- Subsistence communities can drive forest loss to meet their basic needs when external pressures, poverty and demand for natural resources increase, says a new study unveiling triggers that turn livelihoods from sustainable into deforestation drivers.
- The impact of subsistence communities on forest loss has not been quantified to its true extent, but their impact is still minimal compared to that of industry, researchers say.
- Deforestation tends to occur through shifts in agriculture practices to meet market demands and intensified wood collecting for charcoal to meet increasing energy needs.
- About 90% of people globally living in extreme poverty, often subsistence communities, rely on forests for at least part of their livelihoods—making them the first ones impacted by forest loss.
Subsistence communities, those who live off the forest and lead largely sustainable lifestyles, can actually become drivers of forest loss and degradation under certain circumstances, according to a new study. This happens when external changes put pressure on their traditional lifestyles.
This could be anything from market demands that shift agriculture practices to increased populations in need of resources living in forest areas. These shifts could make communities another alarming source of carbon emissions, say researchers.
Subsistence communities have often been associated with low environmental impact and a small carbon footprint. But as external pressures and demand for natural resources increase, these communities tend to intensify their forest activities to meet their basic needs, at the same time releasing more carbon stocks into the atmosphere from forest destruction, according to researchers.
In the new study published in the journal Carbon Footprints, researchers set out to look at this phenomenon on a global scale. They did a systemic review of 101 scientific reports, all based in the tropics, to see if they could identify the livelihood activities and triggers that lead to forest degradation. Thirty-nine reports are in Africa, 33 in Asia, and 29 in Latin America.
The authors point out that these are the same sustainable communities, such as Indigenous and local people (IPLCs), that will be the first ones impacted by forest loss and climate change, as they continue to depend on these diminishing forests and tend to be materially poor or deprived.
About 90% of people living in extreme poverty depend on forest resources for their survival, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
“At the end of the day, these communities need support, and their impact, I think, while it has not been quantified to its true extent, their impact is still minimal compared to what the energy industry does,” says Wendy Francesconi, author of the report and senior environmental scientist with the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT.
Their initial aim of the research was to collect data about how much forest cover is lost due to sustainable communities, but this proved too challenging to track, says Francesconi. Their impact is minimal and not documented as well as larger scale or industrial drivers of deforestation.
“I think one of the key messages is that we have to start paying more attention to these communities and how to support them better because they also have power in numbers—and impact in numbers,” she tells Mongabay via video call.
The authors identified two main activities the communities engaged in that became the main drivers of forest loss or degradation: intensified wood collecting (particularly for firewood or charcoal) and agriculture.
Other activities include illegal practices such as illicit crops or illegal logging and mining. The latter has been a growing concern for environmentalists who have seen Indigenous communities engage in illegal mining in Brazil and logging in Indonesia to supplement their income.
The factors pushing these changes include increased local population pressures in conjunction with changing lifestyles, availability of alternative labor, land tenure rights, market access, governance, migration, and access to technology.
External factors were highly context-dependent, however, and not all of them led to forest loss in all cases. A larger household size, for example, was associated with higher deforestation in most cases; but some case studies showed a higher likelihood for large families to share resources among each other, resulting in lower demand for resources and less forest loss, such as one case in Ethiopia.
It’s important to understand these dynamics so we don’t start to see “a more vicious cycle, where deforestation creates more poverty, then more deforestation, then more poverty, etc.” Martha Vanegas Cubillos, senior research associate at the Alliance for Biodiversity International and CIAT and another author of the study, tells Mongabay via video call.
Changing livelihoods in Indonesia
One of the studies analyzed from Asia looks at the impact of mangrove deforestation in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and its socioeconomic consequences. The 2016 study identified that the total area of mangroves decreased by 3,344 hectares (8,263 acres), or 66.05%, in the study area of the Takalar District between 1979 and 2011.
The majority of this loss was for the creation of shrimp ponds, mainly driven by local fishermen changing their livelihoods to shrimp farming. There are two reasons for this shift: as an export product, shrimp have more stable prices, but also government incentives, like credit and subsidies, were available for farmers to expand shrimp ponds, says the report.
This forest loss had a number of impacts on the local community, as it reduced the area where they could continue with their traditional use of the mangroves, like collecting firewood, house materials, and fish traps. It also exposed them to coastal erosion and saltwater into their territory, and released the rich carbon stocks stored in the mangrove trees, says the report.
