A New Understanding of Forest Relationships

Credit: National Geographic

The world’s poor have a complicated relationship with forests.  Forests provide much needed sustenance in the form of hunting and gathering opportunities, but they prove to be an obstacle to agricultural expansion.  They can be a safety net for a community – storing food and water – but also a danger that contains deadly predators.  The complications of this relationship have made forest management a very complex field and one rife with challenges and assumptions about how forest communities interact with their environment.  Recently, however, a number of studies have been released that overturn some very fundamental assumptions of the field and emphasize how a REDD+ program based on these assumptions has critical shortfalls.

For many years, forest management assumed that logging and human infringement on the forest – beyond the most low-impact activities – degraded the forest to the point that it no longer provided essential functions.  It was an all or nothing proposition: the forest was pristine and protected biodiversity, acted as a water catchments, etc., or it was degraded past the point of no return.  A new study challenges this assumption.  It points out that in Indonesia, areas that have been logged still retain significant levels of both bird and insect diversity.  It also finds that after declining after a first logging, these populations remain stable after subsequent loggings.  The study suggests, therefore, that conservationists focus some energy on preserving logged areas that, due to their lack of harvestable timber, may have lower opportunity costs of conservation than pristine forest yet still retain their importance as areas with significant biodiversity.

A second mistaken assumption is that the poor were a driving force in deforestation because of the obstacles forests posed to agricultural and other development.  Because the poor caused significant deforestation, it was assumed, they couldn’t be trusted to conserve the forests.  Therefore, national governments or international groups should handle conservation.

Eleanor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her work showing that in many cases, these assumptions simply are not true.  Several more recent studies have confirmed these findings, pointing to evidence that deforestation in government-protected areas is actually higher than in community-managed forests around the world.  More critically, however, the Center for International Forestry Research concluded a study in the past year that takes aim at the assumption that the poor drive deforestation through use of the forest.

After conducting interviews with more than 8,000 individuals in 24 countries, the report finds that the wealthiest 20% of individuals in a community have a significantly greater impact on deforestation than the poorest 20%.  It is the wealthy who can benefit the most by increasing agricultural production because they have the resources to take extra produce to market and, hence, have the greatest incentive to increase deforestation rates.  The study also found that as much as 25% of a poor individual’s income might be derived from the forest – equal to the amount they derive from agriculture.  This has huge implications for REDD+.

If REDD+ restricts access to the forest and limits the of growth agriculture by restricting land clearance, it could conceivably remove 50% of the income of poor families.  This is income that will need to be replaced by REDD+ payments in order to generate participation by local communities.  The challenge here is two-fold.  First, this is a much higher percentage of income that will need to be replaced than many involved in REDD+ have recognized in the past.  Second, if the 25% of income derived from the forest comes from informal, unrecognized access to the forest, it will be difficult to determine how benefits should be distributed to individuals equitably and in a way that ensures families are compensated appropriately for the income lost due to restricted forest access.

New work examining banking in Kenya introduces a further complication by suggesting that providing banking to rural, forest residents may be more complicated than expected.  It is well known that the use of banks by rural Africans is not widespread.  In an attempt to increase usage, researchers removed the fixed costs of opening an account but found that only 18% of individuals who opened an account continued to use it.  Reasons for not using the accounts include distrust of the bank, lack of reliable service, and high withdrawal fees.   Why is this is relevant for REDD+ programs? b Because many proposed REDD+ programs assume that monetary benefits of REDD+ can be distributed to communities through community and individual bank accounts.  If the results from this study can be generalized however, it suggests that there are social reasons (lack of trust in banks) as well as technical (high withdrawal fees) that need to be addressed before this becomes a feasible solution.

Despite all the challenges that these new reports introduce, they were not without some good news as well.  The CIFOR report found that forests did not act as a safety net as much as it was anticipated they would. Instead, it found that poor villagers were willing to leave the village to seek out opportunities in urban centers when times were harder.  This demonstrates that villages have a level of access to urban centers that is crucial if a purely monetary incentive scheme for REDD+ is to be effective.

With all of the new information being produced on the relationship between forests and the rural poor, policy-makers have a greater understanding of the dynamics of this relationship than ever before.  It is crucial, however, that they integrate the findings of these new studies into policy and not base policy on old, out-dated assumptions about how the poor relate to forests.  If they do not, programs like REDD+ will fail to help the poor and, likely, will fail to protect the forests as well.