Can forests help reduce poverty? New research sets out to tackle the big questions

ZA woman with marula fruit.
17 February 2016

An estimated 1.3 billion people—nearly 20 percent of humanity—rely on forests and forest products for their livelihoods, with the majority living on less than $1.25 a day. In some areas, forest activities even rival agriculture in terms of benefits and earnings, and they may provide an especially important source of income for women. But do forests actually contribute to reducing poverty? And if so, how and for whom? And what types of programs or policies have led to these outcomes?

To find some answers, PROFOR recently launched an ambitious multi-disciplinary program to improve understanding and awareness of this topic that is important to the daily lives of so many people.

“There are many studies about how much poor people depend on forests as a safety net, as a primary or supplementary source of income or other resources, “ noted World Bank Senior Environmental Economist Sofia Ahlroth, who is leading the PROFOR poverty work. “What we really want to explore is the potential of forests to act as pathways out of poverty: how forests can really help people to attain a higher standard of living, so that they don’t have to migrate away from rural areas or clear their forests for agriculture. So it’s a sustainability question too.”

Ahlroth is teaming up with a number of forest partners, including Conservation International, International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI), Assistant Professor Daniel Miller at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and representatives from statistics, research and poverty departments across the World Bank. The work will build on earlier research in this area, such as the Poverty-Forests Linkages Toolkit.

The team’s first task is to compile an evidence map that systematically reviews existing studies on forest-poverty linkages, in order to identify the knowledge gaps that need to be filled. A series of case studies will provide important guidance to countries where forests play a central – but poorly understood – role in relation to poverty.

In addition, the project team will develop a forestry-poverty app to facilitate data collection among communities and households, with an emphasis on sex-disaggregated data in order to tease out any potential gender differences in how men and women rely on and benefit from forests. Finally, results will be widely shared in the hopes of directly influencing the World Bank and others’ forest and/or poverty programs.

Ahlroth foresees this PROFOR work yielding important lessons for places like India, which are in need of policies that both enhance forest access to meet the needs of the poor, and incentivize sustainable forest management. She said, “When you think about the mainstream sectors that seek to address poverty, you think of health, education or economic empowerment, often in an urban setting, or you think of agriculture in a rural setting. At the same time, forests are mainly seen as a conservation issue, not as an economic asset. We think that this work is one small piece in changing that perspective, and in finding ways to meet conservation goals while directly boosting income.”

This poverty and forests activity is an example of a PROFOR’s new “sector neutral” approach of identifying forest-based solutions for development challenges. The goal is to bring together experts from different sectors in order to examine forest management challenges from a novel perspective and come up with innovative solutions.

Specialists from other relevant sectors are undertaking activities relating to Mainstreaming Wood and Forests to Help Deliver Energy Access for All, Generating Growth and Jobs through Competitive Small and Medium-Scale Forest Enterprises, and Reducing Deforestation and Forest Degradation through Innovative Commodity Supply Chain Mechanisms and Governance.

Ultimately, this approach hopes to increase understanding of the relevance of forests in decision-making across sectors, not just in the context of forest management or conservation.

Originally published at PROFOR.