Reliable data will measure full impact of forest benefits: economist

by Julie Mollins | @jmollins | CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research)
Wednesday, 2 July 2014 17:54 GMT

On the way from the Reserve Village Masako to Kinsagani, Democratic Republic of Congo. Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) /Ollivier Girard

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

CIFOR (27 June 2014) — Apart from employment figures, governments have very little sound data on the exact number of people benefitting from forests, a new report says, stating that accurate measurement is crucial for understanding the overall value of forest services and how best to manage them.

The State of the World's Forests” (SOFO), released to coincide with the World Forest Week Committee on Forestry (COFO) meeting in Rome this week, reveals that the formal forest sector employs some 13.2 million people and that at least another 41 million are employed in the informal sector.

However, the number of people using forest resources for food, energy and shelter is suspected to be in the billions, while an unknown number of people may benefit indirectly from the environmental services provided by forests, according to the annual report, which is produced by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

In the following interview, Adrian Whiteman, an economist with the FAO, discusses some of the key findings of the report.

Q: What role can scientific research play in the effort to produce reliable data?

 A: Scientific research could help to develop reliable methodologies to try to measure some of the less tangible socio-economic benefits from forests. SOFO 2014 has addressed some of the benefits that are more easily measured — such as the use of forests for food, shelter, energy — but reliable measures of the social and cultural benefits of forests remain elusive.

Even in the area of human health, forests are believed to provide many beneficial goods and services, but these benefits haven’t really been measured in the same way that other improvements in health are measured — such as reductions in mortality, increased life expectancy, etc. — It’s doubtful that the forestry community will have the expertise to assess some of these benefits, so we suggest that collaboration and a multi-disciplinary approach would be preferable.  

Q: Could you comment on how both developed and less developed countries are managing a shift towards a greener economy, as mentioned in the report? What steps could help?

A: How countries use energy is a fundamental aspect of the development of a green economy, and one that’s strongly linked to forests and forestry. Most developed countries have economies focused on energy-intensive production - often based on the use of fossil fuels - and many are trying to move away from this by promoting more use of renewable resources — including renewable energy — and materials that contain less embodied energy.

Wood energy and, to a lesser extent, wood products are being promoted as part of green economy development in wealthy countries, but it’s still difficult to balance these new demands with concerns about sustainability and demands for strict preservation.

In contrast, many less-developed countries know little about the green economy and the ones that do have often shown a healthy skepticism about what this means in terms of their future development. The irony is that, in many respects, they already have very green economies — low energy use, high use of renewable materials — but poorly developed green economies.

Thus, they don’t need to get any greener, they just need to be more efficient and effective in how they use their resources. This should be an opportunity for their development, but it requires a different way of thinking about what is progress and how development agencies offer assistance.

Q: The report says that replacing a current emphasis on prohibition with one of sustainable production will be a major challenge for forestry administrations in many places due to the large numbers of people involved in informal activities. This raises the question of how sustainable production can be a benefit over prohibition? Do we have a choice?

A: With ever-increasing demands for land, we have to demonstrate that forests are worth keeping, and one way to do this is to ensure that people can use them to meet their needs.

Currently, the preservationist approach to forests is interpreted in many countries to mean that people should be discouraged from entering forests and local uses that are important for livelihoods are ignored at best, if not illegal in many places.

Such approaches are unlikely to work in places where forest law enforcement is weak and many people have few alternatives for many of the products that they currently take from forests. Giving people a stake in the future of forests and, especially, helping them to use forests more effectively could strengthen implementation of sustainable forest management compared to what often happens at present.

Q: How can stronger rights for people to manage and benefit from forests help?

A: Secure property rights, land tenure and clearer frameworks for the governance of all natural resources are generally necessary for development to occur. For example, it’s difficult to help people collect wood energy and non-wood forest products more sustainably and use these products more effectively if these activities are illegal.

Similarly, local people will be reluctant to invest their time and effort in improving resource management if they can’t be certain that their efforts will pay off in the long run. This is nothing new but, with this edition of the State of the World’s Forests report, we’re trying to raise awareness of the scale of this task and the areas where such improvements might bring most benefits, as well as the huge potential that there might be to improve peoples’ lives.

Q: A priority should be to improve statistics on the distribution of benefits between men and women and produce information about activities that are particularly important for disadvantaged groups such as indigenous people and the rural poor, according to the report. How can this occur? What is the right atmosphere for establishing evidence-based policymaking reporting?

A: We often say that forests are very important for particular groups — the rural poor, indigenous people and, in some respects, women — and we back up these statements with references to various case-studies, surveys and reports.

However, a lot of these studies were conducted to address specific issues, learn about interactions between people and forests in great detail, or to look at who is managing resources and how they are managed.

These studies are often fascinating, but they are of little use for setting priorities.

For example, knowing how women manage shea trees and collect shea nuts in four Ghanaian villages is useful information if a policy maker wants to support shea-nut production in the name of empowering women.

But, it doesn’t help the policy maker decide whether that’s a good idea or not. For that, they need the information that about 400,000 women in Ghana are engaged in shea nut production, then the policy maker can decide whether this is important compared to the other things they could do to support women’s empowerment.

What we need to do is to collect data more systematically and at a broader scale and we suggest that it may be possible to do this by collaborating with others that are already running large-scale surveys and may share similar interests to us.