From Rio to Johannesburg and beyond: Forest conservation and rural livelihoods in the global South

David Kaimowitz, CIFOR 1


In the last few years, forests have lost their previous prominence on the international agenda. The forestry and conservation community needs to work hard to change that because forests can contribute greatly to meeting the challenges of poverty, disease, access to clean water, biodiversity conservation, climate change and violent conflict. There have been more successes than most policy-makers realize, particularly in the areas of devolving rights over forests to disadvantaged groups and forest restoration. Poverty Reduction Strategies should ensure that poor people maintain access to forest safety nets and provide support for small-scale forest-based enterprises. Biodiversity conservation strategies in developing countries should: 1) reduce incentives for forest destruction, 2) give rights to groups that are less likely to destroy forests; 3) pay people to conserve biodiversity, and 4) focus on landscape mosaics, in addition to supporting protected areas. World leaders should recognize the potential contribution of forests to global peace and take action to realize that potential.

Rio to Johannesburg - the changing context

Massive forest fires in Indonesia in 1983 and unprecedented forest destruction in Brazil in 1987 caught the imagination of world public opinion. These events helped put the loss of tropical rain forest firmly on the international agenda. People in both developed and developing countries woke up to the fact that rain forests housed much of the planet's biodiversity, including many exotic and attractive animals and plants and a wealth of future pharmaceuticals and crop varieties. To save that biodiversity, tens of millions contributed time and money to conservation organizations. Those organizations, in turn, pressured governments to do something about the problem. The brutal assassination of Chico Mendes in 1988 gave those people and organizations a symbol and a martyr.

Concern over the fate of tropical biodiversity reached a pinnacle with the "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development). The clearest symbol of that was the World Bank's 1991 forest policy, issued on the eve of Rio, which declared an end to tropical deforestation as its central goal.

The catchphrase of Rio was "sustainable development". That implied that one could combine conservation and development to achieve "win-win" solutions. Improving poor people's lives would help the environment, while caring for the environment would benefit both existing and future generations.

Out of this vision came a generation of "integrated conservation and development programmes" (ICDPs). These combined protected areas with development activities nearby. Proponents hoped that working on sustainable agriculture, ecotourism, non-timber forest products and similar activities would make villagers in communities near the parks more inclined to support protected areas and no longer rely on activities that threatened the parks.

The last ten years also witnessed major efforts to make large-scale tropical timber production sustainable. A lot of energy went into reforming forest concession policies, introducing voluntary certification, and training people in reduced-impact logging. Once more the goal was a "win-win" solution that allowed companies to produce timber but with less negative impact on the forest.

Lately, however, attention to forests has begun to wane. International agencies and developing country governments are concentrating on addressing extreme poverty and rarely think about forests in that context. To try to do something about the fact that more than one billion people still earn less than US$1 per day, the international community has committed itself to meeting eight "Millennium Development Goals" by 2015. While "environmental sustainability" is one of the eight, greater emphasis is placed on eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and improving health care and education.

Governments are also losing interest in forests because they sense that efforts to protect forests and promote sustainable management have largely failed. Forest loss in the 1990s continued at about the same rate as in the 1980s - averaging between 12 and 15 million ha per year (Mathews, 2001). Despite major efforts, only a tiny portion of tropical timber comes from sustainably managed natural forest. Many evaluations of ICDPS concluded they had not been particularly effective at either conservation or development (Kahn et al., 1999; Oates, 1999). Protected areas continue to face encroachment. Studies show that it is usually - though not always - more profitable to produce timber unsustainably than sustainably (Pearce, Putz and Vanclay, 1999). Rather than working harder to address the difficult challenges, many governments prefer to focus on topics where it is easier to show results.

Even though public opinion polls show that a growing majority in both developed and developing countries support conserving forests, public concern about forests has become softer since the issue has lost prominence in the media. That, along with the downturn in world stock markets, has led to fewer contributions for environmental organizations.

By the time the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) was held in Johannesburg last year, there was a very different international context from that during the Earth Summit in Rio. For the most part, forests were not on the agenda.

Forests - the recognition of what they have to offer

We have to work hard to put forests back on the international agenda. Not to promote forests for their own sake or because we work in forestry, but because forests are, in fact, crucial for meeting many major global challenges.

To start with, forests and trees have a lot to offer when it comes to the Millennium Development Goals and addressing poverty. Most of the 240 million people in forested regions in developing countries are poor and depend heavily on forests and trees (World Bank, 2003). Some 2.4 billion people get their energy mostly from biomass fuels, principally fuelwood and charcoal (Arnold et al., 2003). Several billion people rely on medicinal plants and animals as their primary source of health care. In 62 least-developed countries, wild meat and fish provide more than 20% of the protein (Bennet and Robinson, 2000). Forests and forest fallows provide vital inputs and services to small-scale agriculture, including soil nutrients and conservation, forage for livestock, weed and pest control, and pollination. By fixing carbon, forests reduce global warming, which threatens many small farmers in drier tropical regions. Forests protect the quality of drinking water.

