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Forests and Poverty: Can Poverty Reduction be Reconciled with Conservation?

Time (GMT +01) 00:00 23:59


David Brown, ODI.


Gill Shepherd, ODI.

The meeting was chaired by David Brown, ODI, who opened the proceedings with a reminder that the International Development Targets – the focus of this meeting series – encompass a range of income-poverty, social-development and environmental objectives. The nature of the relationships between the different elements in this package was obviously a key issue. Gill Shepherd would address this in her talk, drawing on a background paper she had prepared for the World Bank's Forest Sector Review.

Gill began by saying that in determining whether or not the IDTs are attained, forestry will be a secondary, rather than a primary, factor. But what happens in forestry will make a significant difference for better or worse. This conclusion was based on a growing appreciation of the dependence of the poor on forest resources, and on an assessment of recent efforts to incorporate a poverty focus into environmentally sustainable forest management.

The dependence of the poor on forests was best appreciated using the concept of sustainable livelihoods, which is distinguished by paying attention to both social and environmental dimensions of sustainability, and by seeing poverty in terms of basic capabilities as well as basic needs. In the poorest countries, extreme poverty is primarily a rural phenomenon. In rural areas, forests are a key off-farm natural resource and an essential supplement to agriculture. Forests commonly contribute to nutritional and other basic needs; are a vital source of inputs to agricultural systems; help households control exposure to risk; and are a source of income (up to 80 per cent of all income for some poor households).

Gill argued that appreciation of the great dependence on forest resources of many very poor people is quite recent. Following from this there needed to be better recognition that it was quite out of the question for donors and governments to provide benefits on an equivalent scale from non-forest sources. This implied a more deliberate effort to link sustainable livelihoods with sustainable forest management.

Two types of donor initiative had been grappling with the issue of flexible, locally-managed forest conservation:

  1. collaborative forest management (where the state manages forests with local people for sustainable use), and
  2. protected area management (which increasingly includes efforts to involve local people in protection and management).

According to Gill, each of these approaches had brought some gains but each had run into problems as well. On the whole, the juggling of poverty-reduction and conservation goals had probably been better managed in the former than in the latter kind of project.

A review of experience with collaborative forest management suggested a number of priorities and provisos for the immediate future, Gill maintained. There was a need to understand livelihoods better; to find ways of choosing product bias and time frames that suited the poor; and to simplify processes and procedure, so as to reduce rent seeking. It needed to be better understood that collaborative management does not mean turning local people into unpaid Forestry Department employees; that decentralisation does not necessarily bring new freedoms; and that poor people need immediate returns as well as longer term ones.

Gill argued that the protected area approach, even where joint management is stressed, generally works out to the disadvantage of local people. Incentives to leave protected areas and stop using their resources were generally paltry compared with previous benefits. There was in practice little understanding and trust between PA managers and locals. Key principles that emerged out of this experience were: emphasise local livelihoods and global biodiversity more equally; give both rights and responsibilities to local people; and adopt a more fine-grained approach to the designation of areas, emphasising multiple use as much as possible, with smaller zones of complete protection. Countries, too, should be treated in a more differentiated way.

The conclusion of the talk was that poverty reduction and forest conservation can be reconciled, and very much need to be, though this is not easy. What is needed now is a synthesis of the best knowledge from forestry, the environmental sciences and the social sciences. Experiments currently under way which draw on these different sources of understanding can be expected to bear fruit in the next few years.

Discussion focused initially on the question of rent seeking or corruption, seen as a principal obstacle to genuine local partnerships. Gill argued that this was one of the areas in which a differentiated approach was needed: in some middle-income countries there was scope for improving bureaucratic accountability, but in other countries the only practical solutions were of a different kind, involving greater mobilisation of local voluntary effort. Turning to the apparent association between rich timber resources and corruption on the grand scale, the discussion recognised the limits of certification as a control measure, given the limited interest in certified timber in most parts of the world except northern Europe and the U.S. On the other hand, Gill made the point that in several Asian countries the pre-crisis boom had created an articulate middle class that was becoming a constituency for green concerns.

The emphasis of the talk on the possibility of win-win solutions was picked up by several participants. What mechanisms exist for deciding which forest areas need strong forms of protection and which only require facilitation of better local management? It was recognised that national forest action plans, which existed in most countries, were at least a step in this direction. How would we know in 2015 whether both the poverty-reduction and the environmental targets had been met? There were different views about this, and about whether the development of environmental indicators was in better or worse shape than that of social indicators. Finally, was there a danger of locking poor people, though sustainable forest management, into a stable but low-level form of livelihood? Up to a point - though people just walk away from forest management once they see no further benefit from it. As with all forest policy, the appropriateness of current arrangements needed to be revisited every few years.

Another line of questioning drew attention to a further possible source of conflict between the social and environmental IDTs. A reasonable case had been made for the reconcilability, and indeed interdependence, of forest conservation and sustainable rural livelihoods. But the international debate was likely to be dominated by the 'headline' target of reducing extreme income-poverty by half. If policy started being driven by this concern it was easy to visualise a sharp conflict between poverty reduction so defined and both sustainable forestry and the livelihoods of the poorest. Gill agreed: it was important to hang on tightly to the insurance role of forests for the poor and, through shadow-pricing perhaps, continue to make it clear what a fundamental role forests play in genuine reduction of poverty.


This event looked at the role forests can play in meeting international development targets, and potential areas of conflict with environmental goals.