16 Feb 2012: Analysis

Busting the Forest Myths:
People as Part of the Solution

The long-held contention that rural forest communities are the prime culprits in tropical forest destruction is increasingly being discredited, as evidence mounts that the best way to protect rainforests is to involve local residents in sustainable management.

by fred pearce

Some forest campaigners have been saying it for years, but now they have the research to prove it: Local communities are the most effective managers of their forests, best able to combine sustainable harvests with conservation.

A series of studies unveiled in the past year have skewered the long-held view — still espoused by many governments and even some in the environmental community — that poor forest dwellers are the prime culprits in deforestation and that the best conservation option is to combine strict ecosystem protection in some areas with intensive cultivation elsewhere.

Here are seven myths punctured by recent research.

Myth One: Forests prevent short-term rural wealth generation. Forest communities therefore have an economic incentive to get rid of them and replace them with permanent farms. Forest protection requires curbing them.

Reality: A six-year global study of forest use, deforestation and poverty conducted by the Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has found that harvested natural resources make up the largest component of incomes from people living in and around tropical forests. Nature contributes 31 percent of household income, more than crop farming (29 percent), wages (14 percent), or raising livestock (12 percent).

Forests emerge from the study — the result of detailed interviews conducted by Ph. D. students at 8,000 households in 24 countries — as important sources of food, firewood, and construction materials that
Deforestation rates are substantially higher on lands protected by the state than in community-managed forests.
communities want to protect. But this forest fecundity is largely ignored by policymakers, says Frances Seymour, CIFOR’s director-general, who presented many of the findings at the Royal Society in London last June, ahead of publication in peer-reviewed journals. “This income is largely invisible in national statistics,” she said, because the produce is either consumed in the home or sold in local markets unmonitored by national data-collectors.

Myth Two: Deforestation is carried out mainly by the poorest farmers, often as a coping strategy to get through bad times. What they need is economic development to wean them away from the forests.

Reality: The same CIFOR study found that within forest communities it is the rich who take more from the forests. They have the means, wielding chainsaws rather than machetes. But they are also the top dogs, able to assert control of community-run forests. “We see that at the level of households within villages, but also at a national and international level, where deforestation has been faster in Latin America, which is richer,” says Seymour.

The study found that just over a quarter of all households clear some forest each year, with an average take of 1.3 hectares, mostly to grow crops. But the bottom line is that deforestation is usually a source of wealth for the rich in good times, rather than a coping strategy for the poor. In bad times, the poor are more likely to leave the forest in search of wages than to stay and trash the place, says CIFOR principal scientist Sven Wunder.

Myth Three: Forest protection, many governments say, cannot be entrusted to local communities. It is best done by state authorities, perhaps with help from environmental NGOs, on land under the control of the state.

Reality: A recent meta-analysis of case studies found that deforestation rates are substantially higher on lands “protected” by the state than in
There was greater biodiversity in the low-intensity farming area than in primary forest.
community managed forests. There are well-known maps showing that the best protected parts of the Amazon rainforest, for instance, are those designated as native reserves, run by the Kayapo Indians and others. This seems to be the rule rather than the exception, Luciana Porter-Bolland, of the Institute of Ecology in Veracruz, Mexico, and others concluded.

When the state is in charge, rules are barely enforced, corruption is frequent, and forest dwellers have little stake in protecting forest resources, because they do not own them. Where the people who live there control the forests, they are much more likely to protect them.

The analysis confirms a global study two years ago by Ashwini Chhatre of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who, with Arun Agrawal, compared data on forest ownership with the carbon stored in forests and found that community forests held more. “Our findings show that we can increase carbon sequestration simply by transferring ownership of forests from governments to communities,” says Chhatre.

Myth Four: Agriculture is bad for biodiversity.

Reality: It sounds like a no-brainer. Of course, intensive farming will wreck forest ecosystems and replace them with monocultures. But traditional farming systems are often biodiverse, and may take place within forest ecosystems, rather than replacing them. New research in Oaxaca state in Mexico suggests that such farms enhance forest biodiversity.

James Robson and Fikret Berkes of the University of Manitoba investigated the impact of the recent widespread desertion of forests by Oaxaca farmers
Small-scale forest enterprises have contributed substantially to forest conservation and poverty reduction.
heading for the cities. The natural forest reclaimed their fields and orchards, but the result was an overall loss of biodiversity. The authors concluded that traditional low-intensity farming systems within forests had created a “high biodiversity forest-agriculture mosaic” that exceeded that in primary forest, but that disappeared with the farmers. In other words, there was greater biodiversity in the low-intensity farming area than in primary forest.

This may be no isolated finding. CIFOR’s Christine Padoch said the Oaxaca study showed that “rapid urbanization, simplified agricultural systems and abandonment of local resource-use traditions are sweeping across the forested tropics.”

