As the pandemic pushes millions toward poverty, forests and trees can safeguard livelihoods

For the poor, protecting forests prevents risk
A woman harvests lemongrass, which will later be distilled into an essential oil. This business is one way the Chisapani Community Forest User Group generates an income. CIFOR/Chandra Shekhar Karki

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Daniel C. Miller is associate professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

With the coronavirus pandemic driving millions of people into poverty, no stone should go unturned in the search for income opportunities for the most vulnerable.  That’s why protecting forests and trees—a natural and underrated ally in efforts to reinforce the livelihoods of rural communities around the world—should rise to the top of the agenda.

The world may be wealthier than ever, but gaping inequalities and the growing impact of climate change mean poverty is still one of the biggest challenges facing humanity. Globally, one out of every 11 people lives in extreme poverty, defined as surviving on less than $1.90 per day.

After decades of painstaking progress, extreme poverty is rising again because of the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. The World Bank expects that 88 to 115 million more people will suffer extreme poverty this year, lifting the global poverty rate as high as 9.4 per cent. Before the pandemic, the rate was set to fall to 7.9 per cent.

With eliminating poverty atop the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, new research argues that forests and trees are an under-appreciated economic motor and safety net in many countries, and that policymakers can tap more of their potential to strengthen rural development.

Forests and trees are critical to the well-being of many of the world’s poor people who have been able to harness the goods and services they provide to manage and mitigate risk, especially in the face of crises. To secure and improve this important function, we need to adequately protect, manage and restore forests and to make forests and trees more central in policy decision-making.

The importance of forests and trees

A review  of the effectiveness of different forest management policies, programs, technologies and strategies found especially strong evidence for poverty reduction outcomes from agroforestry systems, community forest management, ecotourism and forest producer organizations. At the same time, however, it also found that the benefits and costs from forests and trees to human well-being are unevenly distributed.

In many forest and wildlife-rich countries in Africa, for example, timber and tourism are major contributors to national economic accounts. But the benefits often do not accrue at the local level. Worse, local communities may bear the cost of these activities through environmental degradation and restricted access to resources in protected areas.

Zooming out, more than 1.6 billion people live within 5 kms of a forest, including an estimated 250 million of the world’s extreme poor. For communities living near forests in many tropical countries, forests contribute 20 to 25 percent of household income — roughly the same amount as agriculture.

Trees beyond forests – for instance, in agroforestry systems – are also important to household well-being. In addition to generating income, such trees can contribute to basic needs like energy, housing, and health and nutrition as well as improved community relations and trust, culture and spirituality.

The benefits of forests and trees help insure people against risks such as crop losses so that some can avoid sinking into poverty and the already poor do not become destitute. Tree-related resources can also lift people out of poverty through the sale of forest and tree products and by improving soil fertility, water supplies and other services that support their livelihoods.

Benefits in action

There are cases worldwide in which forests and trees have helped uplift the poor. In Burkina Faso’s female-dominated shea business, three-quarters of women report feeling better off thanks to their participation in shea producer groups. The groups build members’ social capital and counter social divisions along lines of gender, age and ethnicity that affect processes of inclusion and exclusion along this forest product value chain.

Vanilla production in Madagascar is another instance where agroforestry has offered a pathway out of poverty. Approximately 80 percent of the world’s vanilla is produced on the island, and agroforestry systems focused on vanilla have become the main source of income for many farmers. However, the benefits are concentrated on those smallholders able to secure contracts with vanilla exporters or collectors. Female-headed households, for example, are less likely to get contracts because of their social disadvantages.

Other evidence points to benefits for the poor from community forestry management. Such programs in Nepal are considered among the most successful in the world, the report said. Protected forest areas can also reduce poverty, particularly where ecotourism opportunities exist, as in countries like Costa Rica and Thailand, and where local people are involved as stakeholders. However, it is often the better off who benefit most, exacerbating local income inequalities.

What policymakers need to know

The report warns that, while areas such agroforestry and ecotourism present clear opportunities to alleviate and poverty, forests and trees risk further degradation and destruction without greater understanding of their benefits and how to harness them.

For instance, because trees take a long time to grow and yield benefits, people’s short-term may need to be balanced with longer-term livelihood and anti-poverty strategies that rely on forests and trees. Strengthening tenure and property rights over forest and tree resources are important for addressing different dimensions of poverty and support the effectiveness of other interventions.

Decision-makers must embrace complexity and carefully consider the context when designing, funding and implementing policies and programs related to forests and tree-based systems. Special attention is needed to consider those who bear the cost or may be left behind in certain policy choices.

The report was produced by the IUFRO-led Global Forest Experts Panel (GFEP) on Forests and Poverty.

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