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Forests overlooked as allies in global poverty fight, scientists say

BARCELONA, Oct 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Wise use of forests could contribute substantially to the global push to end poverty, but that potential has yet to be fully understood and tapped, often to the detriment of communities who rely on forests for a living, scientists said on Thursday.

Globally, one out of every 10 people lives in extreme poverty, with prospects made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also shown the urgency of reducing human pressure on nature, said a new report from a panel of more than 20 experts.

“One way to relieve this pressure and alleviate poverty is to recognise and further optimise the critical role of forests and trees as allies in the fight against poverty,” Alexander Buck, executive director of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations, wrote in the report.

It noted that more than 1.6 billion people live within 5 km (3 miles) of a forest, including 250 million of the world’s extreme poor who often rely on forests for food, medicine, fodder and energy.

In many tropical nations, forests contribute 20-25% of income for those people, about the same amount as agriculture.

Forests and other trees provide essential safety nets that help people manage climatic and economic risks, noted Johan Oldekop, associate professor at the University of Manchester’s Global Development Institute.

But the poorest often fail to get a fair share of the benefits forests provide because they lack land rights and have little say in how forests are used, he noted.

“Those communities that depend on forests are often not part of the discussion required in order to sustainably manage forests globally,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In many forest- and wildlife-rich countries in Africa, for example, timber and tourism are big contributors to the national economy, but local people see little gain, the scientists said.

In the worst cases, they bear the cost through environmental degradation and restricted access to protected areas or concessions, it added.

The report examined how different forest policies and management measures implemented by governments, civil society groups and business affect poverty levels - which can top 17% in rural areas, more than three times higher than in urban areas.

SHEA TO VANILLA

Daniel C. Miller, a professor at the University of Illinois, said in a statement there was no “one-size-fits-all solution” to ensuring forest resources are shared more equally within countries and communities.

But the scientists found some of the systems that have best been able to reduce poverty include agroforestry - where trees are grown on farms - community forest management, eco-tourism and the creation of forest producer organisations, he noted.

The report cited the example of how groups for shea nut growers and processors in Burkina Faso helped women participants learn new skills and improve their financial situation.

In Madagascar, meanwhile, which produces about 80% of the world’s vanilla, agroforestry systems focused on vanilla have become the main source of income for many farmers.

But those who secure contracts with vanilla exporters benefit most, putting female-headed households at a disadvantage as they are less likely to get such contracts, the report noted.

Even with Nepal’s successful community forestry management programme, the benefits are unequally distributed, with poor and low-caste households seeing fewer, it said.

Producing more evidence about how forest-related activities impact indigenous and other communities is especially important as interest grows in protecting and restoring forests to curb climate change and reverse biodiversity loss, Oldekop said.

If reforestation projects are not done in collaboration with communities, “then we have the potential to disenfranchise (them), and generate more harm than good”, he said.

Discussion is also heating up on how to ensure efforts to expand protected areas - likely to be part of a new global agreement on biodiversity next year - do not deprive affected communities of their livelihoods and respect their rights.

One way would be to involve local people in running eco-tourism projects as in Costa Rica and Thailand, the report said.

However, with travel plummeting as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many eco-tourism efforts around the world have ground to a halt this year, cutting off income for local workers, said Priya Shyamsundar, lead economist at The Nature Conservancy.

The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on forests and rural livelihoods has yet to be seen, the report noted.

But migration of people out of cities, where the disease has hit both health and employment hardest, together with more limited law enforcement in forest areas, is leading to an increase in deforestation in many countries, it noted.

Shyamsundar told a launch event for the report that the poorest forest communities are now faced with many challenges at the same time, from a lack of health care to the drying up of remittances from relatives working in cities or abroad.

"The pandemic is an existential threat," she said. (Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org/climate)

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