Overstory #169 - Forestry and sustainable livelihoods
What part can forests and forestry play in reducing poverty?
The adoption of the International Development Target of halving global poverty by the year 2015 has served to reaffirm the mandates of multilateral and bilateral agencies and international centres. There is general agreement that this should be the major global development goal. Certainly one cannot ask for a more noble goal, or a more ambitious one.
For those working in forestry, the question raised is a critical one what part can forests (and forestry) play in reducing poverty? This question requires a new perspective on forests and their use, in which success is measured not only by the amount of forest products harvested, export figures or revenue generated, but also by the contribution of forests in alleviating poverty. It requires more attention to identifying the overall contribution of forests, and of the goods and services they provide, to the livelihoods of the poor, and then the development of strategies for maintaining or enhancing this contribution.
This article, after examining the various ways in which forests help alleviate poverty by contributing to sustainable livelihoods, looks at the nature of dependence on the forest and how this is likely to change over time. Finally, it provides some recommendations for enhancing the contribution of forests and forestry to achieving sustainable livelihoods and alleviating poverty.
Poverty is commonly determined based on thresholds of income or consumption. These criteria, while useful for national and international statistics, fail to capture the local complexity and dynamism of poverty. They also fail to take account of current and potential resources.
Another commonly used measure of poverty is food security - or lack of it. Food insecurity exists when people lack access to sufficient amounts of food and are therefore not consuming the food required for normal growth and development. This may be because of lack of access to food - because of unavailability, insufficient purchasing power, inappropriate distribution or inadequate utilization at the household level. Further analysis can be used to determine what factors place people at risk of becoming food insecure, as well as those factors that affect their ability to cope.
Sustainability is important if progress in poverty reduction is to be lasting. Sustainability of livelihoods rests on several dimensions - environmental, economic, social and institutional. Livelihoods are sustainable when they:
- are resilient in the face of external shocks and stresses;
- are not dependent on external support (or if they are, this support should itself be economically and institutionally sustainable);
- maintain the long-term productivity of natural resources; and
- do not undermine the livelihoods of others or compromise the livelihood options open to others.
(Source Ashby and Carney, 1999)
But poverty is not only based on income and/or food availability. A current approach that attempts to go beyond these factors and to include multidimensional characteristics and causes is that of sustainable livelihoods. A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks, and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base (Carney, 1998).
The assets that are the building blocks of livelihoods are not only natural, physical and financial capital, but also social and human capital (kinship and networks, and nutrition and health). A range of assets is needed to achieve positive livelihood outcomes no single category of assets sufficiently provides all the many and varied livelihood outcomes that people seek. The access of poor people to any of the categories of assets tends to be limited. Those with more assets have a greater range of options and an ability to shift emphasis in their livelihood strategies. The ability to move out of poverty is critically dependent on access to assets.
Contributions of forests to sustainable livelihoods
Arnold (1998), in examining the contribution of forests to sustainable livelihoods, defines forests "to include all resources that can produce forest products. These can comprise woodland, scrubland, bush fallow and farm bush, and trees on farm, as well as forests". Arnold's definition focuses not on tenure or tree cover as the basis for defining a forest, but on the potential for producing products. Moreover, the contribution of forests is measured not only by the products they provide, but also by the non-tangible services they offer. Nonetheless, the general contributions of forests to livelihood outcomes can be identified (Arnold, 1998).
Forests are important natural capital. Past development efforts have primarily focused on building natural capital, without paying equal attention to how these assets, such as forests, combine with other assets to sustain livelihoods, especially among the poor. This oversight has resulted in gaps in understanding the contribution of forest products to sustainable livelihoods (DFID, 1999).
The total contribution of forests and trees to livelihoods is difficult to quantify. A significant proportion of forest products are consumed by those who collect them, with the amount collected varying acording to seasonality, access and options (alternatives). Most of the available information is descriptive, and often extremely situation specific (although Arnold  cites some exceptions, e.g. Townson, 1995; Arnold et al., 1994). Few studies quantify the part of household inputs, labour allocation, incomes and costs attributable to forest product activities. While studies on fuelwood or specific forest products have been conducted, censuses and surveys do not usually include information on household-level use or activities for a more complete range of forest products (Byron and Arnold, 1999).
Although income alone is insufficient as a criterion of poverty, increased income is clearly relevant to the economic sustainability of the household. Earnings from forest products are often important as a complement to other income. Very large numbers of households generate some of their income from selling forest products, often on a part-time basis when farm production is not enough to provide food self-sufficiency all the year round. Much forest-based income-generating activity is seasonal some products can only be gathered at certain times of year, demand or labour availability may fluctuate seasonally and income from forest products may contribute to the purchase of farm inputs or food between harvests. Income from forest products is often used to obtain inputs for other activities that contribute to livelihoods to purchase seeds, hire labour for cultivation or generate working capital for trading activities (e.g. Leach and Fairhead, 1994, cited in Byron and Arnold, 1999).
