Rural ‘environmental income’ on par with crop income, study finds

Scientists find 77 percent of environmental income comes from natural forests.
A cinnamon farmer, Hadari, harvesting cinnamon in the forest near Lubuk Beringin village, Bungo district, Jambi province, Indonesia. Forests have become an integral part of Lubuk Beringin, Jambi province, as the villagers have carried out forest management and exploitation in a sustainable manner by implementing traditional values. Tri Saputro/CIFOR photo

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BOGOR, Indonesia — Natural forests and wildlands across 58 tropical research sites provide 28 percent of total household income — nearly as much as crops — according to a new study.

The study, titled “Environmental Income and Rural Livelihoods: A Global-Comparative Analysis,” is the product of the Poverty and Environment Network (PEN), a collaborative effort led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). The largest quantitative global-comparative research project to date on forests and rural livelihoods, it analyzes data gathered from some 8,000 households in 24 developing countries

In addition to research on income generation and rural livelihoods, the global study tackles the themes of 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.

The researchers define “environmental income” as extraction from non-cultivated sources including: natural forests, other non-forest wildlands such as grass-, bush- and wetlands, and fallows, as well as wild plants and animals harvested from croplands.

The study was also designed to explore questions about the relative and absolute importance of environmental income across different socio-economic groups. Whereas previous research has suggested that a household’s dependence decreases with higher incomes, the PEN study adds nuance to these findings.

“The poor obtain a higher share of income from forests, or what we term ‘forest reliance’. But the differences are smaller than we thought,” said Arild Angelsen, a CIFOR associate and an economics professor with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences who was the study’s principal author. “But the absolute income from forests is five times higher for better-off households (the top 20 percent in the communities) than for the poorest (bottom 40 percent).”

Environmental income varies considerably across the study sites. Two sites in Indonesia, for example, have forest income shares of about 5.5 percent, while a site in Bolivia generated 63 percent of household income from forest products, mainly in the form of the valuable Brazil nut.

“Perhaps surprisingly we did not find any pattern of declining forest or environmental reliance as we moved from the poorer to the richer sites,” Angelsen said. “But we also found hard land-use trade-offs at the landscape level: agricultural expansion takes place at the expense of forest cover in the area, which reduces forest income.”

The study found that 77 percent of environmental income comes from natural forests. Of this percentage, wood fuels dominate, accounting for about 35 percent of forest income. Food, including fish and bush meat, wild fruits, vegetables and mushrooms, make up 30 percent. Structural and fiber products, including both wood and non-wood products, account for the balance.

“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!”

Co-author Pam Jagger, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and CIFOR associate, went further. “Yes, there are trees in the forest, but there are also a lot of trees outside the forest,” she said. “What’s really great about the study is that we’ve collected a lot of data on ‘other environmental income’ — all the non-agricultural products that come from what we call wildlands that are completely understudied.”

They do not become richer just because outsiders start counting environmental income

Arild Angelsen

In Uganda, where she collected data, massive deforestation has forced people out of the forests and into wildlands. As a result, people are collecting a lot of traditional forest products like firewood, building poles, mushrooms and medicinal plants from non-forest areas. “In places that experience population growth and land-use change, forest income may not be the big story 20 years from now,” she said. “It will be more about other environmental income, which has had limited attention from policy makers and researchers.”

In another thread, the study found that environmental income is particularly important for male-headed households, younger households and larger households. Analysis suggests that older households have more assets and rely more heavily on crops and livestock. Older people may also be less physically able to access forest and wild resources. The study did not find any universal support for the claim that environmental income is more important to households that are female headed.

As the data are disaggregated geographically and by topic, the researchers expect their study will reveal much more detailed findings. In the meantime, Angelsen says the initial analysis is already significant.

Since rural households rely on foraging in forests and wildlands for a large share of household income, he said, they might be better off than what their often-modest income from agriculture, wages, and small businesses alone would suggest.

“If we ignore this ‘hidden harvest’, it might not help smallholders directly,” he said. “They do not become richer just because outsiders start counting environmental income. But if local people lose access to extractive resources through ill-conceived development projects, it could spell disaster for them.”

For more information about the issues in this article, please contact Arild Angelsen,

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

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