It never rains but it pours. Ian Dawson follows up his post last week on tree genetic resources and climate change with a piece on how tree genetic resources contribute to livelihoods. Maybe we can now persuade him to mash the two up? And get his own blog :)
In another recent publication on tree genetic resources, complementing that on climate change, Ian Dawson and co-authors reviewed the extent of the benefits received by rural communities from trees. These are not well quantified, but they are important to understand better, in order to determine if, when, and how to intervene to best benefit people. Factors that make quantification difficult include the many products and services provided by trees, informal trade and the lack of coordination between agriculturalists and foresters when assessing the same trees in forests and farmland.
The review considers the value of tree products and services for tropical rural communities from the perspective of three production categories: 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. These categories are not the whole story, but are able to provide an overview of benefits.
Although there is much literature on the importance of NTFPs, until a decade ago relatively few studies quantified value in robust ways that allowed cross-study comparisons, and therefore wider conclusions to be drawn. More recently, this has been rectified by the collection of comprehensive comparative socio-economic data sets in the context of projects such as the Poverty Environment Network (PEN). These suggest that the conventional wisdom that the commercialisation of wild NTFP harvesting is not only good for livelihoods, but also supports forest conservation, is rarely borne out in practice. A good example is the argan tree (Argania spinosa) in Morocco, which produces one of the world’s most expensive cosmetic and cooking oils: its commercialisation has certainly benefited the local economy, but it has also led to forest degradation that jeopardises future harvests. Similarly, there is surprisingly little evidence that promoting cultivation of alternative sources of NTFPs is effective as a means of relieving pressure on wild stands. Cultivation may, for example, lead to the neglect of management of forest stands, and the creation of markets that unintentionally capture forest as well as planted sources.
Turning to agroforestry, practices that integrate trees in farms have been widely promoted and adopted, especially by tropical smallholders, with a wide range of tree species used. In general, however, little attention has been paid to the genetic quality of the trees planted for soil fertility replenishment and fodder production, although this is less of a problem in the the cases of timber and fruit production. More focus on genetic quality could result in significant productivity gains for smallholders, though a possible downside might be more homogenous farm landscapes. On the other hand, without improvements in tree yield and quality, farmers may choose not to plant trees at all on their land.
Tree commodity crops are the final production category analyzed in the study. The top 5 — palm oil, coffee, cocoa, tea and rubber — had an export value of around US $80 billion in 2010. It is difficult to determine how much of this value can be attributed to smallholder production, but 90% of cocoa and 65% of coffee worldwide may be grown by small-scale farmers. A major challenge in the sustainable use of tree commodity crops is conserving wild stands containing genetic diversity potentially important for future crop development, especially when the biggest producer countries are not those where the crop originates. For example, most coffee production takes place in Brazil, but wild Coffea arabica is found in the rapidly-shrinking montane forests of Ethiopia. How can a link between the two countries be established that supports conservation in Ethiopia? A useful starting point is to carry out ‘option value’ analyses of the wild resource for breeding purposes to make the case for support of conservation.
To sum up, tree-based production systems are often promoted by development practitioners because of their perceived biological, economic and social resilience, but this cannot be taken for granted. A number of supporting components are needed to ensure that improved management of tree genetic resources translates into enhanced livelihoods. These include a better understanding of the genetic aspects of production for NTFPs, a stronger emphasis on the genetic quality of the trees planted by smallholders in agroforestry systems, and more attention to wild and semi-wild stand conservation for tree commodity crops. More work is also needed to develop tree commodity crop cultivars that perform well in diverse farm systems, exploiting the available genetic variation in the genepool.