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Forest degradation and food security

L. Lipper

Leslie Lipper is a natural resource economist
working as a consultant in the Food Security
and Agricultural Projects Analysis Service
of FAO's Agriculture and Economic
Development Analysis Division.

Forest degradation can be a threat to food security but also a product of efforts to obtain it - the costs of degradation need to be weighed against the value obtained.

Forest degradation or deforestation (pictured here
in Malawi) represents a transfer of value among
different groups

- FAO/17812/A. CONTI

Forests and the benefits they provide in the form of food, income and watershed protection have an important and often critical role in enabling people around the world to secure a stable and adequate food supply. Forests are important to the food insecure because they are one of the most accessible productive resources available to them.

Deforestation and forest degradation, however, are impairing the capacity of forests to contribute to food security and other needs. This article focuses on tropical forests, which are currently experiencing the highest rates of clearing and degradation. From 1980 to 1990, an estimated 146 million ha of natural forests in the tropics were cleared, with an additional loss of 65 million ha between 1990 and 1995 (FAO, 1997). The area of degraded forest (defined below) is estimated to be even greater (WRI, 1994).

Tropical forests are located in the areas of the world with the highest concentration of the food insecure. They are home to approximately 300 million people who depend on shifting cultivation, hunting and gathering to survive (FAO, 1996a); many are at risk of not consuming enough food to meet their daily energy requirement on a chronic, transitory or seasonal basis. In addition to these forest inhabitants, millions of people living adjacent to forest areas depend on forests for some aspect of their food security.

The full implications of the loss or deterioration of tropical forests for humankind as well as other life forms is not known. What is known, however, is that the loss of forest resources can lead to diminished income- and food-generating capacity for forest-dependent communities, higher rates of soil erosion and siltation of waterways, loss of species and genetic diversity and an increase in carbon emissions which contribute to global warming (Kaimowitz, Byron and Sunderlin, 1998).

It is important to recognize that in addition to these losses, deforestation and forest degradation may also generate profits, from timber or other product sales, forest food products for consumption or crop and livestock production for subsistence or market. In assessing the implications of forest degradation, it is important to consider how the value obtained compares with the costs incurred, taking into account the full implications for the global community, including non-human life forms.

Moreover, forest degradation represents a transfer of value among different groups. Thus it is necessary to identify how different groups with different risk of food insecurity are affected by the transfer. With this knowledge, better-informed choices can be made of trade-offs involved in forest management.


Food security has been defined by the Committee on World Food Security as economic and physical access to food by all people at all times (FAO, 1983). Embodied in the concept is the recognition that people's ability to consume food may be dependent on their own production as well as on their ability to purchase food, and that sufficiency, stability and continuity of supply are necessary to achieve food security. The definition also implies that food security entails meeting food requirements not only for current popula-tions but also for future generations.

Forest degradation is a more complex and ambiguous concept. Its definition depends on the objectives for which the forest is managed. For example, if the objective is the complete protection of the forest ecosystem and all its components and functions, then economic harvesting of forest products could be considered degrading, even if it is managed "sustainably" - i.e. so as to provide a continuous and steady flow of economic benefits from harvested products. However, if the management objective is to obtain a sustainable yield of wood products from the forest, then harvesting would not be considered degrading.

The definition used in this article, adopted from the definition of forest health used by the United States Forest Service, is that degradation is a loss of a desired level of maintenance over time of biological diversity, biotic integrity and ecological processes.

Desired levels of ecosystem maintenance can vary significantly depending on the forest management objectives, e.g. provision of rural livelihoods, environmental services or recreational or aesthetic benefits. Disagreement over the objectives for which the forest should be managed is frequently a source of conflict between governments, forestry professionals, environmental groups, local communities, logging companies, indigenous groups and others. In some cases multiple management objectives are compatible, but in others they are not (see Box).

Forest degradation can arise from either human or natural causes. There is a link between the two: human action can also influence vulnerability of the forest to degradation from natural causes such as fire, pest and diseases. Since forests are a renewable resource, some forms of degradation are reversible, although rehabilitation may take a considerable time. However, degradation is sometimes irreversible, resulting in an irretrievable loss of some forest ecosystem functions. In contrast to deforestation, which is defined as permanent conversion to other uses, degradation implies the existence of some forest cover but a reduced capacity of the ecosystem to function.

Controversy and conflict in managing
United States forest lands in New Mexico

The northern part of the state of New Mexico, United States, is an area of acute rural poverty, with average per caput incomes less than one third of the national average. Unemployment rates in many localities are more than 50 percent. Traditionally the economy of the area was primarily based on logging, ranching and farming, but recently tourism and service-sector employment have become increasingly important, also providing supplemental seasonal cash income for many of the poorest ranchers and farmers.

