Study shows environmental income critical for rural livelihoods, challenges assumptions about how poor use forest resources
An employee of MESCOT, a community-run reforestation, conservation, and alternative livelihoods initiative in Malaysian Borneo.
Forests have long been assumed to provide an important source of income for many of the world’s poor. But determining exactly how forests contribute to rural economies – such as how much income is derived from forests, or how poverty relates to deforestation – has been difficult to pinpoint.
A global study carried out by the Poverty and Environment Network (PEN) has helped shed light on the role forests play in enhancing people’s livelihoods, confirming that forests do provide an important source of rural income, but challenging some of the long-held assumptions about how these resources are used. PEN is a collaborative effort led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
“Our results indicate that, even some 10,000 years after the start of the Agricultural Revolution, rural people in developing countries still depend strongly on foraging from nature for their livelihoods,” Sven Wunder, a senior economist in the livelihoods program and director of CIFOR’s Brazil office, said in a media release announcing the study.
Wunder was the lead editor of the special issue of the journal World Development, which published a series of papers that analyzed the findings of the PEN study. The special issue featured five research papers that looked at how forests impact rural economies, and vice verse. Online versions of the papers were made available in March and April.
The papers covered topics including the impact environmental income has on rural livelihoods, the role forests play as safety nets, the differences between how men and women use forest products, the link between rural livelihoods and forest clearing, and how much income is generated from state-, community- and privately-owned forests, respectively.
Some of the results were surprising. Study data revealed that forests contribute almost as much to rural income as agricultural crops – with about 28 percent of total household income coming from forests and other natural areas. This number had previously been difficult to determine, which has left income from natural resources “largely invisible” to policy makers and development professionals, according to study authors.
The study also found that farmers with relatively higher incomes and better access to markets are responsible for a larger share of forest clearing than the most destitute farmers. This runs contrary to the common belief that the poorest farmers drive deforestation. It could also mean that development programs designed to increase access to markets for rural communities could speed forest clearing.
Farmer in Bali
Importance in livelihoods
One key finding from the study was the trade off between agricultural expansion and forest use. While agricultural expansion into forests can increase rural income from crops, the potential loss in forest income could outweigh the benefits.
“Agricultural expansion takes place at the expense of forest cover in the area, which reduces forest income,” said Arild Angelsen, a CIFOR associate and the principle author of one of the five papers. The paper, titled “Environmental Income and Rural Livelihoods: A Global-Comparative Analysis,” calculated how much income households across study sites derived from the environment.
This could have implications for climate policy, since converting forests for agriculture or other uses would not only cause carbon emissions but could also lead to significant losses in rural incomes.
“In the current debate on the role of forests in climate mitigation, our findings suggest that there are important local benefits of maintaining forest cover and that the potential for both climate mitigation and livelihood benefits might be larger than often assumed,” the paper said.
How forests are conserved also matters, as cutting off or limiting use of forests among the poor “could jeopardize the livelihoods of local people considerably.” Access to timber resources may be especially important as the study found that wood fuels made up the bulk of forest income – about 35 percent of total income from forests.
“There’s been a lot of talk recently about NTFPs (non-timber forest products),” Angelsen said. “Yes, they are important, but we were reminded there are also trees in the forests!”
Man cutting Nipa palm frons as construction material in Kalimantan
The study also questioned the common view that poverty drives deforestation.
“There is a strong narrative in the literature dating back to the UN conference in Stockholm in 1972 that says poverty drives environmental degradation,” said Angelsen, who co-authored another study paper exploring the link between rural income levels and forest clearing. “We’ve found it’s not that simple.”
The paper, titled “Forest clearing in rural livelihoods: Household-level global-comparative evidence,” found that the households most likely to cut down trees had medium or high levels of assets and good access to markets. The poorest households, particularly those with poor market access, were less likely to clear forests and, when they did, would typically clear less expansive areas.
“I’ve always thought that having the ‘means,’ or the capability, to clear forests was more important than needing to do it as a livelihood strategy,” Angelsen said. “Because it’s not a simple matter to cut down trees and plant crops. It’s hard work for yourself, or [you] need the resources to hire people. In some cases, it’s semi-illegal, so you also need political connections.”
Communities with better access to markets also tended to clear more forests, the study found. In the paper, authors pointed out that certain development programs aiming to alleviate rural poverty by improving access to markets could end up driving deforestation rather than preventing it.
Study data challenged several other common perceptions about the way rural communities use forests. Another paper, “Safety nets, gap filling and forests: a global-comparative perspective,” found that forests were typically not the primary “safety net” that rural households would turn to in emergencies to handle shocks such as crop failure, or to fill gaps between harvests. While a fourth paper, “Challenging perceptions about men, women and forest-product use: A global-comparative study,” showed that both men and women collect forest products, contradicting the view that women tend to rely more heavily on forests than men.
“Contrary to the general perception, men actually played an important subsistence role in the households we were studying,” said Terry Sunderland, a principal scientist with CIFOR.
State-owned forests also provide a surprising amount of income compared to forests under other tenure systems, such as privately-owned forests or community forests, according to another paper associated with the study, “Tenure and Forest Income: Observations from a Global Study on Forests and Poverty.”
“The findings are unexpected because there is a lot of literature emphasizing that community forests are most important, especially for poor people,” said Pam Jagger, the paper’s principal author and a scientist at the University of North Carolina. “Many people are surprised that state-owned forests could be yielding more income both per hectare and per household, but we have confidence in our results, even in highly divergent settings.”
Community leader from a village near Jantho, Aceh.
PEN was able to carry out the study, which it called “the most comprehensive study on the links between the environment and livelihoods to date,” by organizing teams of researchers and PhD students. The researchers and students carried out surveys in more than 8,300 households in 24 developing countries. Teams collected field data between 2005 and 2008. PEN plans to make the entire dataset, which contains more than 15 million data cells, publicly available to be used by outside researchers.
Study authors also hope to continue collecting data from the sites over time. “It’s logical to use what we’ve done as a baseline,” Wunder said. “So we could go back to some of those households and families in five or 10 years to see how things have changed.”