Indeed, forests contribute directly to all the priority topics of the WSSD - water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity - and they provide a substantial share of the income of a large portion of people that earn less than US$1 per day. These people typically rely on drier, more open and disturbed forests, which are more heavily populated than the forests that have attracted attention in the past. But they are forests nonetheless.

It remains uncertain how much forests can assist in getting people out of poverty. But they clearly have a strong role in providing safety nets. Without subsistence uses and cash income from forests, many poor families would find it practically impossible to survive. The poorest families generally depend on forests the most and rely on them more in times of crisis.

To preserve those safety nets, governments and civil society have to protect both the forests themselves and poor people's access to them. That will entail changes in legal frameworks and forestry institutions, but it will also require working directly with communities on the ground. This issue needs to feature prominently in the Poverty Reduction Strategies that now guide the work of governments in the least-developed countries and the international donors that support them.

The new World Bank forest strategy approved last year goes much farther than the 1991 strategy towards recognizing the importance of forests in the struggle against poverty (World Bank, 2002). That message is not yet widely known. It needs to be.

The good news is there has already been great progress towards giving small farmers, communities and indigenous people more secure access to forests. That is a major forest success story that deserves to be told. These groups now own or have long-term usufruct rights over about one-fifth of the forest in developing countries, and de facto possession of an additional large area that has yet to be quantified (White and Martin, 2002). The governments of the Amazon Basin have recognized indigenous people's rights over territories covering more than one million km2. Over 35 000 village organizations now participate in India's Joint Forest Management programme (Forest Trends, 2002). China has handed over degraded areas to tens of millions of households to plant trees (Dachang, 2001). Other noteworthy examples include the ejidos in Mexico, community forests in Nepal and the United Republic of Tanzania, extractive reserves in Brazil, the Ancestral Domain Claims in the Philippines, and Community Forest Concessions in Guatemala.

By offering financial, technical and marketing services for small-scale forestry, changing inappropriate regulations, and stopping harassment by corrupt officials, one could greatly assist the growth of profitable small-scale forest-based activities. Rapid urban growth in developing countries has notably increased the demand for wood for construction, furniture and pulp, as well as charcoal, bamboo, medicinal plants and bushmeat (Scherr, White, and Kaimowitz, 2002). Small-scale producers are potentially well suited to meet those demands, but need support from governments, civil society and international aid agencies to do so, as well as efforts to keep them from depleting the resource base that they rely on.

Forests and conservation strategies

Forest biodiversity remains as important as ever. The existence of interesting and exotic species means a great deal to humanity as a whole and has considerable value for the agricultural, pharmaceutical, tourism and communications industries. Just as importantly, the only way to maintain the safety nets, income opportunities and environmental services that poor people depend on is to keep the species those people use from being depleted and to maintain the ecosystems that support those species.

However, groups that have defined their goals to be an end to tropical deforestation and zero species loss have done the forestry and conservation community a disservice. Such goals are unrealistic and inevitably generate an unwarranted sense of failure when they are not met. Given global economic and population growth and the weakness of government institutions and civil society in many parts of the world, substantial forest loss is unavoidable. Yet even within that context, much can be and is being done.

Some conservation organizations argue that in light of the weak performance of many ICDPs we should go back to a simpler and more straightforward protected areas approach. They would like to expand the area in parks as much as possible and keep people out with fences and guards.

That approach has great intuitive appeal, but it is not as compelling at it appears. Governments are very unlikely to set aside more than 10 or 15% of the tropical forests as protected areas. Large numbers of people live inside existing protected areas and cannot simply be ignored. Most developing country governments lack the capacity to implement conservation policies in remote forest areas and are unlikely to attain such capacity any time soon. Moreover, many governments and conservation groups are not really prepared to deal with the conflicts resulting from competing claims over forests they designate as protected areas. Protected areas clearly have to be one element of a successful conservation strategy, but they cannot be the sole - and perhaps not even the main - element.

Besides protected areas, four other elements of a meaningful biodiversity conservation strategy in developing countries must be: 1) reducing the economic incentives for deforestation and unsustainable logging, 2) giving rights over forests to groups that are less likely to destroy them, 3) paying people to conserve biodiversity, and 4) focusing on landscape mosaics, not just compact primary forests.

