For richer or for poorer: “Hidden” environmental income critical for rural poverty alleviation


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Kitwium community forest, Cameroon. Photo courtesy of rbairdpccam/flickr.

LONDON, United Kingdom (21 June, 2011)_Over a quarter of the income of the rural poor depends on forests and other natural environments, contributing as much to rural livelihoods as crop cultivation, according to preliminary results of a new global study that was presented in London last week.

The preliminary findings from the Poverty and Environment Network (PEN) survey may lead to an overhaul in the way existing tools and practices measure poverty and income, strengthening the case for more informed policy decisions related to previously ‘hidden’ environmental incomes.

“PEN is a research project that ensures forests are not just seen as stocks of carbon, but as supporting rural livelihoods,” said Mike Speirs from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of the organisations that funded the project.

Convened by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) at the Royal Society, Counting on the environment: The contribution of forests to rural livelihoods brought together researchers, policy makers and practitioners to discuss the role of environmental income in rural livelihoods in the hope to inform future policy decisions related to poverty alleviation, environmental management and rural development.

Up until now, the true value of environmental income to the livelihoods of the world’s rural poor remained largely invisible and not well-integrated in current poverty reduction policies. Existing tools and practices for assessing household income such as poverty surveys for national Poverty Reduction Strategies, the World Bank’s Living Standards Measurement Surveys and national income accounting systems, often do not adequately address the contribution of forest-based environmental income.

CIFOR’s eight-year comprehensive analysis of the role of tropical forests in income generation (The PEN Project) has established a global database with over 8,000 households, in approximately 350 villages from 24 developing countries surveyed – the largest of this type of study to ever be conducted. Led by CIFOR Senior Associate and Professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Arild Angelsen, the project covered all aspects of rural household livelihoods including land tenure, gender, linkages between deforestation and poverty, livelihood safety nets and markets.

The study’s preliminary findings indicate that most environmental income is derived from state-owned forests, with very poor households found in tighter tenure systems and that deforestation seems to be driven by wealth rather than poverty.

Forest tenure and linkages to poverty

PEN researchers conducted surveys about forest tenure at both the village and household levels. They looked at the formal owners of the forests, who the de-facto uses are and what types of enforcement rights there are associated with the forests where people are collecting products.

“People are deriving most of their income from state owned forests across all of the three geographic regions (Asia, Sub Saharan Africa and Latin America) and the income coming from forests formally designated as community forests is surprisingly low,” said Pam Jagger, a CIFOR Associate and Assistant Professor from the University of North Carolina.

They also found in areas where forest tenure is secure and well-enforced, very poor households are often worse off. “This could be a story of marginalization of the poor,” Jagger believes, “the looser or lower enforced tenure systems are simply easier for the very poor to get into because there is no barrier to access the forests that they need to negotiate.”

“What we are able to show is perhaps there is not a win-win with that type of tenure reform in all contexts and there may be situations where poor and very poor households stand to lose out quite a bit.”

This could have important implications for the recently implemented Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) policy. Strong tenure systems and enforcement are being pushed in the design of REDD+ and are seen as essential for ensuring forest carbon stocks are maintained over a long period of time.

But Jagger clarifies that the PEN findings indicate that lower levels of tenure enforcement do not necessarily perpetuate poverty, in fact, these systems often work well in certain local contexts. As further investigation continues, it may be worthwhile to note instances where the poor benefit from forests under looser tenure systems, having important implications for REDD+ project governance.

Wealth-driven deforestation

The PEN dataset offers the opportunity to look at the land-use decision making from the household perspective, compared to current deforestation modeling which uses remote sensing and mapping often by satellite.

“The criticism with [current modeling] approaches,” explains Ronnie Babigumira, a CIFOR Research Fellow, “is that you are not able to work with the households that are at the forefront of the deforestation.”

Preliminary work has found that households each clear an average of 1.3 hectares of forest annually, mostly for growing crops. Interestingly, the wealthiest 20 percent of rural households are clearing 30 percent more land than the poorest households surveyed suggesting that deforestation is driven by wealth rather than by poverty.

Though there is still much work to be done in analysing PEN data, preliminary findings have helped to put the environment more realistically onto the poverty agenda. And as Sven Wunder, a lead scientist on PEN and Principal Economist at CIFOR puts it, “We all run around with a picture of the world based on the kind of studies we have been doing. But it’s healthy to have them shaken by these global comparative numbers that represent a much larger universe.”

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