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Re: Forests and trees provide benefits for food security and nutrition– what is your say?

Mr. Ewan Robinson Institute of Development Studies, United Kingdom

This topic is especially relevant now, as donors and governments are scaling up their programmes to fight undernutrition through agriculture. If we ignore the contributions of trees and other uses of land to people’s livelihoods and diets, we risk negatively impacting nutrition in our rush to promote agriculture for nutrition.

How can we increase the contribution of trees and agroforestry to food and nutrition security?

A crucial first step is to ask: Whose nutrition (and livelihoods) do trees contribute to currently? Research on livelihoods shows that the contribution of trees can differ drastically between places and between social groups. There is clear evidence that in many places, it is the poorest and most marginalized social groups that rely on trees and forest resources the most (McSweeney 2004). This isn’t because of some inherent connection to nature, but because the poor don’t have access to more profitable alternatives.

We should think carefully before we proscribe a solution that involves formalizing tenure for land and trees or setting up community management institutions. Evidence shows that initiatives to formalize and ‘rationalize’ management of trees and forests often end up harming exactly the vulnerable groups who rely on these resources. Their access to trees is often reduced when interventions formalize the tenure system or increase the economic value of trees (Gray 2006). In my experience, I found evidence that the poor were excluded when I examined the long-term impacts of a highly successful community-based forest management system in western Senegal (Robinson 2011).

And trees may not always be the answer. At times, agroforestry can compete with other land uses that arguably contribute more to nutrition. Research in The Gambia (Schroeder 1999) documented that donor efforts to promote agroforestry (controlled by men) resulted in the displacement of irrigated vegetable production (which had been controlled by women).

None of the research mentioned here looked at how reducing vulnerable people’s access to trees affected nutrition. But we can reasonably guess that in many of these cases, the outcome was not good. I am not familiar with the research on how gender affects allocation of income towards nutrition, but I imagine this is an important consideration. Those who know this area, I would be very interested to hear what the evidence shows.

By citing this research, I am not trying to say we shouldn’t try to improve how trees and forestry contribute to nutrition. Let’s tread carefully, mindful that past interventions have often not worked out for those people most vulnerable to undernutrition. Light touch interventions may be the best candidates. We should try to work with the grain, in the context of existing practices and informal institutions that allow the poor to access trees. Let’s first be sure not to undermine the access they currently have to foods and income from trees, and then look for the best strategies for increasing their access to enough healthy food.

Gray, L. 2006. Decentralization, Land Policy, and the Politics of Scale in Burkina Faso. In Globalization and New Geographies of Conservation, K.S. Zimmerer, ed., p. 277-295. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

McSweeney, K. 2004. Forest product sale as natural insurance: the effects of household characteristics and the nature of shock in eastern Honduras. Society and Natural Resources, 17(1):39–56.

Robinson, E. 2011. Trading Solidarity for Environmentality: Subject Formation and Intimate Government of Forests in Kaolack Region, Senegal. Master’s thesis. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Schroeder, R.A. 1999. Shady Practices: Agroforestry and Gender in The Gambia. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.