Village communities in the tropical regions of Africa, Asia and South America have not been using local forest resources as sustainably as is often assumed. This is the conclusion of a study published by scientists from the German Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) together with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Dutch Wageningen University in the science journal Environment Research Letters. According to the study, in 90 per cent of the 233 villages analysed at least one forest product such as firewood, timber, food or animal feed has declined over five years.
To conduct the analysis, the UFZ researchers used standardised data from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR- PEN project), based on surveys of village communities in 233 representatively selected villages in tropical regions of Africa, Asia and South America between 2005 and 2010. The interviewees were inhabitants from mostly small rural communities. Villagers were asked, for example, what natural resources from the forests they used and how their availability had changed in recent years.
In 209 of all the analysed communities, or about 90 per cent, interviewees reported that the availability of at least one forest resource had declined. One example is timber for construction purposes. In more than 75 per cent of villages in Africa and South America, they reported a decrease in this resource. In Asia, the percentage was almost 60 per Cent.
"In some places forest resources are not being used very sustainably," says Dr Kathleen Hermans, the first author of the study and a social geographer in the UFZ’s Department of Landscape Ecology. That this situation was so clearly in evidence was surprising, she adds. There are exceptions, however, especially in South America. Here, interviewees in many communities reported that resources such as firewood, medicinal plants and animal food had somewhat increased or remained stable over the last five years.
With the aid of statistical analyses, the researchers were able to demonstrate that excessive consumption of forest products is one of the main reasons why these resources are becoming scarcer. This could be due to the fact that in more than 90 per cent of the villages the population has grown over the past decade, partly due to immigration. However, Hermans points out that more detailed analysis would be required at local level to determine whether population growth had actually triggered higher demand for forest products.
More information of villagers’ use of forest products is needed
The scientist says that it would also be interesting to investigate what factors triggered migration to the villages. Another important factor in the depletion of forest products, according to the study, is the clearance carried out by large companies and local populations. By contrast, the study notes that the ownership situation and the governmental and non-governmental regulations which existed at national, regional or local levels did not play a significant role in the decline of forest resources in tropical regions.
Currently, there is little global standardised information from villages on the use of forests because the information is so time-consuming to collect, Hermans notes. This is what makes this study so exceptional. However, the CIFOR data is based on surveys of local populations and therefore on their perceptions. "The data doesn’t consist of objective measurements, so it isn’t free from biased perceptions," says Hermans. She therefore wants to compare the household data with objective data, such as satellite data on forest coverage near the surveyed villages. She also intends to analyse whether there are certain patterns of resource usage and migration in village communities.
Hermans will be able to take these research approaches further in a new working group which she leads and which started work at the UFZ at the beginning of 2017.
Hermans-Neumann, K. et al.: "Why do forest products become less available? A pan-tropical comparison of drivers of forest-resource degradation". Environmental Research Letters 11 125010.