Poor households depend on non-timber forest products in times of crisis

This 'safety net' role is often overlooked when the world values forests.

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Photo courtesy of UNHCR / P. Wiggers

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (17 January, 2012)_The sale and use of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) is the one of the most common coping mechanisms to help vulnerable households in two of South Africa’s poorest provinces cope in times of crisis, according to a recent study.

The study found that while all of the households that were sampled relied, to some extent, on NTFPs as part of their livelihood portfolio, as many as 70 percent also reported using the safety-net function of NTFPs in response to a range of crises.

Kinship was found to be the top coping strategy chosen by both wealthy and poor households, however poorer household cited the increased use or sale of NTFPs as the second most commonly adopted coping strategy. By comparison high-income households placed NTFPs as the fifth most important coping mechanism in response to crisis.

“This highlights that in addition to the more regular use of NTFPs, they play an important role in helping households weather specific crises. The safety-net function of these NTFPs doesn’t manifest specifically in the increased use of resources they already use but might manifest through using resources which are not normally used or selling NTFPs which are not normally sold,” said Fiona Paumgarten, scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and co-author of the CIFOR study conducted in collaboration with South Africa’s Rhodes University. 

“While more general NTFP use has been well researched, less attention has been paid to the rural safety-net role fulfilled by NTFPs. Understanding the dynamics and drivers of NFTP use and sale as a livelihood strategy and particularly as a rural safety-net is relevant given the need to help create better adaptation strategies for rural communities to cope with the deleterious effects of climate change.”

“Jobs” and “Disasters” have been highlighted as two of the critical issues for new sustainable development goals that will be released in Rio+20. The results of a recent global study by the Poverty and Environment Network (PEN) concluded that income from forests and other natural environments makes a significant contribution to the livelihoods and poverty alleviation of local forest communities yet many existing tools for assessing poverty and income – such as the World Bank’s Living Standard Measurement Survey – fall short in capturing the true value of forests in the livelihoods of the world’s rural poor.

In many developing countries, where public safety-nets and private insurance options are weak, households must rely on informal coping strategies, such as the use and sale of NTFPs – biological resources extracted from the forest for human use, such as medicinal plants and wild edible herbs and fruits, with the exception of commercial timber.

While there is increasing awareness of the potential role of NTFPs in helping households cope with periods of vulnerability, less attention has been paid to the semi-arid savannahs in southern Africa. The study examined the coping strategies of 100 households in the villages of Dyala in the Eastern Cape province and Dixie in the Limpopo province in South Africa, both of which face low levels of development and high unemployment. Families in these communities subsist mostly on income from subsistence agriculture, animal husbandry, NTFPs and government welfare grants.

Researchers looked at a range of dynamics and drivers of use and sale of NFTPs. These can be extensive and include internal factors such as household wealth and gender as well as external drivers such as policies on forest use, Paumgarten said.

The authors surveyed both poor and wealthy households over a two-year period to evaluate whether they chose to use NFTPs as a safety-net in times of crisis such as crop damage, livestock disease, illness of household members and the sudden loss of income and how this use manifested.

“The rural safety-net role adds another dimension. Understanding these various dynamics and drivers is important, particularly for forest management. For example, one respondent stated that ‘before the [forest reserve] permits, people used to go to the forest more and the forest was important in difficult times. Now you need to walk a long distance to get a permit, explain why you need it and pay for it which is a problem if your child is sick at home’.”

In both areas studied, over-utilisation of NFTPs and increasing population densities meant that these resources are becoming scarcer. This has implications on the possible safety-net option of NFTPs, Paumgarten said.

“It undermines overall livelihood security, especially as alternatives are limited, a situation that is unlikely to change in the immediate future as ongoing service delivery failures and high rates of unemployment persist.

According to Paumgarten, understanding communities’ use of forest resources and the factors that affect their use is the key to reconciling long-term economic development and biodiversity conservation.

“While forests may not be the ultimate panacea for poverty alleviation, findings from this study of the prevalent role of NFTPs as a rural safety-net warrants further investigation. This should, however, consider the function of NFTPs within the broader portfolio of coping options,” Paumgarten said.

The “safety-net” function of forests must not be endangered without providing viable alternatives to local communities, the study concluded, cautioning against large-scale land degradation and conversion that can undermine livelihood security.

To ensure that  Rio+20 deliver a global message that forests matter to sustainable development, CIFOR will coordinate one of the most important conferences on forests on 19 June, 2012. Forests: The 8th Roundtable at Rio+20 will discuss new research findings, remaining knowledge gaps and policy implications for integrating forests into the solutions to four key challenges to progress toward a green economy: energy, food and incomewater, and climate. Seats are limited so register here to avoid disappointment! 

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