings, creating new markets for forest products, supporting research projects and innovation centres); 3. promote the economic growth of the wood industry (enhancing knowledge and training opportunities, defining the ways to optimize sawmills' production, using wood-based jobs for social inclusion purposes); 4. support forest-related local businesses and value chains (improving the operation of local sawmills by better matching wood supply and demand, improving the linkages between first and second transformation units); and 5. improve the dynamism  of the forest sector across the territory (fighting fragmentation of forest land, mobilizing private forest owners, simplifying the management of public forests, protecting the environment).

The 16 actions of the Charter guide local projects and stakeholders' cooperation. Thus, a local action plan takes both the function of a collaborative framework and of an operative tool showing what needs to be done and by whom. According to the work of the thematic group on 'Mainstreaming of the bioeconomy' of the European Network for Rural Development (ENRD, 2019), successful bioeconomy processes - including those driven by local needs and by a bottom-up approach - are characterized by:

  • the active engagement of diverse actors sharing a common vision;
  • the creation of added value that remains in the local economy;
  • the existence of a policy framework facilitating collaboration and innovation.


The action plan UFIL has to deliver is an opportunity to strengthen the local development of Cuenca's forest bioeconomy by envisioning the work of the future around goals shared by the involved stakeholders. It is a way to show commitment by  the key institutional local actors, engage the private sector, and  raise the general public's awareness. On dissemination, since the ambition of UFIL is to develop in the mid-to-long term a forest bioeconomy model for southern European countries, it would be good for the action plan to be translated into English. This would increase the document's visibility, accessibility and dissemination. Furthermore, considering the scarcity of existing examples of local action plans for forest bioeconomy development, the upcoming Forest Bioeconomy Action Plan of Cuenca is likely to become a reference document for several local authorities across the EU, not only in the Iberian Peninsula, but also in the Mediterranean area.

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UFIL project partners in November 2021: brainstorming session on the future.

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