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Sustainable Development Goals and forestry: Lessons from Peru

From fish to granola, healthy forests provide a host of benefits to local communities.
Gigante árbol de Castaña en Puerto Maldonado, Madre de Dios, Peru. La recolección de castaña constituye un importante medio de subsistencia para las comunidades de la Amazonía. Foto Marco Simola/CIFOR

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LIMA, Peru—A decade ago, forests along the Ampiyacu River in northeastern Peru were being logged, hunted and fished unsustainably by outsiders with no management plan and no input from local communities.

So the Huitoto, Bora, Ocaina and Yagua communities along the river joined together to create a protected area and patrol their lakes and forests to take firmer control over their customary lands.

It has paid off: Fish and game animals are returning, they say, making it easier for them to feed their families. Some communities are even developing timber management plans.

“We’re happy,” said Alfredo Rojas, of the community of Nuevo Porvenir, in a recent interview. “We don’t have outsiders coming in any more.”

In Peru and throughout the Amazon Basin, people depend on forests for meat, fruits and seeds, medicines, palm fronds for thatch, and many other products.

Those contributions, along with their role in buffering the effects of climate change, make forests crucial for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a proposed global framework for guiding poverty reduction and ensuring a sustainable future.

“Forestry contributes to the solution of development challenges,” said Peter Holmgren, Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, Indonesia. “Forests can contribute to the elimination of poverty, to food security, to prosperity in the green economy and to energy.”

The SDGs, which will come up for a vote at the UN General Assembly in September, grew out of the Rio+20 conference in Brazil in 2012.


The 17 goals aim to, among other things, eliminate poverty, hunger and inequality while supporting economic opportunity—a significant part of which is the sustainable management of the natural resources on which economic and social development depend.

Only one goal—No. 15—specifically addresses environmental issues, calling for sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainable management of forests, and a halt to land degradation and biodiversity loss.

But other goals—from food security and nutrition to sustainable consumption, resilient human habitation and measures for addressing climate change—also depend on forests and ecosystems.

“People use a lot of different forest products,” said Sven Wunder, an economist and principal scientist at CIFOR. “Timber is important in some places. Firewood is important almost everywhere as a source of energy. Construction material, different kinds of fiber, fruits, bushmeat and game resources—it depends on what’s in the forest and how it fits with household needs.”

For rural households, income from extractive resources, gathered in natural forests or other wildlands, on average is just as important as crop income, according to the Poverty Environment Network (PEN), a study of more than 8,000 households in 25 countries around the world.

“The agricultural revolution has only taken people so far in diminishing their dependence on wild resources,” says Wunder, who is part of the network. “They still get a lot of income from there. While not all of these incomes can be multiplied easily, it may be just as important for livelihoods not to lose them.”

Much of that income takes the form of products for family subsistence, but some is in cash. Forest resources are part of a web of strategies that families use to provide food and shelter from day to day and cash for emergencies or education.

That makes forests important for achieving the second proposed SDG, which includes food security, improved nutrition and sustainable agriculture.


Families along the Ampiyacu River catch gamitana (Colossoma macropomun), a large Amazonian fish that feeds on small fruits that fall from forest trees into oxbow lakes. They take most of the fish home to their families, although they may sell some in the market in their home villages.

In rural communities in the remote area where Peru, Colombia and Brazil share a border, game animals and fish are an important source of protein and micronutrients, according to CIFOR researcher Nathalie van Vliet, who is studying changes in diets as people move to towns.

Urban dwellers are more likely to eat farm-raised chicken or tinned meats, which result in more added fats and salt and a less-varied consumption of micronutrients in their diet than in the diet of rural residents, van Vliet says.

Even people who move to towns, however, often combine forests and fields into landscape mosaics that provide a varied source of food and income.

Farmers in Contamana, Peru, plant small plots for rice and corn for a couple of years, then leave those fields fallow, to restore their fertility. As the forest reclaims those clearings, among the first trees to sprout are fast-growing species that can be sold for timber after six or eight years.

Slower-growing trees then take over naturally, along with fruit trees and more valuable timber species that the farmers plant among them.

Timber may be sold commercially according to a community management plan, as Rojas’ community of Nuevo Porvenir is beginning to do.

More often, however, timber serves as a “piggy bank,” with families selling the fast-growing timber they have managed in their agricultural fallows when they need money for a sudden health emergency or school supplies at the start of the academic year, according to researcher Robin Sears, a consultant for CIFOR who has studied farmers’ landscape mosaics around Contamana.

Those mosaics are more than just a food supply, however. The forests help people address the challenges of a changing climate—No. 13 on the list of Sustainable Development Goals.

Forests help mitigate the impact of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

At the same time, they help people adapt to a changing climate, particularly extremes in precipitation and flooding that could become more common.

“People often live in settlements along rivers,” said CIFOR research fellow Giacomo Fedele. “With more frequent and intense floods, they might start planting trees to stabilize the soil and stop erosion.”

Those trees could also provide fruit, fiber or other resources that people use in their daily lives, bringing families a variety of benefits that both mitigate the effects of climate change and help them adapt, he says.

Some innovators are seeking ways to help forest dwellers increase their cash income from those products.


In the Madre de Dios region of southern Peru, Sofía Rubio heads for the forest at the beginning of every year. Like thousands of other people in the lowlands of Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, she gathers the cannonball-size pods that fall from towering Brazil nut trees (Bertholletia excelsa).

The harvesters slice them open with machetes to extract the nuts, which they take to processing plants. The nuts provide an important source of income for many families, but only at the harvest time, which lasts just a few months.

Rubio, who launched a company that sells Brazil nut granola, oil, chips and other products, is working with a local association of harvesters to find ways to add value to the nuts and boost the families’ income.

In Madre de Dios, she says, that could help keep people from turning to illegal logging or poorly regulated small-scale gold mining—both of which damage or destroy forests—for additional cash.

Rubio, Rojas and the CIFOR researchers who are seeking ways to increase the benefits families receive from their mosaics of forests and farms are betting that their efforts will lead to both healthier forests and a better life for the people who live in them.

That, ultimately, is the purpose of the Sustainable Development Goals.

CIFOR’s research on forests, climate change and sustainability forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

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