This shift in production made the communities here more vulnerable, as they put all their eggs in one basket, centralizing their earnings in shrimping, and removing the protective cover of the mangroves from climate changes, says Ole Mertz, professor in the department of geosciences and natural resource management at the University of Copenhagen, and one of the authors of the South Sulawesi study.
But Mertz is skeptical that any global generalizations can be made from a literature review alone, referring to the Carbon footprints study, saying these drivers are often context-dependent.
Speaking from his experience working with communities in South East Asia, the most important driver of forest loss by smallholder communities – a term he prefers to ‘sustainable communities’, which he considers an inaccurate generalization – has been the political pressure to develop land to something more productive.
This includes policies to promote industries like palm oil, rubber, or, in the case of South Sulawesi, shrimp ponds, which has more to do with political decisions rather than the community’s socioeconomic situation, he says.
“Poverty might in some cases be driving deforestation, but I think it’s always in combination with other things, with other drivers,” he tells Mongabay.
More energy needs, more deforestation in the DRC
Communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are already feeling these external pressures, says Raymond Achu Samndong, a manager at the Tenure Facility, an IPLC organization based in Sweden.
In his 2018 paper – which was included in the Carbon footprints literature analysis – Samndong and fellow researchers take a closer look at deforestation at the community level in the Bikoro and Gemena regions, two REDD+ project areas in the DRC. After conducting interviews in the communities, 82% of households said they engaged in some type of forest clearing in the year prior to the study, despite the REDD+ incentives not to deforest.
All of them said it was for agriculture purposes, like moving or expanding crop area, while some also said it was for wood collection, either for charcoal production or artisanal logging. Charcoal and firewood are the main sources of energy in the DRC, with only 9% of the population having access to electricity, including in the capital Kinshasa.
As energy needs increase, particularly for businesses and restaurants in the city, the traditional use of charcoal is now a concerning driver of deforestation.
The main decision to clear forests in the REDD+ areas was economic poverty, lack of alternative livelihood or income generation, and lack of basic infrastructure and services, says the study.
Samndong says communities he’s worked with in the DRC are already seeing the effects of climate change, as changing weather patterns have reduced their harvest. They are aware that more deforestation will contribute to climate change and biodiversity loss, but community members tell him they don’t have any economic alternatives, “it’s like a survival strategy,” he tells Mongabay by a video call from his home in Sweden.
Solutions to deforestation should look at all the dimensions and drivers of it, not just depend on one economic incentive, like REDD+, to address it, adds the study. Better land use planning, tenure rights to communities, and more accountable institutions are among the needed solutions, researchers point out.
But Samndong says it’s essential that communities be involved in these plans. Billions of dollars have already been spent on development programs in the region over the years and nothing has changed, he elaborates.
“The problem is that development programs have been very challenging in Congo because they are mostly top-down,” he tells Mongabay, adding local communities still know and understand their local forests better than experts in the capital, or abroad.
Conflict and cash crops in Colombia
Deforestation in Colombia has long been a problem but has skyrocketed since 2016 when the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government signed peace agreements to try to stem the conflict. Deforestation in parts of Colombia then accelerated—reaching a peak in 2017 with 219,552 hectares (542,524 acres) of forest loss—as the FARCs left many strongholds in the forests and mountainsides, which opened up previously forested areas to illegal economic development, such as growing small coca fields for cocaine production as cash crops.
One study published in 2013 takes a closer look at the conditions under which local communities plant coca. Their research, included in the Carbon Footprints analysis, found a direct correlation between coca cultivation areas and those deemed Rural Unsatisfied Basic Needs areas, indicating that poverty was a major factor in areas where communities engage in coca cultivation. The others include weakness and low presence of the state, violence and armed conflict, inaccessibility, and favorable biophysical conditions.
Vanegas Cubillos, who has long been working with communities in Colombia and Peru, says Colombia is a very particular case, as the ongoing armed conflict has greatly impacted rural communities. Migration and forced displacements have forced communities to inhabit new territories, often causing some level of deforestation in areas where fertile lands are scarce.
Both in Colombia and on a global scale, there are opportunities for both the public and private sectors to create economic benefits for communities, and to break the cycle of deforestation, she says.
“Until they realize that they really have to pay attention to these communities,” she says, “I think that this is a problem that can continue to get worse.”
Banner image: A couple from a local community harvesting sago palm on the banks of the Tuba river in a village in Maluku province, Indonesia. Image by Ulet Ifansasti/CIFOR
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at the major forest and conservation trends coming out of 2021 and 2022 with Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett Butler, and IUCN senior program officer, Swati Hingorani. Listen here: