Reviewing the evidence on the roles of forests and tree-based systems in poverty dynamics

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The alleviation of global poverty is a major objective of the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals (notably SDG1 “to end poverty in all its forms everywhere”). Many rural people experiencing poverty often rely on forests and tree-based systems, such as agroforestry, suggesting the existence of links between such systems and poverty outcomes. This paper reviews the evidence of such links across multiple dimensions of poverty and well-being, based on an expert panel convened by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) and an extensive literature search. We consider whether, how, where, when, and for whom forests and trees in the wider landscape influence poverty dynamics. We organize the evidence according to four pathways through which forests and trees influence household poverty dynamics: 1) helping households move out of poverty; 2) maintaining well-being levels through subsistence, food security, health, and cultural and spiritual values; 3) preventing declines by mitigating risks and stabilizing consumption; 4) decreasing well-being by generating negative externalities that could trap or move households into poverty. We found that local context matters considerably, with the roles of forests and trees strongly varying across geographical, social, economic, and political settings. Another key finding is that evidence of forests and trees providing livelihood diversification and benefits that help households move out of poverty remains limited, based primarily on a small number of case studies. Evidence on the impact of gender gaps in relation to forest landscapes and poverty pathways is also lacking. However, our findings do suggest that ecosystem services provided by forests and trees play critical roles in maintaining well-being and food security and have the potential to contribute more to helping households move out of poverty and mitigating risks amplified by climate change. This review also highlights cautionary findings related to negative forest externalities that can maintain or move households into poverty. Together, these findings call for policy efforts to support the conservation and sustainable management of forest landscapes and agroforestry systems that are more targeted towards meeting the diverse needs of the rural poor. Our results also point to a need for greater effort to address gender disparities, which have been largely overlooked yet provide a critical opportunity to not only enhance gender equality but also advance sustainable poverty reduction goals.

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