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Do forests reduce poverty?

Rural communities acquire significant income from forests (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
Rural communities acquire significant income from forests
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Income from forests contributes as much to rural livelihoods as crop cultivation, making up about one-quarter of the income of rural people, a new study has revealed. "Earlier studies have emphasised the special importance of forest incomes to the poorest households," explains Arild Angelsen, Poverty and Environment Network (PEN) coordinator and professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. "But one surprising finding is that, overall, the share of forest income in total household income varies little with income levels." In order to support the design of more effective policies and projects to alleviate poverty in forest areas, PEN set out to gain a greater insight into just how important forests are for poverty alleviation and whether they can help lift people out of poverty, or are forests mainly useful as gap-fillers and safety nets?

To answer these questions, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) initiated an eight-year global analysis in 2005. More than 50 research partners collected data from approximately 8,000 households in 350 villages from 24 developing countries. "With millions of cells in the database, there are many interesting stories waiting to be dug out and told," Angelsen adds. "We need to tell the story of how and why the poor are dependent on the environment, but we also need to gain a more nuanced understanding of how forests are important to the poor and what policies will alleviate poverty and reduce deforestation."

Forest resources

Men and women focus on different types of products for sale and for subsistence (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
Men and women focus on different types of products for sale and for subsistence
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Surprisingly, the study revealed that forests do not play a primary role as safety nets or fill recurrent seasonal income gaps. Harvesting and processing forest products were among the top three responses to shocks in only seven per cent of those surveyed. "Households respond to shocks through coping strategies, such as reduced consumption, temporary employment, or seeking external assistance. Forests are more important for providing daily needs," explains Sven Wunder, principal scientist at CIFOR.

In areas where forest tenure is strong and well enforced, the poorest are often excluded from accessing and harvesting important income-generating forest products, the study also indicates. "People are deriving most of their income from state-owned forests and the income coming from forests formally designated as community forests is surprisingly low. This could be a story of marginalization of the poor," states Pam Jagger, a CIFOR associate and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina. "What we are able to show is that there may not be a win-win tenure system that leads to both sustainable forest management and high forest incomes for the poorest rural households. In some settings tenure reform that strengthens rule enforcement may result in poor and very poor households losing out."

The preliminary findings have important implications for forest management policies, including REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). "The REDD+ debate has been heavily focused on advocacy-oriented arguments for stronger, more secure rights for rural people. There is a lot of information which shows that stronger enforcement is favourable for forest conservation," Jagger adds. "Higher levels of enforcement seem to be a necessity for successful REDD+, but might not result in favourable livelihood outcomes for the poorest."

Women tend to collect and process forest products for subsistence uses (© Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR)
Women tend to collect and process forest products for subsistence uses
© Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

Gender matters

While most household members collect and process forest products, the analysis has revealed a very clear distinction between gender roles: women tend to collect and process forest products for subsistence uses, such as food and medicine, while men harvest products for sale, generating the greatest income. "Men and women focus on different types of products for sale and for subsistence depending on access to those products, the nature of the product and where in the world they live," explains CIFOR scientist Terry Sunderland.

In Latin America, the involvement of women in the collection of non-timber forest products (NTFP) is very limited. In Asia, women process and sell certain products, but the men generally dominate the sector, while in Africa women are much more involved in collecting and trading NTFPs. "These differences suggest that forestry interventions should pay close attention to 'whose products' are being promoted, in order to strike an adequate gender balance," Sunderland adds.

Policy implications

REDD+ policies sometimes conflict with the poverty agenda (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
REDD+ policies sometimes conflict with the poverty agenda
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

By having such a comprehensive data set to draw from, CIFOR believe that their findings have demonstrated the importance of taking both poverty and the environment into account when designing poverty alleviation or environmental policies. "In the REDD+ debate, for example, we need a more realistic view as to when the REDD+ policies conflict with the poverty agenda," Angelsen explains. "The fact that rural communities acquire significant income from forests is neglected in REDD+ discussions. This is a benefit from avoided deforestation and suggests a win-win scenario. On the other hand, the tenure findings suggest that some well intentioned REDD+ policies can hurt the poor," Angelsen warns.

Angelsen hopes that by demonstrating the significance of forest income PEN will change the way forest data are collected in future. "We hope to contribute to changing the mainstream narrative of rural poverty. PEN has already provided data to the World Bank and FAO for their rural income surveys," he states. "Just as researchers some years back discovered that farmers rely heavily on off-farm income, PEN should demonstrate that harvests from forests and other environmental services cannot remain hidden if we want to fully understand rural livelihoods and policy impacts."

Date published: September 2011

 

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This is a fantastic article have ever read about forests. My... (posted by: Maurice Ikaal)

 

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