On the edge of forests, change comes in many forms

New research into land-use change extends from diet impacts to satellite mapping, and spans the globe
Cabbage crops on the slopes of Mount Gede Pangrango, Indonesia. Increasing demand for food is transforming forest landscapes around the world. CIFOR Photo/Ricky Martin

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Change is a fact of life. But for those living in landscapes of forests and farms, nowadays, that change can be rapid.

The ever-increasing demand for food, for products made from wood and for meat means previously stable mosaics of trees, homes, agricultural lands, grazing spaces and more are transforming.

New research is aiming to understand the impacts of those transformations on the people that live in those landscapes – people who till land, manage cattle, gather fruit and harvest wood.

“We know over 40 to 60 percent of the world’s food is grown by smallholders working in diverse landscapes. It is those people and those landscapes that we are trying to better understand,” said Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) Principal Scientist Terry Sunderland.

At the recent Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation Meeting in Merida, Mexico, researchers involved in CIFOR’s Agrarian Change in Tropical Landscapes initiative presented findings from studies across seven countries, thousands of households and decades of satellite data.

The presentations all fed into the fundamental question the project is posing: “Does agrarian change in tropical landscapes result in better livelihood outcomes?” But, the question they are ultimately asking is both practical and philosophical: “Is change always for the better?”


“Changes at the landscape level can be incredibly beneficial in the short term, but we are increasingly interested in what happens in the longer term. There are conservation impacts, livelihood impacts, food security impacts – that is what we are looking at with this research.

“There are a wide range of benefits and trade-offs across these landscapes, but one thing is clear – context is very important. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all model’,” Sunderland said.

Changes at the landscape level can be incredibly beneficial in the short term, but we are increasingly interested in what happens in the longer term

Terry Sunderland, CIFOR Principal Scientist

Through surveys of more than 2,000 households in various landscapes that contain a mix of forest cover, agriculture and integration with local and global commodity markets, and from Nicaragua to Burkina Faso to Indonesia, researchers are casting a net far and wide in order to understand what happens when people lose nearby forest, transition to farming or find some sort of balance in between.

“We need to better understand how agriculture and the environment interact. For example, in Ethiopia we see that loss of forest can have unforeseen livelihoods impacts in terms of loss of grazing land, and in Indonesia we see a clear, and not necessarily positive, dietary transition in landscapes converted to oil palm,” said Sunderland.


At the ATBC conference, scientists presented a range of research that incorporated the use of satellite technology, with University of British Columbia Associate Professor Sarah Gergel posing a beguiling question: “How well do remote sensing estimates of forest loss reflect local perceptions?”

Seemingly simple in its comparative goals, this question cuts deep, highlighting the varying ways researchers can use the evidence at their disposal.

Comparing what people had reported about forest loss to satellite estimates, Gergel noted their “surprising findings” – that perceived change on the ground bore little resemblance to data from space.

But, when questions about agricultural activity and change were compared, there was a clear correspondence with remote sensing estimates.

Ronju Ahammad’s research in upland Bangladesh offered one take on this seeming inconsistency, that understanding forest loss was not simply about satellite imaging of forest cover, but that historical dynamics and lived experience play an important role.

And what happens during an individual, household and community’s life is key when looking at agrarian change and its impacts, with Gergel noting that 70 percent of the world’s forest is less than one kilometer from a forest edge.


For those living in forest mosaics with their many borders, this means proximity to forest products and foods like bushmeat, fish, leafy vegetables and fruits. And, when forest is lost, people’s access to these resources is lost along with it.

What this means for incomes and diets is a central question of the initiative.

Discussing research first presented in Agrarian Change in Tropical Landscapes at ATBC, Sunderland said the goal was “debunking some of the myths” about diets and agricultural expansion.

“Recent evidence has shown that we need to move beyond the alluring linear thinking that equates the need to better feed a burgeoning world with the need for more food. More food security need not mean more production, nor does it require expansion into forest lands. This research supports the call that we need to focus on the quality of diets and not necessarily the quantity,” he said.

More food security need not mean more production, nor does it require expansion into forest lands

Terry Sunderland, CIFOR Principal Scientist

CIFOR researcher Josh Van Vianen noted that irrespective of country, landscape or labor along the spectrum of forest gathering to cultivation, those who visit forests more regularly have universally higher household dietary diversity.

“Living near a forest means a more varied diet and improved nutrition, but less overall food security,” he said.

Changes both global and local are under consideration with this research, with Sunderland emphasizing that as the world’s demand for food changes, so must our ideas about the best ways of producing food.

“Diverse landscapes often tend to be more resilient both economically and environmentally and best serve the needs of rural households,” Sunderland said. “How we harness that resilience will very much define how agriculture and the environment intersect, especially with a changing climate.”

So the answer to the question of whether or not change in and near a forest is good for people remains: It’s complicated.

This research was supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
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Topic(s) :   Food security Community forestry Landscapes Food & diets Rights Bushmeat