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Protect against poverty … with a dry forest

More research is needed to understand the role of dry forests in rural livelihoods.
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In Burkina Faso, shea nuts are vital to rural livelihoods. CIFOR.
In Burkina Faso, shea nuts are vital to rural livelihoods. CIFOR.

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Africa - Understanding dry forests is essential to help the poorest residents adapt to climate change. And keeping those forests intact can be one of the best protections against poverty.

Because trees store carbon dioxide, they help soak up some of our greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting trees down can release the carbon they have stored, contributing more to the problem.

In the dry forests of West Africa, trying to protect the forests from disruption can create intense conflict with livestock herders, who need the trees for fodder for their animals.

In times of drought, selling livestock can provide income that means the difference between a tough but manageable few months and a decline into disastrous poverty.

In a recent article published in a special edition of International Forestry Review, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) scientist Houria Djoudi reviewed the existing literature on poverty in dry forests.

Djoudi and her colleagues found that resources from the forests are often essential for poor residents of dry forest communities, providing a vital safety net to keep families afloat during times of economic and/or environmental crisis.

“If we take the poverty lens to look at the forest, then we will see it in a different way,” Djoudi says. “A lot is written that the forest might not be so important, but we have to ask: “important for whom?’”

DIVERSIFICATION HAPPENS

In many dry forest areas, residents are now diversifying their incomes and relying less on the forests for subsistence.

But a closer look reveals that poor households are reliant on forests for a greater portion of their incomes than wealthier households, and often need forest products to prevent them from falling into greater poverty.

When you look at who is actually dependent on forest, then it has a completely different value.

Houria Djoudi

Many communities rely on the forests for wood fuel, which provides a significant source of income, a means to cook food, and a source of energy.

Recent studies found that wood fuel provides 75 percent of energy consumed in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) and 70 percent of all energy used in southern Africa.

Wood fuel also generated US$309 million in income annually in South Africa and made up 70 percent of rural households’ cash income in Tanzania.

The forests also provide valuable ecosystem services, such as the retention of water so farmers can irrigate their crops, as well as wild foods, which can be eaten or sold for supplementary income.

Some dry forest products are even important to national economies.

MONEY IN THE TREES

One study found that shea butter, made from the nuts of the African shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa), is the third most important national export in Burkina Faso. Another found that gums and resins from the forests are the second most important source of income in Ethiopia, after livestock.

“When you look at who is actually dependent on forest, then it has a completely different value in terms of research, in terms of development, in terms of vulnerability,” Djoudi says.

This kind of knowledge, in addition to biophysical research about the forests themselves, can be critical for planning projects that manage forests and address climate change while also alleviating poverty.

Some species within a forest might be more resilient to drought than others, for example. Because climate change is likely to make dry areas even drier in the future, those species would be more likely to fare well.

“If we plan that we will base our logging activities on a species, and then this species isn’t there anymore or is more and more sensitive, then we have no success with our intervention,” Djoudi says. “That is the basic knowledge you need to do any planning, any intervention.”

RESEARCH NEEDED

But overall, Djoudi found that there is “distressing lack of research” on dry forests at all levels.

There is little baseline data on the ecosystems themselves, and very few studies looking at how the forests are changing. Some countries with dry forests don’t have basic forest inventory data.

“You can not even identify clear research questions because there is a lot that is missing,” Djoudi says.

In other types of ecosystems, residents may have more options for diversifying their incomes, or their resources may be less sensitive to environmental change. In dry forest areas, many of which are in poor countries, accessing resources from the forest can be crucial for survival.

“This role to decrease the vulnerability of the forest household is something we should really look at more,” Djoudi says.

“When you take a region like West Africa, where you have drought and climate variability, we have a problem if they’re without certain forest products for certain times. Without that, there are many households which can move from poverty to disaster.”

For more information on this research, contact Houria Djoudi at h.djoudi@cgiar.org

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