Most small ranchers depend on publicly owned forest lands for summer grazing. In the past few years controversy over the management of these forest lands has grown as environmental groups have put pressure on the United States Forest Service to discontinue grazing on public lands to prevent land and water degradation associated with grazing, to preserve endangered species and to enhance the recreational value of the forest lands. Acrid conflicts have arisen between local land users and environmental groups, centred around the questions of the purpose for which public lands should be managed and the amount of environmental degradation associated with livestock grazing. The management objectives are still under debate. One positive development in the controversy has been the emergence of a coalition of ranchers and environmentalists seeking to work together to improve both range management and environmental quality in the area.

Source: Wilmsen, 1999; Lipper and Wilmsen, 1999.


This section looks in detail at the costs of forest degradation to the food insecure and others. For the purposes of this article, costs are divided into on-site, local watershed and global scales of analysis. There is some crossover between these categories, and costs can be incurred at other scales of analysis, but these are the scales at which the most solid information is available and they will serve for a simple analysis of how forest degradation costs can be experienced by different groups.

Two important caveats need to be given before the costs associated with forest degradation are addressed. First, forest ecosystems vary in composition, functions and services, and the impacts and associated costs of degradation vary accordingly. Second, the technical and socio-economic impacts of forest degradation are not yet fully understood, so it is frequently difficult (if not impossible) to quantify and identify causal links.

Deforestation and forest degradation limit
supplies of fuelwood, which two in five
people worldwide rely on for heating or
cooking - here, a woman cooking over a
wood fire in Myanmar

- FAO/11274/F. BOTTS

On-site impacts of forest degradation

For the people who live in or near the forest, an obvious impact could be a decrease in biomass produced, i.e. a decrease in the future capacity of the forest to produce wood, fodder, fruit, medicinal plants and so on.

Forest products, including food and household items, and the income generated by them can be quite significant to the food security of local communities throughout the developing world, many of which are food insecure (Reddy and Chakravarty, 1999; Arnold and Townson, 1998; Townson, 1995; Hoskins, 1990; FAO, 1989; 1990). The poorest households generally have the highest degree of reliance on forest products for income and food, as they have the least access to cultivable land and so supplement their production with the gathering of forest products on common-property forest lands (lands that are owned and managed collectively) or open-access forest lands (lands that have no effective collective or private ownership status) (Reddy and Chakravarty, 1999; Jodha, 1990). The latter category is more vulnerable to overexploitation.

In addition, forest products also have an important role in food security as "buffer" foods, helping to meet dietary needs during periodic food shortages (Arnold and Townson, 1998; FAO, 1990). Even if forest products only constitute a small part of overall food consumption and income generation, their absence at a critical time can greatly increase the risk of food shortages. This loss of "consumption insurance" for food-insecure households can have further negative impacts through its effect on agricultural and natural resource investment strategies. Evidence has indicated that the risk of food insecurity results in low-risk and low-return investment patterns (Holden and Binswanger, 1998).

Forest degradation also influences food security through its impact on supplies of fuelwood, which is a major source of income to many poor households (Townson, 1995). Two in five people worldwide, or approximately 3 000 million people, rely on fuelwood or charcoal for heating or cooking, and approximately 100 million people are already facing a "fuelwood famine" (FAO, 1995). A decreased fuel supply creates constraints on food preparation which can lower nutritional values and increase risk of food-borne diseases (FAO, 1989). In many parts of the world women are responsible for collecting fuelwood, and the increased time required for collection of scarcer resources can impede women's ability to participate in household and agricultural labour and thus jeopardize the household's food security (FAO, 1987).

In addition to biomass, other benefits of forests to on-site users include regulation of soil and water flows as well as shade and windbreak protection. Forest degradation which involves the loss of ground cover exposes soil to rainfall and can result in increased erosion (Bruijnzeel, 1990; Chomitz and Kumari, 1996). The loss of nutrient-rich topsoil can result in significant decreases in agricultural productivity (Tengberg, Stocking and Dechen, 1998).

Community logging
enterprises, such as this one
in Peru, can contribute to
local food security if they
reinvest in community assets
and provide a sustainable
source of employment

- FAO/
14384/J.M. MICAUD

Local watershed impacts of forest degradation

Loss of ground cover in local watersheds can result in increased erosion leading to sedimentation of waterways which may have a negative impact on downstream irrigation, fishery and dam operations (Chomitz and Kumari, 1996). In some cases these impacts can be quite high, although they may occur only after a long time lag (Chomitz and Kumari, 1996; Hodgson and Dixon, 1988). Forest degradation can result in increased runoff and thus increased flooding potential within local watersheds (Chomitz and Kumari, 1996). Changes in the water table may occur as well, although the processes can affect the water table in opposite ways: reduced vegetative cover can lead to reduced water loss from evapotranspiration, while runoff is likely to increase, although it may or may not percolate into groundwater tables (Chomitz and Kumari, 1996).