The rural poor often produce, process and sell forest products (e.g. making mats and baskets and selling fuelwood) in the absence of other employment opportunities, often as a part-time activity within farming households.
Improved food security
Food security is a key element of livelihood. Forests are the source of a variety of foods that supplement and complement what is obtained from agriculture, woodfuels with which to cook food and boil water, and a wide range of traditional medicines and other hygiene products. Probably the majority of rural households in developing countries, and a large proportion of urban households, depend on plant and animal products of forests to meet some part of their nutritional, cooking and/or health needs (Byron and Arnold, 1999).
The five forms of capital required for sustainable livelihoods:
Natural capital natural resources such as land, forests, water and pastures.
Physical capital privately owned assets that can be used to increase labour and land productivity (such as farm animals, tools and machinery) and publicly owned economic infrastructure (e.g. roads, electricity supply) and social infrastructure (e.g. schools, hospitals).
Financial capital cash (income and savings) and readily convertible liquid capital.
Human capital health, nutritional levels, educational standards and skills.
Social capital the set of social relationships on which people can draw to expand livelihood options. These include kinship, friendship, patron-client relations, reciprocal arrangements, membership of formal groups and membership of organizations that provide loans, grants and other forms of insurance.
Source Carney, 1998
Where fuelwood is the only source of fuel for cooking, it is essential to nutrition and disease prevention, as cooking is necessary to make many foods digestable, to kill pathogenic microorganisms and to remove parasites.
Forests also contribute to livelihoods by providing materials for construction, baskets, storage structures, agricultural implements, boats and hunting and fishing gear. They provide inputs for farm systems such as fodder and mulch, contribute to soil nutrient cycling, help conserve soil and water and provide shelter and shade for crops and animals.
Poor people often live precariously, with no cushion against adversity. Forest and tree stocks have an important role as a reserve or safety net, providing both subsistence and income in times of crop failure, shortfall, unemployment or other emergency or hardship, or to meet exceptional needs. Forest foods are most extensively used to help meet dietary shortfalls during particular seasons in the year. Energy-rich forest foods such as roots, tubers, rhizomes and nuts are especially important in emergencies such as floods, famines, droughts and wars.
More sustainable use of the natural resource base
Sustainable use of natural resources is critical for sustainable livelihoods. More sustainable use of natural resources has a direct impact on the improvement of natural capital. All people affect the environment, but the poor tend to be the most vulnerable to the effects of environmental degradation (Watson et al., 1998).
It is a myth that poverty prevents people from investing in the environment. Numerous experiences now demonstrate that when incentives are favourable, even poorer groups can mobilize enormous resources, particularly labour. Another myth is that poor people lack the technical knowledge for resource management. There is a growing awareness that poorer groups have an enormous store of what is termed indigenous or local technical knowledge (Ambler, 1999, cited in DFID, 2000).
In addition to income and what money can buy, forests provide non-material goods that contribute to livelihoods by enhancing social and human capital. Sense of well-being is affected by numerous factors including self-esteem, sense of control and inclusion, health status, access to services and political enfranchisement. Forestry initiatives that support access to resources, participatory decision-making and equity assist in increasing well-being, especially that of the poor.
What is needed to increase the contribution of forests to the poor?
The more we understand the risk-reducing, security-increasing quality of forests, and their complementarity to a very wide range of rural livelihoods, the more we understand the fundamental nature of the need of the poor for them.--Shepherd, Arnold and Bass, 1999
The implication of what is currently known about forests' contribution to the poor is that if forests are to have a greater role in the future, the following interventions or approaches should be supported.
Where forests continue to be central to livelihood systems, local people are or should be the main stakeholders. Meeting their needs on a sustainable basis should be the principal objective of forest management, and this should be reflected in control and tenure arrangements (Peluso and Padoch, 1996).
A detailed assessment needs to be prepared by, or at least with, the people concerned, to identify the complete range of relationships between the people and the forests that they use and/or manage, the current limitations to their livelihoods and the potentials and desire for change (Byron and Arnold, 1999). Participatory forest management experiences in Nepal, the Gambia and India, for example, demonstrate that this approach is practicable and effective.
Secure access to forest resources
Where forest products have an important supplementary and safety net role, users need security of access to the resources (Byron and Arnold, 1999).
Where communal practices and systems of forest management and control continue to function viably, policies are needed that recognize these local rights, and legal and regulatory support is needed to protect them (Byron and Arnold, 1999). Common property regimes are not the same as open access. A properly managed common property resource may be viewed as shared private property, confined to members of a defined user group. Frequently, factors that cause the breakdown of a common property regime would also result in degradation of the resource if it were managed by the State (Shepherd, Arnold and Bass, 1999).
