In developing countries, rural smallholders and communities derive about one-quarter of their income from the forest around them. But a recent study indicates that these resources are becoming scarcer, with their availability dwindling over time.
Increased consumption of forest products and deforestation are the main reasons for increased scarcity, putting both the resource base and people’s livelihoods at potential risk, according to the new study.
“We see a trend toward the degradation of the resource base over time,” says Sven Wunder, a senior economist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Wunder analyzed data from CIFOR’s Poverty and Environment Network (PEN), a pan-tropical study that was started in 2004 and has since gathered data from more than 8,000 households in 24 countries.
“I was surprised to see that so many villages—nine out of 10—were showing signs of reduced resource availability in only half a decade,” says Wunder.
The results point to a need for a closer look at the sustainability of the communities’ forest management practices, as well as the future impacts of forest degradation.
“Since these are communities that live from forest resources directly, the implications can be viewed as quite negative,” says the study’s lead author Kathleen Hermans-Neumann of the UFZ-Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany. “Having fewer natural resources available makes it more difficult to sustain local livelihoods.”
The study examined the use of six types of forest resources—firewood and charcoal; timber and other wood; food; medicine; forage; and others—in 233 villages in tropical and sub-tropical Asia, Africa and Latin America.
While most studies of village resource use have been conducted locally, the PEN database allows researchers to examine pan-tropical trends, according to Hermans-Neumann.
As part of the PEN surveys, which were conducted between 2005 and 2010, villagers were asked whether the availability of those key forest resources had changed over the past five years, and if so, why they thought that had occurred.
The three most important forest resources mentioned by the villagers were firewood and charcoal; timber and other wood; and food. Forage and medicine were less prominent, although 75 percent of the villages reported using at least one of them.
Overall, 209 of the 233 villages reported that they had observed a decrease in the availability of at least one forest product, while 87 villages experienced the diminished availability of all available forest products.
In contrast, 89 villages reported that at least one forest product had increased. In some cases, that product was firewood, and the increase was due to deforestation; not necessarily more sustainable management.
The two main causes of declines in the availability of forest resources were greater consumption (largely because village populations had increased), and loss of forest cover. Population growth was attributed to immigration and to high birth rates.
Villages where the availability of forest products increased generally had lower population growth and reported less use of forest resources. These results lend support to the “neo-Malthusian” view that an increasing population leads to over-use and a dwindling supply of food and other resources. That theory takes its name from Thomas Robert Malthus, who advanced it in the late 18th century.
A competing view, termed “neo-Boserupian” after the Danish economist Ester Boserup, holds that people will respond to a scarcity of resources by finding better ways to manage them.
Although the study seems to reinforce the “neo-Malthusian” theory, the results show that forest tenure may play a role in slowing the degradation of forest resources. Places where at least one-third of the forest was community-owned reported fewer decreases in forest products.
People may be motivated to change the way they manage their forests when they see a drastic decrease in available forest products, the authors note.
“The transition from open access to actively-managed community forests often occurs when resource degradation has become substantial,” they write.
The authors caution that the PEN data are based on people’s perceptions of changes in their forests, rather than scientific measurement of the resource stocks. But Wunder says the consistency of findings in such a large number of villages indicates that the perceptions are likely valid.
Nevertheless, he adds, comparative studies with on-the-ground measurements of the quality of forest resources could provide additional insight into the degree of degradation, its drivers, and the impact on forest dwellers’ livelihoods.
Hermans-Neumann says she would like to examine population changes more closely, especially “why people are immigrating and to what extent they are using resources differently from the existing local population.”
Meanwhile, the results of this study can serve as a wake-up call for policymakers and forest managers who may hold an idealized view of smallholders and communities living in harmony with their natural resources without depleting resource stocks.
“Apparently, the way local communities use forests and forest products overall is not entirely sustainable,” says Hermans-Neumann. “Community forest management may sometimes successfully address that, but it’s not always the case. Now that we know more about the drivers of degradation, we can better leverage priority areas for improved management.”