How much do rural communities really benefit from trees?
Forests and trees outside forests were estimated by the World Bank in 2008 to contribute to the livelihoods of more than 1.6 billion people worldwide, but the extent of benefits received by human communities from trees are not well quantified.
“We know that trees provide rural people across the globe with many products and services,” explains Ian Dawson, Associate Fellow with the World Agroforestry Centre. “But factors such as the separate consideration of trees in forests and farmland and the fuzzy boundaries between the two, combined with informal trade and use only within households– that is not captured by assessments – mean that the overall benefits are hard to pin down.”
Added to this is the difficulty of accounting for the huge range of trees of potential value. “This makes it difficult for policy makers to target interventions that will maximize the benefits communities receive from trees”, explains Ramni Jamnadass, who leads the World Agroforestry Centre’s research program on Tree Diversity, Domestication and Delivery and is co-author with Dawson of a recent study on this topic in the scientific journal Forest Ecology and Management.
The study analyses 3 production categories for tree products and services: non-timber forest products (NTFPs) harvested from trees in natural and managed forests and woodlands; trees planted (or wild trees retained) in smallholder agroforestry systems; and cultivated tree commodity crops. For each, what is known about the benefits to rural communities is examined together with issues relating to domestication, conservation and sustainable use.
The genetic variation within tree species is given particular attention, because “genetic diversity is vital to supporting rural livelihoods but is rarely properly considered,” indicates Dawson.
Highlighting the importance of forests to peoples’ livelihoods, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) valued non-wood products from forests at US $17 billion in 2005 and wood fuel removals at US $19 billion. But as the FAO report acknowledged, these figures were far from complete, a good illustration being the at least 5-fold higher value for the wood fuel (charcoal) industry in Africa reported in other publications (US $8 billion annually compared to 1.4 billion in the FAO report).
According to Dawson, preserving the genetic diversity of NTFPs to ensure future value is not as straightforward as just promoting cultivation, as some have suggested. This can lead to neglected management of forest stands and the creation of markets that capture forest as well as planted sources unintentionally.
Nor does the commercialization and regularization of NTFP harvesting necessarily ensure their better management. A good example is the Argan tree in Morocco, which produces one of the world’s most expensive cosmetic and cooking oils. The commercialization and export of Argan has benefited the local economy but has also led to forest degradation, jeopardizing future harvests.
When it comes to agroforestry products, databases of useful species for farmers have been complied that suggest timber followed by medicines and fuel are the most frequent uses of trees on farms. However there are many trees that also support farm production through controlling erosion, providing shade and shelter, and replenishing soils.
The study indicates that the level of attention to the genetic quality of trees in smallholder agroforestry production systems is variable. While genetic quality in exotic fruits and timbers has received attention because these trees are also grown in large-scale commercial plantations and orchards, the quality of trees that provide soil fertility and fodder have largely been ignored. “If more attention were given, enormous benefits could be achieved”, says Jamnadass, who notes that interest in the genetic quality of indigenous fruit tree species is on the rise.
Tree commodity crops are the final production category analyzed in the study, of which the top 5 – palm oil, coffee, cocoa, tea and rubber – had an export value of around US $80 billion in 2010.
“While it is difficult to determine how much of this value can be attributed to smallholder production, we do know, for example, that 90 per cent of cocoa and 65 per cent of coffee worldwide is estimated to be grown by small-scale farmers” says Dawson. From such figures, total farm-gate values to smallholders can be estimated. In Indonesia, these would be at least US $1.5 billion for cocoa annually and 1 billion for coffee.
A challenge in the sustainable use of tree commodity crops is conserving wild stands that contain important genetic diversity for future crop development. For example, conserving the montane forest of Ethiopia where wild coffee originates is crucial, but it is complicated by the fact that most coffee production takes place in Brazil. There is no clear link between the major producer and the main country that must undertake conservation.
“Wild stands may be important in the future for locating the genetic traits of commodity crops that yield better in mixed production systems that support resilience as well as incomes,” says Dawson.
Through analyzing the value of trees to rural livelihoods in the 3 different production categories, the study’s authors hope to contribute to a debate that will eventually result in policies that maximize benefits from trees in forests and on farms. They acknowledge that to achieve this further research is needed on tree management and on improving access to markets for tree products and services.
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Dawson IK, Leakey R, Clement CR, Weber JC, Cornelius JP, Roshetko JM, Vinceti B, Kalinganire A, Tchoundjeu Z, Masters E, Jamnadass R. 2014. The management of tree genetic resources and the livelihoods of rural communities in the tropics: non-timber forest products, smallholder agroforestry practices and tree commodity crops. Forest Ecology and Management.