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Forests and development: a complex relationship

Hero image description: Road leading through forest. Bhutan. Image credit:Curt Carnemark / World Bank Image license:Creative Commons

Today is the International Day of Forests – intended to celebrate and raise awareness of their critical importance. And with the post-2015 development framework increasingly high on the political agenda, there has never been a better time to consider the contribution our forests make to development worldwide.

The relationship between forests and development is complex. It is often said that more than one billion of the world’s poorest people rely on forests for their livelihoods. But while people in poverty often rely on forests, we cannot assume that forests will help lift these people out of poverty. While activities to conserve and sustainably manage forests can, at times, contribute to poverty reduction, a study by CIFOR exploring the forest-poverty link highlights that forests are perhaps more important when it comes to preventing worsening poverty. This role should not be under-estimated – reducing vulnerability to external shocks, such as natural hazards, in particular the vulnerability of the chronically poor, is vital.

In a potential clash with this safety net function, however, many of the activities that lead to deforestation are done in the name of poverty reduction and economic growth. Some argue that these activities are more important for development, as economic growth can help reduce poverty and reduce reliance on forests, thereby reducing the need for that particular safety net. In practice, however, the extent to which people living in poverty benefit from activities that drive deforestation varies, depending on who deforests and why and on such factors as security of land rights and access. These activities can help to provide a pathway out of poverty but, in many cases, the people who rely on forests fail to benefit. Instead, they suffer the cost of losing the forest resources that they depended on.

Development outcomes depend very largely on how activities – either to conserve and sustainably manage forests or to exploit and convert them – are carried out. They also vary depending on whose development, and how broadly the ‘values’ of forests and land, are considered. So, in efforts to understand how forests contribute to development, I think there are three key aspects that need further consideration.

First, the non-cash value of forests is often greater than the value they provide to the formal economy, but this value is not captured. Non-cash income relates to products that households use for subsistence or in the home, or to barter for other goods and services and include fuelwood, timber, foods, medicine or materials. Non-cash income was highlighted in a series of advance reports produced for the 10th session of the UN Forum on Forests, revealing that the non-cash contributions of forests to household and national economies ranges from three to five times higher than the cash contributions that have formal recognition.

With non-cash income overlooked in the national accounts, the role of forests is vastly under-estimated. It is vital to find ways to capture the non-cash value of forests when planning forest use, in order to get the full picture.

Second, forests contribute to other priority sectors, such as water, energy and health, but this role is often overlooked. A 2012 report on the contribution of montane forests to the Kenyan economy, for example, found that forests contribute to a wide range of sectors, accounting for 3.6% of GDP, compared to the current official figure of 1.1%. But even this headline figure points to one of the challenges: forests contribute to a wide range of sectors – and at the same time, forest loss is the result of the very activities and priorities of these other sectors. This means that forests cannot remain the focus of people who are only concerned with the environment and natural resources. Instead, they need to become integrated across a range of different sectors and priorities – both at the national level but also in international processes, such as the post-2015 development framework. Similarly, those actors that aim to conserve and sustainably manage forests need to consider how those forests contribute to other priorities. This will be the focus of a session at a conference next week looking at improving energy access through climate finance, exploring potential trade-offs and synergies between energy access and REDD+, where I will present findings from recent research by ODI on cross-sectoral coordination in Uganda. But this presents challenges – it is notoriously difficult to achieve effective cross-sectoral coordination, balancing different interests and cultures.

And finally, the complex role that forests play in development means that different groups are affected in different ways, depending on the decisions that are taken. We need to better understand how different options affect different groups, taking into account the full role of forests and alternative land uses for economic and social development. As well as information, accountability is vital. Trade-offs are likely to be needed – balancing short-term needs with long-term losses or gains, as well as gains and losses between different priorities, sectors or groups. And here, the unequal balance of power and influence means that the costs to poor and marginalised groups are often under-estimated or ignored. Strengthening accountability will allow informed decisions that better reflect the interests of different individuals affected and ensure that those who rely most on forests get the greatest benefits from them.

These issues are not new – they have hampered efforts to conserve forests while supporting development for decades. But two emerging areas provide an opportunity to overcome these challenges.

  • International discourse on forests has shifted towards recognising that forests are part of a wider landscape, which provides an opportunity to consider how forests contribute to other sectors and how those sectors affect forests.
  • Discussions on a post-2015 development framework are tackling issues of how environmental sustainability, including relating to forests, should be incorporated into such a framework: a real chance to consider the broad role that forests play in development and poverty reduction.