Are forests and biodiversity playing a vital role in food security and climate change adaptation?

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Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Terry Sunderland.

BOGOR, Indonesia (21 November, 2011)_Cat Ba Island in Vietnam is well known for its tourist attractions. The steep slopes of island itself remain densely forested, having escaped the large scale chemical defoliation that affected much of the forests of the region during the Vietnam War. They also provide the remaining habitat of the Cat Ba langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus poliocephalus), one of the most endangered primates in the world, with only an estimated 60 individuals remaining. To the east of the island is Ha Long Bay, an area of majestic beauty, dominated by hundreds of limestone karsts rising directly from the ocean. It is a landscape as diverse as it is visually stunning.

The majority of Cat Ba and its surrounding waters were declared a National Park in 1986, protected to secure the conservation of its unique biodiversity and jaw-dropping landscapes.

The Cat Ba National Park is surrounded by many villages and communes. In Ha Long Bay, floating villages are dotted through the maze of rocky outcrops. These seemingly amphibious people are engaged primarily in fish and shrimp farming. However, a significant proportion of the population on the island of Cat Ba itself continues to rely on the remaining forests of the island for their livelihoods.

During a recent study conducted as part of CIFOR’s Poverty and Environment Network (PEN), Diao Giap and his Vietnamese colleagues undertook extensive household surveys to determine just how important forest resources are to local people. His research resonates with much of the findings of many other PEN studies: although agriculture is the primary household activity for many rural households, forest play an extremely important role in food security, particularly between harvests and following extreme weather events that can result in major crop losses.

This was brought home when Diao and his team brought me to visit a commune leader in one of the hamlets deep inside the National Park, who had participated in the research. Mr Nguyen Thanh Phuoc (name has been changed to protect informant confidentiality), is a striking looking man. Over 75 years of age, he is strong and lean; a testament to a lifetime of physical labour. Mr Nguyen fought for the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War and lost an eye in hand-to-hand combat with US troops near Dalat, to the south. Eager to share stories of his time in the army and of his life on Cat Ba, we were invited to share lunch with him and his extended family.

In many rural settings agricultural diets are often supplemented with wild harvested products. Photo courtesy of Terry Sunderland.

As we ate al fresco on a Bougainvillea-covered terrace overlooking rice paddies, and fruit-laden orchards which gradually merged into the steep forested slopes of the National Park, we talked about the origin of each of the numerous dishes on the table. The rice was grown in the family’s paddies (where they achieve three harvests a year), the fried chicken and eggs were from fowl kept in the large open coop behind the house. The dried apricots and figs were harvested from the family orchard. In the shade of these fruit trees, cattle that provided the family’s butter and cheese quietly grazed.

However, nearly all the remaining produce on a table comprising twenty or so dishes originated from the nearby forests of the National Park. The barbequed goat skewers were from animals allowed to run loose in the forest margins, the water cress was plucked from the clean waters of the shaded stream pools of the next valley and the numerous vegetables and other delicacies, such as land snails, were harvested from deep in the forest itself. Best of all was the wild honey, some of which had been distilled into an extremely potent liquor. The honey whiskey, coupled with Mr Nguyen’s mischievous sense of humour, made for an entertaining afternoon.

In many rural settings, and for millions of families such as Mr Nguyen’s, agricultural diets are often supplemented with wild harvested products. Wild resources provide an important safety net whereby the benefits provided by forest resources contribute to local livelihoods such that they provide immediate subsistence value or cash income at critical times of the year, particularly during times of low agricultural production, during other seasonal or cyclical food gaps or in periods of climate-induced vulnerability. The diversity of food products that forests provide also contribute to a more nutritionally rich diet.

The biodiversity within forests and other natural ecosystems are integral to agriculture and food security. Not only do they provide additional food, medicines, livestock forage and other resources such as fuelwood, forests protect watersheds and host the myriad pollinators required for fertilizing crop plants. The FAO estimate that 45% of the world’s food is produced by small holder farmers in diverse agricultural systems that often include forests, cultivated tree-based systems and other elements of biodiversity. Managing forests and trees for food is a much under-reported element of food security.

It has been shown that such diversity in farming systems increases resilience to climate change and provides natural insurance against weather-related shocks. Some evidence has also proven that diverse agricultural systems that incorporate tree-based systems can actually increase crop yields. Despite this, the links between forests and food security remains unappreciated and intensive agriculture is perceived as the dominant means of feeding an ever-growing global population. Highlighting just how the millions of families such as Mr Nguyen’s rely on forests for daily sustenance can perhaps challenge such perceptions.

Terry Sunderland is a Senior Scientist at CIFOR and is a contributor and co-editor of a recent Special Issue of the International Forestry Review on “Forests, Biodiversity and Food Security”.  Food security will be one of the issues discussed at CIFOR’s Dry Forests Symposium- a side event in parallel to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP 17) in Durban, South Africa next week. Register here

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