In 1993, Paul Hol founded Form International with a passionate belief that trees and forests play a crucial role in sustaining life on earth and must be conserved. Drawing on his extensive international experience as a senior forestry advisor and specialist in Sustainable Forest Management (SFM), reforestation, and investments, Paul has become an active player and long-term visionary in developing effective solutions for large-scale reforestation and landscape restoration activities worldwide. Concepts developed in Ghana and Tanzania are successful and have become models for replication and upscaling in other countries. Paul still works as CEO of Form International. In this article he shares what makes his work so special.
How it all began
Paul’s passion for nature began during his primary school years when he explored the forest near his home in the Dutch National Park the Veluwe. He soon knew he wanted to work with nature and forests, so he studied tropical Forestry in Velp (NL). After his studies he started working as a sawmill manager for Wijma in Cameroon, and it was here that his fascination with the tropical rainforest was born. He was captivated by the beauty of the immense forests, but was just as excited by the opportunity to work with people from different cultures. It was this experience that eventually led to the founding of Form International. In 1993, Paul established Form International as a subsidiary of Wijma, primarily to implement FSC forest management. Under his guidance, Wijma began obtaining FSC certification in large concessions across Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, the Central African Republic, and Ghana. Form International quickly became a leader in FSC certification in Africa and later also Asia. In 2005, Paul purchased the company from Wijma and continued its operations. His main focus shifted to tropical forest management and conservation, as deforestation rates were increasing with little effort to create new forests. As a result, Paul initiated a pilot program in Ghana to create a forest.
It is all about the people
In 2007, Paul founded Form Ghana, which included a social structure that provided local people with leases and revenue shares. He went to Africa with the intention of planting trees and managing forests sustainably, but found himself most passionate about the people. Paul was dedicated to ensuring local farmers had the opportunity to build and expand their livelihoods, which in turn stimulated development in the region. Paul says “I have always enjoyed working with managers and staff who have a good relationship with their neighbours, a good collaboration. Sometimes this is about ‘having a cup of coffee together’, talk to each other in informal conversations, and keeping the social relations healthy. This is a principle I have tried to establish and maintain in all projects we do”. Possible areas for new projects are always well-researched by the team. We take stock of the current land use and the movement in the region. This includes many conversations with local farmers, and what the residents would like to see happening in the area. What makes them happy? What are their plans? What are their interests?
Conducting a feasibility study is essential for a successful project design. It is important to consider the local context, including surveying the local population and gaining social acceptance before proceeding with the project. Doing so will ensure that the project is not only well-developed, but also supported by the community. Based on this research and these conversations, the strengths and opportunities in an area are identified. This is a common thread running through all Form International’s projects: including local people in the projects and build trustful relationships. With local people we try to always deliver what we promise, to gain and maintain trust. Paul is proud of what he has accomplished and humbled by the growth and development he has seen in the people in different regions where they operate.
Earning trust and respect
“For me, trust is the foundation of success. I am proud that we have earned the trust of partners in collaborations. And also from local people where we work with. In our network we are seen as a very solid partner that can be trusted. A good, recent, example is the funding from FMO (Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank) for our forest carbon accelerator platform Treevive. That we managed to create a trust with such a partner makes me proud. I don’t want to pretend that we don’t make mistakes, but we have proved that we are trustworthy”. Transparency and integrity are essential core values for Paul and also for Form International. As Paul emphasizes, patience is also a vital value in order to ensure sustainable growth. He states, “Sustainability in the current political discussion should be linked to patience more. We should focus on achieving sustainability from the outset, rather than simply focusing on the growth curve. Otherwise, we risk contradicting our own efforts towards sustainability”.
Protecting tropical forests is an endeavour that requires long-term commitment and foresight. Paul has his sights set on 2030 as a target, and envisions a future with multiple financially sustainable projects across tropical areas. He explains “The main focus has to be landscape restoration, where we need to have a holistic approach incorporating a multistakeholder, multipurpose, and multi-revenue approach. We are already doing this in Peru, in Indonesia and Africa. This model ensures that projects are more robust and sustainable, with a variety of clients, investments, and donors working together towards a shared goal”. He recognizes that no path to success is ever straightforward, and that cooperation between stakeholders is essential in order to respond to any changes and challenges that may arise.
Knowledge sharing for forest protection
Paul sees the immense potential of knowledge sharing and expertise sharing in the conservation and protection of tropical forests worldwide. He believes that collaboration and sharing of knowledge, both within and outside Form International, is essential in order to maximize the important work for forests. “Through many years of experience, it is apparent that there are certain methods and strategies that are effective and others that are not. This priceless knowledge asset should always be shared and transferred into the organization for optimal results. Unfortunately, there are many organizations working on similar topics but we don’t work together enough. That’s why I’m hoping to create more opportunities for cooperation, so we can all create the best possible outcomes for our projects, and ultimately for the greater good of protecting forests.” Paul is passionate about inspiring others to reach success through his work, and he hopes to be a role model for the organization and the larger community in working towards a shared mission of protecting forests worldwide.
That’s what makes this work so special: Paul’s passionate belief that trees and forests play a crucial role in sustaining our society, the importance of social relationships in the projects, and our dedication to ensure communities have the opportunity to build and expand their livelihoods in a sustainable way. Paul’s mission to protect forests is driven by integrity, transparency, and patience, and his efforts to collaborate and share knowledge with other organizations and within his own team are essential to maximize the project’s success.