Earning a living from the forest

Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world rely on forests to earn their living. About two billion people use fuelwood and charcoal as their main source of energy for cooking and for heating their homes. Rural households in developing countries collect food, fuel, medicinal plants and construction materials directly from the forest. Tens of millions of people supplement their cash incomes by collecting and selling such materials. Others sell timber from their own traditional land areas to logging companies, or make and sell furniture and handicrafts, just so they have enough income to support themselves and their families. And industrial logging provides millions of full-time jobs and steady earnings for people in developing countries, especially in Brazil, China, India, and Indonesia.

Forests also have more indirect links to livelihoods. Forests provide soil nutrients and forage for crops and livestock. They also help to reduce soil erosion, pollinate crops and provide protection from the elements.

Finding a balance between income and destruction

Agricultural expansion, logging, hunting, over-grazing and forest fires are destroying or degrading forests and in turn reducing the contribution that forests make to people’s livelihoods. Deforestation and logging destroy wild plants used for food and medicines and may also increase certain infectious diseases such as malaria, leishmaniasis, chagas, and yellow fever. The over-exploitation of timber products can eventually lead to less wood to cook meals and fewer raw materials for small-scale entrepreneurs and artisans to use for generating income.

Similarly, incomes and the environment are threatened when local people lose access to forests in favour of commercial farmers, ranchers, or when logging and mining companies move onto their land. In many countries government policies frequently favour these groups with concessions, licenses, permits and new roads, while denying similar rights to poorer inhabitants.

Declining markets and increasing competition from foreign producers also threaten the contribution forests make to the day to day income of the world’s poor or less advantaged. Trade liberalization has forced many small farmers and forest-based micro-enterprises to increase their timber and forest product harvesting in order to compete with multinational companies and their cheaper imports.

What can be done to help?

Government policy-makers and those designing poverty-reduction strategies need to consider all of the options availabe to protect those forest and tree–based resources that are important to the livelihoods of rural households in developing countries.

This could be done by:

CIFOR’s role

CIFOR’s Livelihoods Program researches the contribution and management of forest resources and their importance to the livelihoods of the world’s rural and urban poor. The program concentrates on assessing the contribution of timber and non-timber forest products to the cash incomes and subsistence uses of poor households. It is developing technologies, institutional mechanisms and policies that will safeguard and increase the role timber and non-timber forests products play in reducing poverty.