What do poor people get from trees and forests? Quite a lot, according a paper that FAO is presenting at the upcoming World Forestry Congress.

"Tens of millions of people depend on forests," the document notes. "And the contribution of forest resources to their livelihoods comes in a variety of guises."

Most importantly, the rural poor rely on forests for important subsistence goods, such as fuelwood, medicines, wood for construction and household items, as well as edible leaves, roots, fruits and medicines. These goods can also be sold at market, along with crafts and timber products, providing families with extra income and improving food security.

Modest in scale, such forestry activities nonetheless make a real difference to poor people, 2.1 billion of whom worldwide survive on less than US$2 a day.

Additionally, larger-scale forest operations like timber harvesting can be a source of much-needed employment, raising incomes and so indirectly strengthening food security. According to the FAO paper, in developing countries the formal forestry sector currently employs over 10 million people -- while the informal sector adds another 30 to 50 million jobs to that figure.

Forests: safety nets for the poor

Timber is by far the highest-value forest product in most places, FAO statistics show. In 1998, exports of industrial roundwood, sawnwood and wood-based panels from developing countries added up to over US$10 billion.

However, while some production and processing of timber is on a small scale and for local markets, much of it is capital-, technology- and skill-intensive and so requires significant investment as well as access to large consumer markets. Tree growing for timber also requires secure land tenure; the world's rural poor, however, are often landless or have only informal control over the lands where they live and work.

This is a trend that, in recent years, has begun to change. As a result of ongoing redistribution of forest resources in poor countries, FAO notes, increasing amounts of forest area in these countries are now owned by or reserved for communities and indigenous groups.

Still, forest people in developing countries continue to draw the most benefits from non-wood forest products, which provide a wide range of goods both for domestic use and for sale at market. These include game, fruit, nuts, medicinal herbs, forage and thatch. In contrast to timber, little capital is required in order to harvest these resources.

But while they meet important household needs and can provide a crucial safety cushion during times of hardship, non-wood forest products can rarely be relied upon as a sole source of income.

Given these realities, says FAO, forestry activities aimed at alleviating poverty should not be carried out in isolation, but coordinated with other land uses and economic activities, such as agriculture, grazing and mixed systems of crop and tree growing.

Additional policy measures can also help countries boost the contribution that their forested areas make to reducing poverty and improving food security. FAO's Forestry Department has identified a number of strategies for doing so:

Make the sector people-centred. Poor people in forest areas must have a much greater say in decisions regarding the use of forest resources, according to FAO. In areas where forests are central to livelihoods, the main objective of forest management should be meeting their needs in a sustainable way.

Remove tenure and regulatory restrictions. Greater control over public forest lands should be transferred to local communities, FAO says, and regulations that discriminate against smallholders and artisanal forest production ought to be eliminated.

Level the playing field. Forest market policies that subsidize or provide privileged access to large-scale producers and processors should be eliminated too, so as to move towards a level playing field for local and small-scale foresters.

Encourage community-private sector partnerships. Close partnerships between local communities and commercial companies to sustainably use forest resources can maximize benefits for all involved.

Integrate forestry into national and regional development and poverty reduction strategies. Forest-based poverty alleviation programmes should not be carried out in isolation, says the Organization, but must be part of an overall rural development strategy.


George Kourous
Information Officer, FAO
+39 06 570 53168