The road to equal opportunities in Thailand’s forest sector: Women engage in tree planting and timber processing for sustainable livelihoods

Sob Lee is a small village surrounded by lush mountains in the Lampang Province north of Thailand. The village is located at the buffer of the Chae Son National Park, which is a protected area. Authorities therefore closely inspect tree growing, logging and timber processing in the village.

Monruedee Taemduem left her home early in the morning to walk to the planted forest where she grows trees with her husband. Today, she will measure and document the trees for an inventory that allows her and her household to sell their trees legally. This is an activity that was not carried out by women until recently, although it is a crucial step in engaging in the legal timber trade. “These days I measure and document the trees and engage in the business as much as I can,” said Monruedee. “I have become less concerned and more confident in the prospects of our family timber trade.”

The Thai Government has recently enabled smallholders to engage in legal timber trade and processing by filling a self-declaration form. The declaration, developed under the Thai Timber Legality Assurance System, allows smallholders to declare the legal origin of their timber without field inspections by the local forest administration, a major step to simplify the trade in legal timber in Thailand.

A training organised by the Forest Smallholders Project of the European Forest Facility (EFI) with support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) has raised the awareness of women of the opportunities offered by the use of the official self-declaration form. It has also provided them with the skills they need to engage in family timber businesses and play more diverse roles, thereby contributing to more sustainable livelihoods.

Udon Taemduem smiles as his timber processing and trading business is going well.

An eye-opening, inclusive training

Throughout 2021, EFI engaged the Sob Lee tree growers’ group in a series of trainings. This group consists of men and women – mostly teak growers – who got together in 2019 to seek opportunities from legal and sustainable timber trade and processing. Despite the wealth of possibilities in developing sustainable timber trade, the members of Sob Lee tree growers’ group found it challenging to make a decent livelihood from small-scale timber trade.

EFI’s Forest Smallholder Project encouraged the women members of Sob Lee tree growers’ group to partake in the capacity development activities it organised. The women learnt how to utilise Global Positioning Systems (GPS) tools, which help them manage and map data on their tree plantations, and make tree inventories to complete the self-declaration form on their own. Previously, these responsibilities were mostly held by men, often their husbands.

Monruedee realised that the female members can build the knowledge and envision additional income from the timber business. “The knowledge I gained through the trainings helped me understand the timber trading procedures, which used to be my husband’s work,” she said.

“The knowledge I gained through the trainings helped me understand the timber trading procedures, which used to be my husband’s work”

Prasit Aonnom shares technical know-how on wood working with the women members.

Commercial and financial skills also transform gender roles

With increased technical skills, women started to engage in other business areas related to timber processing. They now assess and gather field data from the plantations, negotiate with the plantation owners and clients, and handle timber trade records. These changes and acceptance of women’s contributions are slowly transforming gender roles.

Sound financial management is the cornerstone to the success and sustainability of family timber businesses and community enterprises. Women in Sob Lee village would usually undertake finance duties at the household level only. But families started seeing opportunities to utilise their skills in the family business too.

“I asked my wife to take charge of all financial matters,” said Udon Taemduem, a retired teacher and chairperson of Sob Lee tree growers’ group. After retiring as a local teacher, he faced significant losses in running his timber business. “She is so detailed and accurate in cost-benefit calculations. Thanks to her, our debt-laden business moved to profits. Her negotiation skills with the plantation owners and clients are amazing. We also get a good deal for our purchase and trade orders,” he said.

After acquiring sufficient expertise to handle the self-declaration form through the Forest Smallholders Project’s capacity-building activities, he felt confident that he could purchase timber and transport it across provinces. He also realised that it would be better that his wife and the other women in the group complete the relevant documentation, so that it was no longer necessary to hire local officials for this task.

Despite men still overseeing the final checks of official documents and liaising with the government officials, women’s enhanced capacities have increased their participation and roles in the timber supply chain. Prasit Aonnom, a wood processing workshop owner, explains how this happened in his household.

“My wife becomes a business partner whom I always consult and we take decisions together. We share the workload,” said Prasit. “While I coordinate the work with clients, she is managing our finances. While she polishes and paints the wood, I am building the structures and products. We have to make sure that our family successfully earns a living from this timber processing and trade investment.”

Rujinaree Ar-lai shows her wood lamp product made from wood waste.

Empowered Sob Lee women contribute to sustainable livelihoods

Building from these experiences, the Sob Lee female members have gained more self-confidence in communicating their ideas and taking initiatives. Participation in the group activities and the project’s technical trainings in plantation management and wood-working techniques have cultivated women’s assurance to engage with men as equals.

“I become more vocal in expressing and proposing my ideas at the village and community meetings,” said Rujinaree Ar-lai, a wood workshop owner and a member of Sob Lee tree growers’ group. “I am more confident of my technical knowledge and more open about my roles, regardless I am a woman.”

The Sob Lee female members also envision many avenues forward to increase their rural economic opportunities from optimising wood harvesting offcuts and processing leftovers. Thongphian Lisakun shows keen interests to continue working in the group with the other members to turn recycled wood waste into higher-value products for additional income.

“I have learned so much after joining the Sob Lee tree growers’ group, particularly in how we share and discuss ideas equally and openly,” she said. “We receive more trust and recognition in our capacities to excel in the timber business. Now we are exploring ways to optimise the forest products, not only the timber but leaves, twigs, and so on. We see the value to make products from these materials.”

As they are experimenting ways to generate additional income from wood products and create their own trademark, including using digital tools, the challenges that restrict women’s participation in the timber supply chain are incrementally tackled. Engaging women throughout small-scale wood supply chains from harvest to market of their finished products, can unlock their economic potential and improve rural livelihoods and household resilience.

“I am more confident of my technical knowledge and more open about my roles, regardless I am a woman.”

Thongphian Lisakun works on her wood product made from timber processing waste at the Forest Smallholders’ wood-working training workshop on 18 October 2022.

This publication was produced by the European Forest Institute with support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the European Forest Institute and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of funding organisations.

Author: European Forest Institute

Date: 13 December 2022