About 2.6 billion people rely on wood and other traditional fuels for household cooking
Woodfuel is a potentially renewable and carbon-neutral source of energy, and it undoubtedly has an important role to play in meeting future energy needs. But woodfuel also has significant negative impacts, especially in developing countries. Wood is an affordable fuel for those who lack access to other energy sources, but it takes time to collect and therefore often involves a tremendous opportunity cost, particularly for women. The extensive use of traditional woodfuel is a significant contributor to household air pollution, which is the third leading risk factor of global disease burden worldwide72 and is responsible for an estimated 1.63 million–3.12 million premature deaths per year.73 Woodfuel consumption could also pose a threat to the world’s forests as a potential driver of deforestation and degradation.74 One-third of the global population (about 2.6 billion people) relied on traditional fuels such as wood, charcoal and agricultural residues for household cooking in 2019; biomass and charcoal combined accounted for about 88 percent of the traditional cooking fuels used in low- and middle-income countries in that year.75 If countries adopt only presently stated policies, nearly one-third of the global population will still not have transitioned to clean energy for cooking by 2030 and so will have to rely on the traditional use of woodfuel and other types of biomass energy.76 Reliance on woodfuel is highest in Africa (63 percent of households – more than 90 percent of all wood cut in Africa is used as woodfuel77), followed by Asia and Oceania (38 percent) and Latin America and the Caribbean (15 percent).78
Due to the considerable reach of woodfuel in various sectors and in so many people’s lives, accurate data are essential for better understanding trends and informing policymakers. The production and trade of wood pellets, which are relatively well documented, are associated with an increasing share of wood-based energy in total final energy consumption. Data on the informal collection of wood for use as fuel and on illegal charcoal production are sparse, however. A comparison between existing FAOSTAT data and data obtained from a systematic country-by-country search for 145 countries suggests that per capita woodfuel production in Africa and Asia will be revised upwards in future modelling.
At least 3.5 billion people use non-wood forest products
The subsistence use of forests and woodlands and their associated biodiversity can be more significant for local health, food, livelihoods and cultures than products that are traded. Estimates based on recent empirical studies of the number of users of non-timber forest products (defined as wild native or non-native biological organisms and materials, other than high-value timber, collected from landscapes and habitats) put the lowest and median values at 3.5 billion and 5.76 billion people, respectively.79 In Europe, the value of wild-collected forest products (including formally and informally marketed and self-consumed products) is estimated at EUR 23.3 billion per year, which is 71 percent of the value of annual roundwood production.80
Some NWFPs are driving multimillion and even multibillion-dollar industries associated with cosmetics, food, and health and well-being but may be invisible in national accounts because they are in categories encompassing both collected and cultivated volumes. For example, FAOSTAT81 reports production and trade for Brazil nut (from the tree Bertholletia excelsa), which grows across the Amazon Basin and is harvested in the wild mainly in three countries: Bolivia (Plurinational State of), Brazil and Peru. The export value of Brazil nuts amounted to USD 373 million globally in 2019. FAOSTAT also contains data on the production and trade of shea nuts (used to produce shea butter) produced from Vitellaria paradoxa, a tree species with a wide range stretching from Senegal to Uganda. It is presumed that the majority of shea nuts used to make shea butter are collected in the wild. Six West African countries reported a total of 14 million tonnes of shea nut exports in 2007–2017, but the actual trade volume could be higher because other countries export shea nuts under more generic trade codes. An estimated 60–90 percent of internationally traded medicinal plant species are wild-collected.82
Forest wildlife plays an important role in food security, particularly in remote towns in the tropics and subtropics. The consumption of wild meat is estimated at 5 million tonnes per year in the Congo Basin and 1.3 million tonnes in the Amazon Basin,83 providing an average of 60–80 percent of daily protein needs.84 In Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), a 2012 study found that hunting fulfilled mainly subsistence purposes in indigenous communities, contributing 40–100 percent of the meat consumed.85
Wild animal- and plant-based foods can improve the quality of diets of those who consume them and provide income for those who sell or trade them. There are various reasons why the production of such wild food is challenging to measure, such as a lack of standard units, seasonal differences in collection patterns, and large numbers of species. Improving data on wild-food collection and consumption would increase understanding of the role of forests in sustainable dietary diversity and food security.
In many tropical countries, forest-adjacent people earn about one-quarter of their income from forests
Forests and tree-based systems can make both direct and indirect contributions to employment and income and alleviate the impacts of external shocks.86 In 24 surveyed tropical and subtropical countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America, forests contribute 20–25 percent of household income for forest-adjacent communities, a figure on par with the contribution of agriculture.87 A global comparative analysis found that 77 percent of surveyed rural households engaged in wild-food collection.88 In northeast India, more than 160 species of wild plants and fungi in local markets – most of them harvested in forests and woodlands – contribute up to 75 percent of the total income of some households and play an integral role in livelihood security.89 Around Mount Cameroon in Cameroon, wild collections of forest products, mainly for food, contribute around 41 percent to local livelihoods, and native species contribute 45 percent, with households from all economic brackets participating in these activities.90
Forests and trees are significant to the spiritual and cultural values and traditions of many communities – especially Indigenous Peoples – and individuals.91 These non-material factors are difficult to quantify but are clearly important for human well-being.
