Global study of forests and livelihoods shakes up the terrain

Poverty and Environment Network (PEN) challenges conventional wisdom on forest, poverty and policy issues.
Researchers have challenged conventional wisdom about key areas, including the importance of environmental income, the roles of men and women in forest-product use, and the function of forests as safety nets.

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles exploring new research from the Poverty and Environment Network (PEN). Check this space in the coming weeks as new research is released.

BOGOR, Indonesia — In the most comprehensive study on the links between forestry and livelihoods to date, researchers have challenged conventional wisdom about key areas, including the importance of environmental income, the roles of men and women in forest-product use, and the function of forests as safety nets.

“It’s easy to create stereotypes about what the world is like,” said Arild Angelsen, an economics professor with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and coordinator of the global study. “Within certain established narratives, there are a lot of nuances and variations.”

The global study is the product of the Poverty and Environment Network (PEN), a collaborative effort led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Five complementary research papers tackle the themes of income generation and rural livelihoods, safety nets during shortfalls, gender and forest use, forest clearing and livelihoods, and tenure and forest income. The papers appear in a special issue of World Development alongside one PEN case study and six non-PEN studies ranging from micro-level cases to national-level analyses.

Highlights of findings from the global study of a broad sample of around 8,000 households in 24 countries include the following:

  • Income from natural forests and other natural areas accounted for 28 percent of total household income, nearly as much as crops.
  • State forests generated more income than private or community forests.
  • Men generated at least as much income from forests as women do, contradicting long-held assumptions.
  • Forests were less important than previously believed as “safety nets” in response to shocks and as gap fillers between seasonal harvests.
  • While the most destitute of poor farmers are often blamed for deforestation, they played only a modest role in forest clearing.

“I was admittedly a little surprised that environmental incomes were so high,” said Sven Wunder, who directs CIFOR’s Brazil office and is the lead guest editor of the Special Issue. “Our results indicate that, even some 10,000 years after the start of the Agricultural Revolution, rural folks in developing countries still depend strongly on foraging from nature for their livelihoods.”


In 2000, a landmark case study in Zimbabwe by William Cavendish had argued that analysis of households and environmental resources suffers from inadequate data. “That was the main impetus,” Angelsen said. “We wanted to get a more representative picture of the role of forests and natural environments in rural areas, not just in Zimbabwe but in other countries.”

But how to do it? A fully financed project of such broad scope was prohibitively expensive. PEN researchers recognized that highly motivated PhD students often do the best fieldwork, yet operate in isolation, with little financial, institutional or emotional support. Thus PEN sought to create a collaborative network of doctoral students, offering some financial support, access to workshops and supervision, while generating comparative data for the global study.

“I always say the business model of PEN is to exploit the loneliness of PhD students by providing some TLC (tender loving care),” Angelsen said jokingly. “And it works. They get an answer to their emails and questions the next day. They appreciate that they are not alone in the field.”

Building on three methods workshops between 2004 and 2006, 33 PEN partners and their teams collected field data between 2005 and 2008. Over 12 months, they surveyed more than 8,300 households in 333 villages on 58 sites in 24 developing countries. In so doing, they conducted some 36,000 household visits, generating about 250,000 questionnaire pages. With more than 2,300 data fields, the PEN global database now contains 15 million data cells.

“It’s not a random sample,” Wunder said. “We had to find partners willing to participate and accept the sites they had chosen, and then free resources to fill some of the holes, particularly in West Africa. But we still have balance in terms of forest types and rural areas in the developing countries of these three continents. This is the universe we can reasonably extrapolate results to.”

Within those countries, it’s somewhat biased to areas with considerable forests, he added. “It’s not in the middle of the forest with near 100 percent cover,” Wunder said. “It’s in a range where some development has happened — not completely isolated from markets, but still with considerable forest cover remaining.”

It’s a misconception that rural areas are static, and that poor people are always poor

Arild Angelsen

Early in the process, researchers were aiming to publish findings in a special issue of World Development. In 2005, the journal had featured a themed issue on “livelihoods, forests and conservation” that acknowledged much more empirical work was needed to generate comparable data. Both Angelsen and Wunder contributed to the issue as co-editors, including the overview article.

“At that time, we clearly recognized a lacuna of high-quality comparative data on many forest, poverty and policy issues,” said Wunder. “It thus seemed logical to follow up on those stated needs in the same journal a decade later.”

The articles in the 2014 special issue are informed by a 2011 workshop held at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. “The PEN researchers mingled with people doing similar things in other organizations and networks,” Wunder said. “Some of their papers are included in the Special Issue. They are interesting because they complement the global study by looking at specific interventions that affect livelihoods dynamics.” Bauch, Sills and Pattanayak, for example, use panel data to examine the impacts of integrated cooperation and development projects (ICDPs) in the Brazilian Amazon, while Clements, Suon, Wilkie and Gulland examine impacts of protected areas on local livelihoods in Cambodia.


Angelsen and Wunder view PEN’s work as a catalyst to more in-depth research. “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.” He notes this approach is in keeping with CGIAR’s Forests, Trees and Agroforestry program — in which CIFOR is a partner — that studies “sentinel sites” over long periods to gain perspective.

“Crops, livestock, farmwork, businesses — there is a whole range of analyses possible using the PEN dataset,” Angelsen said. For example, the surveys recorded whether subjects were smiling while answering questions. Using smiles as an indicator, one researcher will test the relationship between income equality and happiness. The researchers also want to link the PEN dataset to geographic information systems (GIS) data to explore how closely environmental income depends on natural conditions and market access.

Angelsen said that he wants to test a hypothesis that middle-income farmers, rather than the rich or poor, take part in forest management groups. Yet another paper could look at the role of social capital, e.g. whether families have faith that a neighbor can provide emergency cash.

Moreover, since the dataset is currently being made publicly available, researchers from outside PEN will be able to explore their own concerns. Angelsen hopes to see many papers using the dataset: some 50 papers in the next five years would make him happy.

“I hope someone will look at the poverty dynamic,” he said. “It’s a misconception that rural areas are static, and that poor people are always poor. Working with time-series data, one can see who is poor from one year to the next. Variation over time is an additional source of insight. You don’t get that from the snapshot data that we have. There is still a lot of interesting work to be done based on follow up surveys in some of the PEN sites.”

For more information about the issues in this article, please contact Sven Wunder,

Financial support for the global study was proved by ESRC-DFID, DANIDA, USAID (BASIS-CRSP), IFS and CIFOR.

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