Promoting social integration through sustainable forestry

Through vocational training for at-risk youth and corporate social responsibility activities for companies, SocialForest brings a new model to sustainable forest management that elevates the social dimension of forestry work.

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Photo: Sarah Feder

“You are here to have fun, and to enjoy the forest,” began Joachim Englert, shouting from where he stood, perched nobly with one boot-clad foot resting upon a large rock. Around him, 62 office workers gathered, rapt, in a semicircle on the narrow forest path within Collserola Natural Park in Catalonia. “Forget the office, forget work, and observe what you see around you,” he crooned. Despite the bright sky, the day was rainy and crisp: this was a popular observation among the office workers, who donned matching, deep green raincoats. “This isn’t rain, this is nothing!” laughing, Joachim cheerily led the workers deeper into the forest.

SocialForest is Joachim Englert’s social enterprise brainchild, combining his many years of experience in forestry with a passion for giving back. For Joachim, the forest can be a tool: to teach, to socialize, and to do something about your social and environmental impact.

Englert in Collserola Natural Park

Although SocialForest is, at its core, an enterprise specialized in forest management, its main goal is to train unemployed young people in how to carry out forestry activities. Many of the young people who have trained with SocialForest come from difficult backgrounds that carry a high risk of social exclusion, including immigrants and refugees who arrived in Spain as children. Through the training process and the forestry activities themselves, SocialForest aims to promote social integration and help the young people find jobs. Englert holds that the role of the forest is key not just from a labor perspective, but socially as well: it provides a quiet, meditative environment that promotes easy, natural socialisation.

This social education is also an environmental one. SocialForest is committed to sustainable forest management, carrying out forestry activities designed to mitigate climate change, reduce forest fire risk, and improve the capacity of forests to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere. Their work seeks also to elevate forests as an invaluable resource in the face of climate change: a message that is broadcast to both SocialForest’s young workers, and another, slightly less likely beneficiary.

Forestry tools await the group

The third ingredient of the SocialForest recipe is a service to organize events for employees of companies across Europe who wish to engage in teambuilding activities that contribute toward their corporate social responsibility. While these activities financially support the central social and environmental objectives of SocialForest, they also contribute directly to sustainable forestry activities, as employees get their hands dirty with the real, labor-intensive maintenance of forest areas. The events, held in both Catalonia and in Joachim’s native Germany, represent a confluence of SocialForest’s activities, as young trainees help lead groups of employees to prune saplings and clear the underbrush of forest areas.

Sometimes the job is harder than others. Working with youth who are at-risk of social exclusion can be sensitive, and can require extra time and oversight. The forestry work itself is arduous. And above all, many people do not understand what is truly required of forest management: employees who engage with teambuilding activities generally just want to plant trees. While perhaps a more visual and easy-to-understand way of contributing to a sustainable forest, the real management work is different. Especially as forest fires continue to pose a dangerous threat to southern European forest ecosystems, clearing underbrush and removing unwanted vegetation is among the most important ways to mitigate fire risk.

For some employees who participate in teambuilding exercises, the experience can be jarring. As they walked to the work site from the large coach bus that had dropped them on the side of a winding mountain road, Joachim asked the office workers what they had felt so far. Initially their answers were mixed: “Fear!” — “Vertigo!” – “It’s humid!” But as the ramble continued, employees’ responses were more relaxed, “I hear birds!” exclaimed one, while another asked if they were allowed to pick some of the many mushrooms that sprung up along the sides of the path (they were). The fresh air and foliage began to have a visible effect on the large group.

For SocialForest, that is what it is all about.