Tree planting and management incentives
Where forest products have an important role but are more effectively supplied from non-forest sources, forest management and policy may need to be geared towards supporting agroforestry. Although providing incentives for tree planting has been the main form of intervention in the past, income from tree growing is more likely to be increased by providing producers with better access to markets. Priority often needs to be given to changing the policies and practices that create market restrictions and that depress market prices for forest or tree products.
Small enterprise surveys consistently show that forest product activities rank among the three largest sources of employment in rural manufacturing and trading (Fisseha, 1987). The rural poor, particularly the landless who depend on common property regimes, will need help in exploiting opportunities in these areas. Producers and prospective producers may require improved access to credit, skills, marketing services, etc. However, the needs and opportunities differ depending on the target group. New entrants driven by supply side forces - that is people searching for activities that can sustain their livelihoods - do not have the same needs as those responding to market opportunities (Arnold, 1998).
Domestic markets for forest products may provide more stable avenues for development. The large component of forest product activities in the rural sector reflects the size of rural markets for these products. Where transport infrastructures are relatively poor, these products are more effectively supplied locally (FAO, 1987). Many products that were not previously sold in rural areas, such as fuelwood and forest fruits, have become increasingly commercialized. Most growth, however, is usually associated with expansion of urban demand.
Some forest products used domestically, however, are considered inferior and are consumed less as incomes rise. For example, forest foods may be displaced by purchased foods, and competition from factory-made alternatives may increase as improved transport infrastructure opens up rural areas to outside supplies.
Forestry resources can contribute to achieving sustainable livelihoods and reducing poverty. However, it is essential to be realistic about what can be achieved. In the short term, there may be no alternative to minimal-return forest product activities for many. New options, which are quite likely to be outside forestry, need to be developed to help people move out of forest product activities of declining importance and those that can offer no more than marginal, unsustainable livelihoods. Providing support to such activities once higher-return or less arduous alternatives emerge could impede the emergence of better livelihood systems. The challenge will be to help people move into more rewarding fields of endeavour rather than seeking to raise their productivity in forest activities of low potential. Care needs to be taken, however, to ensure that alternative activities indeed offer better future growth prospects.
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Arnold, J.E.M., Liedholm, C., Mead, D. & Townson, I.M. 1994. Structure and growth of small enterprises using forest products in southern and eastern Africa. OFI Occasional Paper No. 47. Oxford, UK, Oxford Forestry Institute, and GEMINI Working Paper No. 48. Growth and Equity through Microenterprise Investments and Institutions (GEMINI) Project, Bethesda, Maryland, USA.
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Carney, D. 1998. Implementing the sustainable livelihoods approach. In D. Carney, ed. Sustainable rural livelihoods what contribution can we make? London, UK, Department for International Development.
DFID (Department for International Development). 1999. Sustainable guidance sheets framework. London, UK, Department for International Development.
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Leach, M. & Fairhead, J. 1994. The forest islands of Kissidougou social dynamics of environmental change in West Africa's forest-savannah mosaic. Report to ESCOR, Overseas Development Administration (ODA), London, UK.
Peluso, N.L. & Padoch, C. 1996. Changing resource rights in managed forests of West Kalimantan. In C.Padoch and N.L. Peluso, eds. Borneo in transition people, forests, conservation and development. Singapore, Oxford University.
Shepherd, G., Arnold, J.E.M. & Bass, S. 1999. Forests and sustainable livelihoods. Background document, World Bank Forest Policy Implementation Review and Strategy. (Draft)
Townson, I.M. 1995. Patterns of non-timber forest products enterprise activity in the forest zone of southern Ghana. Draft report to the ODA Forestry Research Programme, London, UK.
Watson, R.T., Dixon, J.A., Hamburg, S.P., Janetos, A.C. & Moss, R.H., eds. 1998. Protecting our planet, securing our future - linkages among global environmental issues and human needs. Nairobi, Kenya and Washington, DC, USA, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and World Bank.
This article was excerpted with the kind permission of the publisher from
Warner, K. 2000. Forestry and sustainable livelihoods. Unasylva 202, Vol. 51- 2000/3. FAO, Rome. http//www.fao.org/docrep/x7273e/x7273e00.htm.
Author's note This paper owes a great deal to several recent papers focusing on this topic Shepherd, Arnold and Bass, 1999; Byron and Arnold, 1999; Arnold, 1998.
About the author
Katherine "Kadi" Warner authored this article when she was senior forestry officer and head of the Community Forestry Unit for the Food & Agriculture Organization. Katherine has also served as deputy director and head of Program Development for the Regional Community Forestry Training Center in Bangkok, Thailand, and has had extensive experience in Africa and Asia. She has published a range of articles and books focusing on community forestry and natural resource management, and made presentations at international fora, such as the World Conservation Congress and the World Forestry Congress.
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