A summary of findings from the International Conference on Rural Livelihoods, Forests and Biodiversity
Bonn, 19-23 May 2003

BONN: 23 May 2003. Some 300 forest experts from international organizations, NGOs, industry and government representatives from over 40 countries have spent the last five days determining how research can best ensure forests help reduce poverty for millions of the world’s rural poor while maintaining their rich biodiversity.

Despite the alarming rates of deforestation, participants at the conference believe there is still hope for the world’s forests and the 240 million people who depend on them. But the rich biodiversity of forests and the opportunities they provide to reduce global poverty can only be ensured if developed and developing nations work together in implementing properly researched development and forest management strategies.

David Kaimowitz, Director General of one of the conference organizers, the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, says it is time the people of the developed woke up to the fact that the loss of tropical forests will have severe consequences for them.

"While the main aim of this conference was to focus on tropical forests and millions of rural poor in the developing world, it was also designed to raise awareness of the importance of forests among all of us who live in wealthy nations. The fact is, too many people in the developed world think the loss of tropical forests is none of their concern"People living in wealthy nations still don’t realize that if we lose the rich biodiversity of the world’s tropical forests or if we allow the millions of people who depend on forests to sink further into poverty, at some stage in the future this will affect their daily lives," Kaimowitz said.

For example, Kaimowitz says the increasing loss of the world’s forests and their biodiversity will eventually mean a loss of one of the major sources of the chemical compounds needed to produce new medicines. "I hate to contemplate how the world will deal with future outbreaks of new diseases such as SARS if we no longer have the genetic diversity of the world’s rainforests from which to identify and research new chemical compounds and cures."

Kaimowitz says the people in developed nations must also wake up to how global warming will impact on their lives. "As the world’s forests disappear, the world’s levels of carbon dioxide will escalate. This will increase global levels of carbon dioxide and increase global warming. There is already evidence to suggest changes in the world’s weather patterns will exacerbate the unpredictability and severity of droughts and floods and reduce the world’s ability to grow the food it needs."

Kaimowitz also says that as forest disappear there will be an increase in poverty that will also have serious implications for developed nations. "If the world’s millions of forest-dependent people are allowed to fall into worsening poverty, it will be the developed nations who will have to rescue them through tax-payer funded aid programs. Or, as we are already seeing, the world’s poor will come to the developed countries looking for work, often through illegal immigration and people trafficking, along with all the social problems that implies."

"Another point worth noting is that people living in forests won’t give up their lands easily. Already many forests around the world have become battlegrounds where government troops, rebel forces and indigenous populations fight each over forest timber — timber that often ends up as garden furniture in the developed world. Furthermore, when there’s armed conflict in the developing world, it’s generally the governments of the developed world who are called on to assist, often at considerable human and economic cost," Kaimowitz said.

Kaimowitz stressed, however, that the aim of the conference was not the importance of forests to the developed world. Rather, the focus was on how the world’s rural poor can be assisted through research to prosper from forests both today and in the future through sustainable forest management.

"Although forests are vital for the developed world, forestry research must not focus only on the needs of developed nations and the world’s economic elite. We must also recognize and examine the priorities of local people who depend on forests in developing nations," Kaimowitz said.

Delegates at the conference readily agreed that success stories about the forest are more the exception than the rule. But participants also acknowledged that success will only occur in increments, as the problems faced are complex and must be addressed from a range of stakeholder perspectives and require considerable more investment in impact research.

"No one at the conference would suggest we have found the perfect solution. But we are confident that once the conference’s findings are compiled and presented to the 4th United Nations Forum on Forests in 2004, forest researchers will have a clearer direction on where future forest research should head. It will then be up to the wealthy governments of the world to support this research. After all, they will also benefit from protecting the livelihood opportunities and biodiversity found in tropical forests of the developing world," Kaimowitz said.

Summary of findings

  1. Rapidly growing urban markets for wood, charcoal, and medicinal plants in developing countries represent a good opportunity to improve the incomes of rural poor people. Governments and NGOs will need to provide micro-finance and market information to take advantage of those promising markets.
  2. Building partnerships between private forestry companies and local communities where the companies purchase wood from the communities and provide credit, markets and infrastructure can help many poor farmers in developing countries. Governments and NGOs should encourage these partnerships and give good information and support to small farmers so that the companies do not take advantage of them.
  3. There are too many rules and regulations that make it difficult for small farmers and other poor rural families to earn income from forests. Many small farmers do not plant trees because the government will not allow them to cut the trees later on for wood and other products. Governments need to eliminate and simplify many of their rules and regulations.
  4. In many countries governments have tried to conserve forests by creating protected areas and resettling the people that used to live there. Conference participants felt that forced resettlement was not a good policy and that in the long run in would not benefit forest protection.
  5. The process of titling land as private property or giving out large logging concessions has made it very difficult for many poor people to have access to the forests they need for their food, medicinal plants, cooking and other uses. Land titling programs and the allocation of forest resources have to take these peoples needs into account.
  6. Wild meat provides a major source of income and protein in much of Africa, and parts of Asia and Latin America. Governments should not make all commercial hunting for bush meat illegal. They should work with local communities and authorities to try to regulate the number of animals hunted so that hunters do not deplete the animal populations. This will not be easy but simply trying to ban hunting will not work and would be bad for poor people.
  7. Paying local communities to conserve biodiversity could be a good way both to protect the forests and to help local people get additional incomes. More pilot programs are needed to experiment with different ways of doing this. For these efforts to succeed it will be important to give local people clear rights over their forests.
  8. There are very large areas of land that governments have declared "forest lands" even though they have not had any forests on them for many years. These lands should be reclassified as agricultural lands so that small farmers can get secure property rights there. That will encourage the small farmers to manage them better. This is a particularly major problem in Asia.
  9. Urgent steps must be taken to reduce large scale deforestation by ranchers, agricultural plantation companies and loggers in areas that many poor people depend on the forest products for their livelihoods. These steps include eliminating subsidies for these large farmers and companies and stopping the allocation of government owned forests and lands to them.
  10. Agroforestry and reforestation projects can be a promising alternative for improving the livelihoods of rural families. However, they will only work if local people can decide what trees to plant and where and can sell them when they want to.
  11. Forest certification can help to improve the livelihoods for rural people in certain contexts, both directly by certifying their activities and indirectly by improving the treatment of local communities by logging companies. It will be necessary to find ways to lower the costs of certification for small scale and low intensity forestry activities so that rural people can benefit more.