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In the name of feeding the world, vast swathes of our planet’s forests have been sacrificed to increase the amount of land available for agriculture. But what else do we lose when we do so?

Forests provide crucial contributions to many people’s diets – especially those who live in isolated rural areas and have low cash incomes. Some of those contributions are rather obvious: they’re frequently a source of wild foods such as fruits, mushrooms, tubers, insects and bushmeat. But there are also numerous ‘indirect pathways’ through which forests can help keep people healthy.

One such pathway- which is only just beginning to receive researchers’ attention – is through the bodies of water that traverse the world’s forests. Several studies have shown that forests contribute to the health of the waterways around them, and improve both the quality and quantity of freshwater fish populations. But there is little information about how that impacts on people’s diets, says Michaela Lo, a researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). “Considering that there are a lot of remote communities living in forested areas and eating fish, the research is thin on the ground,” she says, “it’s an area that needs more attention so that science can help inform policies that result in better diets.”

   Fisherman casts his net across the freshwater lake Ollivier Girard/CIFOR


So Lo and her team set out to see if they could find a connection between forests health, nutrition and the availability of fish, choosing Nigeria as the site for their case study.

Sitting on the western coastline of Africa, Nigeria has a high percentage of forest cover (around 9.6 million hectares/36,000 square miles) and is well known for its numerous rivers and lakes, which cover around 900 square kilometers (347 square miles). Fish, therefore, is an extremely important part of people’s diet. Rich or poor, north or south, fish is a staple protein, and is the star ingredient for Nigeria’s true one-pot love affair – fish pepper soup!

However, Nigeria also has high rates of malnutrition. In 2015, a third of children under five were stunted, suggesting poor quality diets and micronutrient deficiencies.

"...preserving fisheries properly may mean protecting forests as well... if there' changes, this could have consequences for the fishery sector, but it could go unnoticed because no-one makes that link”

Michaela Lo

The researchers used data from the World Bank’s 2012-13 Living Standards Measurement Study in Nigeria and forest distribution maps from Hansen et al. (2013) to test their hypothesis that forest cover would indirectly affect people’s diets, through their contribution to wild fisheries production.

The hunch was correct. “We found a consistent and positive association between forest cover around rivers and fish consumption at the village level,” says Lo. This suggests that, by improving the productivity of inland fisheries, the presence of forests significantly boosts the amount of fresh fish that is consumed by people living nearby.

So what might that mean for development and conservation at local, national and international levels? “I think this study really highlights the need for greater attention for forests and freshwater ecosystems in general,” says Lo. At the national level, she says, there’s plenty of recognition that the fishery sector is very important. “But what’s missing is that multi-sectoral perspective,” she says – the fact that preserving fisheries properly may mean protecting forests as well. “So for example, if there’s deforestation, or other kinds of land-use changes, this could have consequences for the fishery sector, but it could go unnoticed because no-one makes that link.”

“Hold on, we might be able to grow more maize there, but we are very likely to lose our fish!”

Amy Ickowitz

According to co-author Amy Ickowitz, this disconnect happens in large part because “in most countries, the fisheries people do not talk with the forestry people; and neither group engages much with the agriculture sector.” All of these sectors, however, affect each other – and they impact on food security and diets at the landscape level as well, she says.

That’s why CIFOR has been focusing its research on food systems to show these connections at the landscape scale. “We hope that the next time someone in a government ministry in Nigeria is debating whether to give a permit to a farmer or a company to clear riverine forests for agriculture, with the argument that it will increase food security,” says Ickowitz, “someone who has read this paper will say “Hold on, we might be able to grow more maize there, but we are very likely to lose our fish!” ”


Download the paper: The relationship between forests and freshwater fish consumption in rural Nigeria


Related reading:

From fish and bushmeat to chicken nuggets: the nutrition transition in a continuum from rural to urban settings in the Colombian Amazon

Agricultural intensification has fed the world, but are we healthier?

Changing landscapes: From forests to food

Is our global food system broken?


This research was supported by Forestry and Biodiversity Office of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
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