Past efforts to promote sustainable forest management and conservation focused too much on forestry and conservation policies and not enough on macroeconomic, agricultural, infrastructure, finance and energy policies, even though the latter often have greater influence on what happens to forests. Two especially powerful tools for conserving forest biodiversity would be to eliminate subsidies to large-scale agriculture and forestry operations and to stop constructing and improving roads in regions with relatively undisturbed forests and low population densities.

Under certain circumstances, giving formal legal rights over forest to indigenous peoples, groups involved in low-intensity extractive activities, and others with limited desire or ability to rapidly deplete forest resources can help to conserve biodiversity. One cannot simply assume that indigenous peoples or local communities will manage forests better than other groups. However, a combination of low population densities, lack of capital, less destructive production systems, outside regulatory efforts and cultural and spiritual appreciation of forests sometimes leads these groups to maintain forest ecosystems relatively intact. Where that is the case, governments and civil society should recognize these groups' rights over forests, help resolve competing claims by similar groups, and take steps to restrict encroachment by outside farmers, ranchers, loggers and miners.

Paying forest owners and managers to protect plant and animal species and habitats is another promising approach. Wealthier groups that benefit from forest biodiversity conservation have a moral duty to compensate local people that devote time and energy or forgo other potential income opportunities to protect that biodiversity. Without such payments, no matter who owns the forest, those people are likely to be tempted to convert accessible forest that is not on steep slopes to other land uses or to over-harvest the resources there. There are still regrettably few situations where it is more profitable to manage tropical forests sustainably than to exploit them unsustainably. Paying forest dwellers for conserving biodiversity could improve both their incomes and their willingness to protect the forest. Still, it will take time to accumulate enough funds and experience to implement this on a large scale.

The only way to preserve all forest plants and animals is to maintain large compact areas of undisturbed or minimally disturbed forest. In many cases that is simply not realistic. However, many species can survive in moderately disturbed landscapes that contain primary forest, secondary forest, plantations, logged forest, fallows, agroforests and agricultural areas. Farmers and communities are already doing a lot in those landscapes to encourage the presence of wild or semi-domesticated plants and animals that interest them. With greater technical and organizational support and new incentives, they could do much more to make their land use, farming systems and hunting and gathering more friendly towards the specific species and ecological functions that may be of interest.

This is another area where there have been many successes and positive experiences that we need to find more ways to highlight. Around the world people have been planting trees or encouraging them to regenerate, managing diverse agroforestry systems, protecting sources of water and actively restoring the ecosystems they depend on. This will never fully re-establish the previous ecosystems, but it can lead to healthy and productive environments, with surprising levels of biodiversity.

All four elements of biodiversity conservation are still very much in an experimental stage and require much more research, adaptive management and experimentation. There are no silver bullets. We must simply move forward, and learn as we go along.

Forests and global peace

Finally, let me talk about one last global challenge that forests can and must contribute to - global peace. The neglect and poor governance of many forested regions has created a breeding ground for violence that has become a major threat to world peace. National governments have failed to provide health, education, security and democratic rights in many of these areas. They have only shown real interest when they want to exploit the regions' forests, oil, minerals and land for their own benefit or to benefit other outside groups. It is hardly surprising that armed insurgents, bandits, drug-dealers and smugglers have moved into so many of these remote areas to fill the vacuum. Just think about Colombia, northern Myanmar, northeast India, the Filipino island of Mindanao, Aceh and West Papua in Indonesia, Chiapas, Mexico, the mountains of Nepal, the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo or the hinterlands of Liberia.

If the international community is serious about trying to achieve world peace, it will have to invest more in providing a decent life and basic rule of law in the remote forested regions of the tropics. It is not just a matter of spending more money, but rather finding new ways to invest in these regions, ways that incorporate the local people and give them control over their own destiny, rather than further marginalizing and displacing them.


The simple fact is that forests are much more important for peace and prosperity and the future of this planet than most governments or the general public realize. And even though we have not stopped all deforestation or managed to harvest all our wood from sustainable sources, we have achieved a lot more than we often give ourselves credit for.

We can and we must put forests back on the international agenda. But we will not do that by looking inward. We need to reach out to the people who know nothing about forests but are concerned about water and health, livelihoods and local government, furry animals and finance, and many other issues where forests play a role.

We need to tell them how forests can help address the challenges we all face, of improving people's lives and making this planet a healthier place to live. We don't have to save every forest or even every species. We need to give local people rights and responsibilities over the resources they depend on, the information they require to manage those resources and incentives to take into account broader national and global interests. A lot has changed between Rio and Johannesburg. Yet the basic messages today are the same as they were during the World Forestry Congress in Jakarta, a quarter of a century ago. People need forests and forests should be for people.


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1 Director General, Jalan Center for International Forestry Research, Situ Gede, Sinangbarang, Bogor Barat 16680, Indonesia. [email protected]