Whose GDP?

Pavan Suhkdev at the Forests Asia summit, Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Pavan Suhkdev at the Forests Asia summit, Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Pavan Sukhdev spoke at the Forests Asia Summit in Jakarta on May 5. He participated in a panel of REDD+ specialists discussing their experiences with pilot REDD+ projects on the ground.

The founder and CEO of GIST advisory argued that in order for REDD+ projects to be truly beneficial for all stakeholders, participants need to speak a language that policymakers can understand — economics.

“Economics has become the language of policy, whether we like it or not.”

He proposed a new way to measure gross domestic product (GDP) that would provide development and conservation initiatives — a new perspective on the livelihoods of the people living in and around target areas.

Conventional GDP measures the value of all recognized goods produced within a country during a specified amount of time. For example, in 2012, Indonesia’s GDP was measured at US$878 billion.

This number includes every car, t-shirt, and Spongebob Squarepants keychain that is bought and sold in a given country. The resulting number is supposed to measure all economic activity, and is used as an indicator of general standard of living.

But what is forgotten in this measurement?

What traditional measurements of GDP fail to take into account is people whose livelihoods rely heavily on products not obtained from a monetized trading system, but are obtained elsewhere — in this case, forests.

Many communities that live in and around forests rely heavily on the things they obtain from the forests. In his blog, Suhkdev states that these items include “food and fuelwood from forests, the flow of water and nutrients from forest to field, flood and drought control and soil retention provided by forests, fish from the ocean, and so on”.

Aware of the critical information missing from traditional measures of GDP, Suhkdev set out to measure the gap. According to him, “you cannot manage what you cannot measure”.


A women takes rattan canes from forest near Henda village, Palangkaraya, Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Achmad Ibrahim for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

He and his team, in partnership with the United Nations Office for REDD+ Coordination in Indonesia (UNORCID) ventured into Central Kalimantan province to do just this. They measured all of the products obtained at no cost from the forest as part of the income of 180 households.

For this survey, they worked with four different kinds of communities living in the province: river, rural, forest, and coal mining.

The survey found that river communities relied most heavily on direct consumption of forest products, with 80 percent of their livelihoods obtained from the forest.

A weighted average of all four groups found that they all relied on forest products for 76 percent of their livelihoods.

If REDD+ projects are to be implemented with Conditional Livelihood Enhancements (livelihood support in exchange for protection or improvement of local forests), accurate measurements of direct and indirect incomes from forest products needs to be taken into account.

“These are the very same households that you will have to engage when the time comes to implement REDD+. These are the very same people you will have to connect with and work with to prove to them that in the process of implementing a landscape-based REDD+ which covers not only their fields but their forests and everything else that is their livelihood,” Suhkdev said.

“This is not a part of the official statistics in the way that it can be, because BPS [Central Statistics Agency] in Indonesia does collect a lot of this data, so it is actually possible to construct a new indicator — the GDP of the poor — and then see what kinds of ways you have of improving that,” he continued.

“That really is relevant when you retain what there is, and possibly even grow and improve the value of the GDP of the poor, and at the same time add health, education, and new opportunities. That is true development. Destroying the forest, destroying their access to their own 76 percent of their livelihoods, that would not be true development.”

Laura Deal is based in Bogor, Indonesia.

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