Forests and Poverty: No Easy Generalizations


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Many of us are guilty of making simple statements such as “poverty causes deforestation” or “deforestation hurts the poor”. Not so fast, says Ken Chomitz in a new report published by the World Bank, At Loggerheads?: Agricultural Expansion, Poverty Reduction, and Environment in the Tropical Forests.

Chomitz pulls together a wealth of empirical data and analysis from his own research and that of others, including a number of CIFOR scientists. Again and again, research results demonstrate that other variables confound simple relationships between forest cover and poverty. For example, the report makes a key distinction between poverty rates and poverty density. While high poverty rates are often associated with high forest cover, low population densities in remote areas mean that the absolute numbers of the poor are relatively small.

Further, access to markets and services tends to be low in remote areas, presenting obstacles to profitable forest conversion as well as to other paths out of poverty. It is thus more useful to understand both high poverty rates and low deforestation rates as functions of remoteness rather than assuming a causal relationship between the two.

Chomitz summarizes what is known about the impacts of factors such as changes in prices, wages, technology, and tenure on the fates of forests and poor farmers. In many cases, the answer is, “it depends”. For other factors, the impact is less ambiguous: extending and improving rural roads is almost always associated with gains for the poor and losses for the forest.

The report proposes policy recommendations for three types of situations: forest-agriculture mosaics, frontier and disputed areas, and areas beyond the agricultural frontier. Solutions for capturing the “win-win” opportunities for protecting forests and reducing poverty, as well as for managing the trade-offs in “win-lose” situations, often boil down to improving institutions and governance. The report repeatedly stresses the need to clarify and secure rights to forest land and resources, and the potential of economic instruments to align incentives and streamline regulation.

Chomitz sees great potential for carbon finance as an instrument of reducing deforestation and poverty. Industrialized countries should be willing to pay poor farmers not to convert forests to other uses as a way of mitigating climate change, with the added benefit of conserving biodiversity. While negotiating an international agreement on a financing regime will be hard enough, the real challenge will be to ensure that resulting national-level policies designed to control deforestation do so in ways that help rather than hurt the poor.

With many donor agencies increasingly adopting a narrow focus on poverty reduction, it has been tempting for those concerned about forest protection talk as if the two always go hand in hand. Chomitz’s report provides a timely reminder that it ain’t necessarily so.

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Further reading

The full report is available for download at: (click on “Full Text”). Those who have difficulty downloading the report from the Web may request an electronic copy of the overview (in English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese) by emailing