There are some who love forests and others who rarely think about them. Some who unknowingly benefit from forests through, for example, watershed protection or carbon sequestration, and still others whose very survival depends on forests. An estimated 1.6 billion people fall into this last category.
Forest dependency is a significant feature in the lives of the poor, but also of wealthier households – both in tropical forests in developing countries and in northern temperate and boreal ecosystems in the developed world.
One striking finding from International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) efforts to understand forest dependency is that non-cash forest income was found to be considerably more important than the income derived from the actual sale of forest products. This notion runs counter to the results of many national surveys, which do not account for non-cash income in their questions. Like this finding, the overall trends and patterns revealed by IUCN’s work on forest dependency have enabled us to build a deeper understanding of the complexities and nuances involved in the relationship such as:
- forest dependency rates are significant and highly variable;
- poorer households are more forest-dependent than richer households;
- richer households extract more forest resources and generate more forest cash income than poor households; and
- women, the poor, and remote communities are more reliant than other groups on forest resources for home consumption.
Another emerging consensus relates to forests serving as safety-nets for many. Our findings suggest that:
- the contribution of forests to daily consumption needs is by far the most important livelihood function of forests; and
- forests do not provide an obvious or quick pathway out of poverty, though they do greatly increase the resilience of local livelihoods.
As the picture of human reliance on forests becomes more complete, the importance of the other side of the equation becomes more evident. Degraded and deforested land often requires human intervention to return marginal ecosystems to health and functionality.
A global strategy for returning functionality to landscapes, and one that IUCN actively supports, is called forest landscape restoration (FLR). Beyond the inherent benefits of sequestering carbon and contributing to biodiversity, FLR is a priority for IUCN and many other organizations to enhance the health of forest landscapes; contributing to the security of resources including food, water, fuelwood, and non-timber forest products. For forest dependant people, a healthier and restored forest landscape can increase livelihoods potential and have a proportionately positive impact on their lives.
Whether agroforestry, the careful management of mangroves, community forestry or large-scale reforestation, nearly every FLR intervention requires the commitment of people to ensure the vitality of an ecosystem. The health of forests and people are linked, and although it may not always be evident, people and forests rely on one another.
For more on this story and details of the methods used, please see the original IUCN web story: Understanding human dependence on forests: An overview of IUCN’s efforts and findings, and their implications
National socioeconomic surveys in forestry – UNFAO