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How much do the rural poor depend on forests?

External Reference/Copyright
Issue date: 
Jul 12, 2011
Publisher Name: 
Jan Willem den Besten
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The development of programmes to reduce emissions from deforestation has sparked debate about the need for climate change actions in the forest sector to create extra benefits for local communities and biodiversity.

The social and environmental safeguards included in the agreements made at last December’s U.N. climate conference in Cancun are a first step in acknowledging this need. As countries develop their national strategies for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), they should make sure planned activities strengthen, rather than harm, the contribution forests make to peoples’ livelihoods.

So far, so good. But how well do we understand people’s dependency on forests in the first place?

Over a billion of the world’s rural poor rely on forests for a substantial portion of their incomes. Nowadays, it is widely understood that they must be involved in conservation planning to achieve positive outcomes both for both people and nature. But there is sometimes a gap between aspiration and practice due to our weak understanding of how forests contribute to the livelihoods of poor people. 


We must improve our grasp of the different ways in which forests contribute to the livelihoods of forest-dependent people, and how these functions play out across different communities, landscapes and timeframes.

It is sometimes thought that forests make only very minimal contributions to the livelihoods of the poor. However, one recent estimate (Emerton, 2011), drawing on 2004 data (Vedeld et al), puts the annual value of cash and non-cash income from forests worldwide at $130 billion.

Another problem is that information on forest dependency among the poor often doesn’t reach policymakers. This lack of knowledge affects decisions in the forest and development sectors, and is particularly worrying in the context of REDD+, with its emphasis on sustainable development and poverty reduction.

Analysing data collected in partnership with local people can lead to a better understanding of the true role forests play in the livelihoods of forest dwellers. It can provide important insights into changes in forest use, what drives deforestation over time, and people’s perceptions of problems and possible solutions.


A “forests-livelihoods toolkit” designed in 2005 by the World Bank’s Programme on Forests and refined since by IUCN provides a framework for gathering and making good use of information about forest dependency. It is a set of fieldwork methods and analytic tools for understanding and communicating the contributions forests make to the income of rural households.

The toolkit is participatory in that it lets local people identify the relative value of various types of forest uses for their livelihoods. It helps governments and civil society gain otherwise hard-to-obtain information about differences in forest dependency between groups, such as poorer and wealthier men and women.

IUCN is now developing the toolkit further to collect data that will support a more pro-poor approach to REDD+, which aims to ensure no new burdens are created for forest communities. Rather, REDD+ programmes should strengthen the social and environmental functions of forests, assure the rights of communities and bolster livelihoods.


The forests-livelihoods toolkit has now been implemented in 15 countries. In particular, its use in Ghana, Cameroon, Uganda, Indonesia and Guatemala over the last three years has generated important lessons for REDD+. The issues it has flagged will require further investigation in countries that are building their REDD+ strategies.

Central is the extent and nature of often under-reported income from forests. Products from forests are in many cases three to four times more important in the subsistence economy than in the cash economy. The toolkit can provide information that helps REDD+ policymaking to safeguard, and where possible, strengthen this role.

The application of the toolkit in less remote areas close to markets shows how REDD+ could contribute to reductions in cash poverty there by creating new sources of income from protecting, managing and restoring forests.

The situation is different for more isolated communities. Here, reductions in cash poverty are very hard to generate, but improving access rights to forest land, and avoiding activities that increase vulnerability, can make livelihoods more secure among often chronically poor communities.

Many remote forest dwellers in these areas manage to emerge from poverty over more than one generation by migrant labouring and educating their children. But the vital support role forests play for families left at home within this strategy tends to be overlooked because it is invisible, and therefore easily threatened.

Communities hold important information that needs to be captured and considered when making decisions about key elements of REDD+ programmes, including the rights to tree tenure and building systems to distribute benefits.

Using the forests-livelihoods toolkit helps draw out valuable insights that can be introduced to REDD+ policy makers. Decision-making processes informed in this way should lead to the development of REDD+ interventions that support and strengthen the livelihoods of the poor who depend on forests.

IUCN is developing and testing the REDD+ forests-livelihoods toolkit as part of its pro-poor REDD+ project, which is being implemented in five tropical forest countries with support from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA). A briefing paper on relevant findings for REDD+ in those countries can be read here...


Extpub | by Dr. Radut