Global impacts of forest degradation

Two important services provided by forest ecosystems which benefit the global community are carbon sequestration and storage and the conservation of biological diversity through the provision of habitat for highly diverse plant and animal species.

Global climate change is associated with rising levels of greenhouse gases (in particular carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere. Forest ecosystems, including above- and below-ground components, are major carbon sinks, taking up carbon from the atmosphere; thus they have an important role in mitigating climate change. The potential impacts of climate change are as yet poorly understood, but climate variability and increasing temperatures are likely to have a moresevere effect on food security in the poorest areas of the world (FAO,2000; Zilberman and Sunding, 1999). However, adjustment costs in response to changes brought about by global warming could be significant world-wide (Zilberman and Sunding, 1999).

Forests are the most species-diverse terrestrial habitat on a global level. Tropical moist forests are home to between 50 and 90 percent of the world's terrestrial species (WRI, 1999; FAO, 1999). The genetic resources of the forest provide the raw material for the improvement of food and cash crops, livestock and medicinal products. Genetic diversity in crop and livestock species may have positive benefits to producers, particularly in marginal production zones as insurance against production risks (Brush and Meng, 1998). Moreover, the conservation of genetic resources may prove to have significant future benefits that are currently unknown, e.g. in new medical treatments or resistance to future disease threats. The most frequently cited cause of genetic erosion is the destruction or degradation of forest and bush lands (FAO, 1996b). Much of this loss is irreversible, such as the extinction of species.


Forest ecosystems can be thought of as a type of "natural capital", which is defined as the functions, goods and services provided by the environment (Turner, 1999). They can provide a flow of benefits such as timber, non-wood forest products, carbon sequestration and wildlife habitat. The state of the forest is a reflection of the stock of this capital. As with other forms of capital, natural capital may be used or liquidated for current consumption purposes or for investments in alternative productive enterprises - which in turn may yield a flow of future benefits. This liquidation has an associated cost which is the loss of the value that could have been generated if the stock had not been used.

The impacts of degradation are widely felt, both geographically (in some cases globally) and in time (well into the
future). Thus the costs of forest degradation are often borne not by those who caused it and benefit from it, but by others who do not benefit from it. The implications of this mismatch are two fold:

Logging, for example, can result in loss of soil and nutrients, reduced value of the forest as a habitat and temporarily reduced capacity to sequester carbon. However, logging companies do not pay for these lost services; therefore they do not enter into the pricing of timber products. Undervalued timber prices contribute to unsustainably high demand for wood products, which in turn results in increased incentives for logging. The result is that on a global scale more forest products are consumed than is economically rational.

In terms of equity, to the extent that logging results in a loss of forest services to populations dependent on them for food security, degradation in this case represents a transfer of benefits away from vulnerable groups to logging companies and the consumers of wood - e.g. a transfer away from the poor to the rich.

However, the equity implications will be quite different if the value obtained from logging is invested in such a way as to provide a future stream of income or food for food-insecure people. For example, if the logging company were a community-based enterprise which reinvested in community assets and provided a sustainable source of employment, then positive impacts on food security could be realized in the community in both the short and long term.

Populations that depend on the forest for food security may also be agents of forest degradation. Again, the instigators of the degradation do not pay the full costs associated with it, which may be borne by other members of the local or global community, who may not be vulnerable to food insecurity. In this instance, there is a transfer of benefits from food-secure to food-insecure groups.

A common example of this case is unsustainably managed shifting cultivation - "slash-and-burn" agriculture - which damages the forest ecosystem. To the extent that crop production contributes to farm household food security, the value of the forest degradation represents a transfer of value from all the potential beneficiaries of the forest ecosystem services to the food insecure.

Decreased future production capacity from forest degradation does not necessarily lead to a decrease in the future potential of the household to obtain food security. If the value obtained from forest degradation is used to invest in an alternative source of income generation, then both the present and future food security of the household can be increased - albeit at the expense of the forest ecosystem and the services it could have provided.

Populations that depend on the forest for
food security may also be agents of
forest degradation; in the photo, a village
of fuelwood collectors in Mindanao, the
Philippines, where fuelwood collection
has contributed to deforestation

- FAO/15322/


Because forests are often located in remote areas, are under some form of collective or State ownership and are difficult to monitor, they are relatively accessible to groups that lack assets and are consequently food insecure. Incursions or settlements on forest lands may be the only means for smallholders or the landless, many of whom are food insecure, to gain access to land for agriculture. (For the same reasons, forest communities that traditionally depend on forest resources for their food security are vulnerable to incursions or expropriation from outside interests.) In addition, many of the products and services of the forest can be transformed into food or income without the need for a large capital investment; production can be obtained from forests at relatively low cost.