Forests and trees are sources of food, fodder, fuel and other products that can be harvested in otherwise difficult times and consumed at home or sold, helping to smooth consumption and income across seasons and years and thereby mitigating the risk that the poor will sink deeper into poverty and the non-poor will become impoverished. The role of forests is especially important for the rural poor, who often lack access to other forms of insurance and social protection and who rely on livelihoods that are subject to external shocks such as crop-raiding by wildlife and variable weather.92 Risk management is becoming more important in light of climate change and other global shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic. More generally, the continued existence and health of forests and other tree-based systems is crucial for building resilience and retaining future options to support human well-being.
The evidence that forests and other tree-based systems support poor people to improve their well-being and mitigate risks is well established, but their role in helping people move permanently out of poverty is much less well documented. The full capitalization of this role is limited for the poor by difficulties in accessing credit, transport, markets, social protection and other public services, and by other barriers,93,94 such as a lack of tenure. Access to new technologies can make a difference: for example, the adoption of improved shea butter processing technology has enabled rural women in Ghana to increase their household incomes.95
Even though woodfuel and NWFPs play crucial roles in supporting livelihoods, particularly for food security, data on these roles are weak and their value is best captured by household surveys and valuation techniques. National socio-economic surveys in forestry96 have been implemented in Armenia, Georgia, Liberia, Sao Tome and Principe, and Turkey. In Turkey, about 50 percent of surveyed forest villagers collected non-wood plant products like rosehip, pinecones and mushrooms and about 44 percent collected medicinal or aromatic plants such as thyme and sage. In Liberia, a survey found that, in a 12-month period, 70 percent of households collected forest products for consumption or income (Box 4). In Georgia, woodfuel was used for cooking by 68 percent of households, for heating by 80 percent and to boil water by 56 percent. In Sao Tome and Principe, households were found to use forest or other wild products to cope with food needs during food-insecure months: more than 90 percent reported that such products were important or very important in their coping strategies, and 75 percent of this subset relied mainly on forest products to overcome their lack of food. A survey in Bangladesh found that nearly two-thirds of households collected forest products (Box 5).
Box 4A socio-economic survey in Liberia finds considerable forest-related benefits for people living near forests
Nearly half (47.5 percent) of Liberian households live in proximity to, and are significantly dependent on, the country’s forests. The Liberian Government conducted a national household forest survey involving 3 000 forest-proximate households in 250 “enumeration areas” (administrative divisions for census and other statistical operations). The main findings include the following (all applying to 2018):
▸ Households collected, on average, more than 40 forest products. Seventy percent of households collected forest products for self-consumption or for both self-consumption and sale. Fuelwood, poles, rattan, wild meat and fronds were the essential products collected for cash and income generation. Income from forest products contributed, on average, 35 percent of total household incomes.
▸ Ninety-five percent of surveyed households relied on woodfuel for energy. Nearly all (98 percent of) households reported collecting woodfuel for their own use.
▸ Thirty-six percent of households used forest products for dwelling construction or maintenance. The top three forest products used in construction were poles, fronds and timber, which were rated as “very easy” to obtain from communal lands.
▸ Of households that sought medical assistance during the previous 12 months, more than 50 percent used medicinal plants; 77 percent of these households collected medicinal plants from communal lands.
▸ Survey respondents reported that forests were an important contributor to resilience, with 43 percent of households using forest products to recover from economic and natural shocks.
▸ Forty-six percent of households were food-insecure in the reference period of the survey, during which two-thirds of these households relied on forest products to meet their needs, with the average period of food insecurity lasting about three months.
Box 5The importance of trees outside forests in Bangladesh
According to a national household survey conducted by the Government of Bangladesh, about 64 percent of the country’s population (106 million people) – including 65 percent of the country’s female population – is involved in the collection of forest products. Trees outside forests supply 98 percent of the products commonly collected by households, such as timber, bamboo, woodfuel, leaves and fruits. The estimated total national value of tree and forest primary products collected in a 12-month period in 2017–2018 was estimated at USD 8.54 billion. Households sold 31 percent of the products they collected to generate (on average) USD 81 per household per year.
Building on biophysical and socio-economic information for policymaking can generate effective policy action to create a virtuous circle of ecosystem restoration, economic development and poverty reduction. In China, for example, economic development policy planning found that poverty-stricken areas overlapped considerably with ecologically fragile areas, requiring both poverty alleviation and ecological protection. This led to the adoption of an ecological approach to poverty alleviation, consisting of combining poverty alleviation and ecological protection programmes in the same region. China implemented more than ten programmes between 2012 and 2020, ranging from forest restoration and protection to the creation of green jobs, support for the forest industry, and ecotourism (Table 3); in total, these programmes mobilized more than USD 8.86 billion annually and helped more than 14 million people per year increase their incomes. Ecological poverty alleviation policies have been issued since 2010, mainly standardizing specific policies and measures. Overall, central and local governments have developed and implemented approaches and mechanisms such as ecological engineering construction, ecological compensation, ecological public welfare jobs, ecological characteristic industries, ecological migration, and forest-sector-targeted poverty alleviation.
Table 3Programmes combining poverty alleviation and ecological restoration in China, 2012–2019
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