How much do rural communities benefit from trees?

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.

2 Replies to “How much do rural communities benefit from trees?”

  1. Dawson et al. paper : This seems to be a blatant attempt to get peasant farmers to conserve biodiversity without payment on the excuse that doing so promotes resilience (which may benefit farmers). Unfortunately the reference given (Clough et al. 2011) only mentions ecosystem resilience in the introduction and from then on seems not to demonstrate the link – if any – between biodiversity and resilience.
    They ignore three things: 1) trees in fields means hoes not ploughs – try it and see which is better; 2) lots about `smallholders’ and nothing about gardens – which are the most important haven for biodiversity and human nutrition; 3) lots about `indigenous better than introduced’: certainly better for indigenous biodiversity of pests and disease but that is not what farmers want.
    This bit is plain wrong. It recommends:
    “A wider focus on indigenous trees rather than the exotics that are currently widely used to fulfil different production and service functions (as illustrated by the figures on exotic and indigenous tree usage proportions given in Table 2) may bring conservation benefits and be more sustainable in the long term.” Rubbish.
    Table 2 is interesting. It details to percentage of indigenous tress providing `functions of importance for smallholders’. Africa 53% indigenous; Oceania 35%; South America 42%; Southeast Asia 47%. Africa missing out again – something like 30-40% indigenous would be enough.
    The authors seem never to have heard of horticulture and, in particular, arboriculture (Yen, 1974) or even ornamental trees and shrub, most of which in the Tropics are introduced. The anti-introduced mind-set of ethnic botanical cleansing induced a neighbour in India to rid her garden of `nasty’ Eucalyptus. Thankfully she was ignorant of the origin of a lovely Guanacaste (Enterlobium cyclocarpum) outside her door; also Nandi Flame (Spathodea nilitica); Sausage tree (Kigelia africana); Rain Tree (Samanea saman or whatever it is called now) and very many more introductions. [A main problem with ornamentals crossing the Atlantic is with humming-bird versus sun-bird pollinated flowers]
    Institutional agroforestry now seems to be serving the interests of conservationists rather than smallholders (and gardeners).
    The hotlink to Janzen 1986 in this Dawson et al. paper takes me to the wrong paper.

  2. In response to Dave Wood’s comments on our review paper, both indigenous and exotic trees are clearly important for farmers. That is clear from the tree commodity crops we mention in the review, 4 out of 5 of which (tea is the exception) have their main production centres outside their centres of origin. We would not take an ideological perspective, but, nevertheless, we consider more research on local species is merited in a livelihoods context.

    This review is one of a series of paper that supports FAO’s first State of the World’s Forest Genetic Resources. Have a look!

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