However, as has been mentioned above, populations who are dependent on the forest for food security are sometimes themselves agents of forest degradation. What drives the food insecure to compromise their own future production capacity?

First, a combination of outside "conditioning" factors narrows the population's opportunities for achieving a sustainable livelihood (Vosti and Reardon, 1997). Two of the most important conditioning factors are the degree of population pressure on both agricultural and forest lands and the productivity of land under production. These in turn are driven by population growth rates, migration and land utilization patterns (as well as soil type, typography, rainfall, climate, etc.). Increased population pressure on land resources can result in pressure for more extensive agricultural production on new (e.g. forest) lands, or more intensive use of existing production resources, including forests (WRI, 1999). Decreases in the availability of forest lands for food security-related production because of logging, migration settlements or the creation of forest reserves can also result in increased pressures on remaining forest lands.

Government policies sometimes ex-acerbate these pressures. For example, pricing or taxation policies may reduce the profitability of intensifying production on existing agricultural lands or may enhance the profitability of forest intrusions (Heath and Binswanger, 1998; Hecht and Cockburn, 1998). Policies for privatization of lands that are either openly accessible to the poor or managed under traditional communal property rights schemes can limit options available to the food insecure (Ascher, 1995; Das Gupta, 1996). Such measures can lead to forest degradation by putting pressure on food-insecure groups (both traditional forest users and groups driven to forest areas from other locations in search of food security) to intensify forest use or increase use of forest resources.

Pressure to derive value from
resources today can detract
from future food
security; here, collecting
fuelwood from
a forested hillside degraded
by shifting
cultivation in Honduras

- FAO/10203/I. VELEZ

Second, poverty-specific factors such as lack of power and lack of assets reduce the population's capacity to
respond to existing opportunities or new circumstances (Vosti and Reardon, 1997). Generally, the food insecure are among the least empowered groups in society, so their ability to influence policies to reflect their needs is limited. Lack of assets, whether in the form of production or financial resources or human capital (i.e. technological capacity, which could include both modern and traditional technologies as well as health status) can influence how the food insecure manage their limited resources; pressure to derive the greatest possible value from their resources in the present can prevent them from making investments which could generate future wealth. Given the lack of options available to them, managing the forest in a way that can have a negative impact on their own future food security may be the only alternative available.


Five main conclusions can be drawn on the relationship between forest degradation and food security which have implications for forest management planning and food security-enhancing interventions.

First, forests have an important role in contributing to the food security of a large portion of the world's food insecure, and this factor must be taken into consideration in decisions regarding forest management objectives as well as food security interventions. This does not mean that all forests must be managed for food security purposes; there may be some conflicts between economic uses of the forest and other services such as the protection of biodiversity or recreation. However, it should be recognized that forest management objectives implicitly involve transfers of welfare, and policies that result in increased vulnerability of food-insecure populations generate increased pressure on the resource base and are unlikely to be successful. Forest management plans that involve reduced human access to the forest must therefore include alternative means of achieving a sustainable livelihood for forest-dependent populations.

Second, forest degradation can result in a sustainable increase in food security if the value derived from the degradation is used to generate alternative sustainable food or income flows, and if these flows are accessible to the food insecure. Use of the forests in this manner may be an explicit or implicit policy decision on the part of governments, as in the case of resettlement schemes or lack of forest management enforcement. However, the full cost implications of forest degradation must be taken into account, particularly costs that are irreversible.

Third, many of the benefits from forest ecosystem services are realized by members of national or global society who at present receive these services free of charge. Avoiding forest degradation thus has a value to these groups which could be transferred to forest-dependent users in order to stimulate the adoption of use patterns compatible with the generation of such benefits. This is the idea behind emerging carbon trading programmes such as the Clean Development Mechanism. Such programmes are likely to be most successful where investment constraints currently prevent forest users from adopting management techniques that can contribute to their own welfare.

Fourth, undervalued prices of timber and wood products which exclude the value of external costs associated with increased food insecurity, watershed degradation and the loss of biodiversity and carbon sinks give rise to consumption patterns that drive forest degradation. More rational pricing policies are needed to achieve consumption levels that are sustainable.

Finally, situations in which the food insecure engage in forest degradation to secure short-term food security at the expense of their own future security call for policies that create viable and stable alternative mechanisms for obtaining income and food. Policies that attempt to preserve forests by excluding the access of poor groups may protect one area but, in doing so at the expense of food security, may create more damaging pressure elsewhere.


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