Discovering a new source of income


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Twenty or thirty years ago people thought most poor rural families earned their living by farming. Then studies showed that off-farm income from wage labor, craft work, small-scale trading, and money sent by relatives was actually more important. That cast rural poverty in a rather different light.

Now, a new World Bank report called ’Counting on the Environment, Forest Incomes, and the Rural Poor’ has highlighted a third major source of income – collecting fuelwood, wild foods, and other forest products. It says that, on average, such activities provide roughly one fifth of poor rural families’ income.

The report, by P. Vedeld, A. Angelsen, E. Sjaastad, and G. Kobugabe Berg from the Norwegian Agricultural University, synthesizes data from 54 household income studies from 17 countries, mostly in East and Southern Africa and South Asia. Wet, semi-humid, and dry forest areas were about equally represented among the studies, although most humid forest cases involved indigenous peoples in Latin America.

About two-fifths of the income from these activities comes from harvesting wild foods (bushmeat, insects, and wild fruits and vegetables), while another third comes from fuelwood. Fodder, medicinal plants, and timber provided much of the rest. The income is about evenly split between cash and products consumed directly. Wealthier families harvest more forest products. However, these activities generate a much higher proportion of poorer families’ total income. Villages farther away from markets and with lower educational levels get more of their income from forests.

The authors note that many of the studies reviewed had weak methodologies and say more high-quality work is needed. That will require additional funding. Nonetheless, based on what we know already there is little doubt that rural incomes are higher than existing statistics suggest. Poverty Reduction Strategies need to help ensure that rural households don’t lose this crucial source of income.


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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy of the report or a hard copy, you can write Liv Ellingsen at

You can send comments or queries to the authors by writing to Pål Vedeld at:

The full reference of the report is: P. Vedeld, A. Angelsen, E. Sjaastad, and G. Kobugabe Berg. 2004. Counting on the Environment, Forest Incomes and the Rural Poor, Environment Economics Series Paper 98. Washington D.C. World Bank.