Myth Five: Illegal local wood-cutters are a major threat to forests. Much better to maximize both production and conservation by curbing local wood-cutters and allowing commercial loggers to take over those forests set aside for “productive” use. Commercial loggers are, it is argued, easier to police and can operate according to strict rules on sustainability, such as those of the Forest Stewardship Council.

Reality: There is a serious downside to this approach. In central and West African countries such as Cameroon, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and Liberia, small-scale logging by locals is often a much bigger contributor to local economies and employment than large-scale enterprises. Moreover, most lumber harvested by this informal sector is processed locally for furniture and other local needs, whereas large-scale enterprises mostly export the timber as logs.

It is far from clear that the local wood-cutters do more damage than outside loggers. But a study by the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative found that they produce more benefits for their local communities, in jobs, income, and products. And, like other local forest users, they may be more amenable to community controls on their activities. Andy White, the coordinator of the initiative, concluded that small-scale forest enterprises “have contributed substantially to equity, forest conservation, and poverty reduction. Supporting their development and suspending public support for large-scale industrial concessions should be key priorities.”

Myth Six: Degraded forest land is a wasteland that should be targeted for high-intensity agriculture such as oil-palm cultivation and timber plantations. Many environmentalists encourage this. For instance, the World Resources Institute is mapping Indonesian degraded lands to help the government there “divert new oil palm plantation development onto degraded lands instead of expanding production into natural forests.”

Reality: This is risky. A study in Borneo, a major biodiversity hotspot, found that, even after repeated logging, degraded forests retain 75 percent of bird and dung-bettle species, which were chosen to represent wider biodiversity. The indiscriminate conversion of these forests to oil-palm and
‘Natural resource protection can only be achieved if the rights of forest-dwelling people are respected,’ says one advocate.
other intensive agriculture is a big mistake, says David Edwards, co-author of the study and now at James Cook University in Australia. “Degraded forests retain much of the biodiversity found in primary forests. Conservationists ignore them at their peril.”

Myth Seven: To prevent further forest destruction, we urgently need to intensify agriculture. This is often called the Borlaug hypothesis after its originator, the green revolution pioneer Norman Borlaug. He argued that the more we can grow on existing farmland, the less pressure there will be to clear forests for growing more crops.

Reality: The counter-argument is that commercial farmers don’t clear forests to feed the world; they do it to make money. So helping farmers become more efficient and more productive won’t reduce the threat. It will increase it.

Thomas Rudel of Rutgers University in New Jersey compared trends in national agricultural yields with the amount of land planted with crops since 1990. He argued that if Borlaug was right, then the spread of cropland should be least in countries where yields rose fastest. Sadly not. Mostly, yields and cultivated area rose together, as farming became more profitable.

All this raises vital issues for forest protection. Twenty years ago, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, sustainable development was declared the key to a green and equitable global future. But nobody quite knew what it meant. The UN is planning a follow-up Rio+20 event this June, and the question of what is meant by “sustainable development” will come under intense examination.


China’s Appetite for Wood
Takes a Heavy Toll on Forests

China’s Appetite for Wood Takes a Heavy Toll on Forests
More than half of the timber now shipped globally is destined for China. But unscrupulous Chinese companies are importing huge amounts of illegally harvested wood, William Laurance writes, prompting conservation groups to step up boycotts against rapacious timber interests.
Many industrialists there will argue that sustainability requires high-intensity, high-efficiency economic activity that can produce the products we need without taking over wild areas such as rainforests. But the recent findings from CIFOR and others strongly suggest that may be the wrong way to go. Perhaps forests and other ecosystems can be protected best by protecting the land rights of their inhabitants, and by trusting their knowledge, priorities and management skills.

As the Rights and Resources Initiative's Andy White puts it: “Global natural resource protection and production for the benefit of all will only be achieved in coming decades if the rights of rural and forest-dwelling people in the developing world are respected.”

POSTED ON 16 Feb 2012 IN Forests Policy & Politics Sustainability Africa Asia 


In Sutjeska NP in Bosnia, the opportunity for illegal logging expanded during the 1990's with the Wars of Yugoslavian succession. Local people, to survive, jumped at the opportunity, but avoided devastation of the Perucia Primeval forest, one of the largest remnant beech spruce forest in Europe. It was just wrong, and they avoided destroying something priceless. In this region of conflict, there was hope. A recent book called Revolutionary Parks describes in well documented historical fashion, how people can manage the commons, but it sure isn't easy. There remains much to be done. Excellent summary of a complex problem.

Posted by Geoffrey Middaugh on 16 Feb 2012

Regarding "myth seven," intensification may not reduce deforestation on a national level because of rebound, but undoubtedly does reduce deforestation on a global level. Different dynamics on different scales.

Posted by Linus on 16 Feb 2012

We would like to correct how your article characterizes the World Resources Institute’s
work related to mapping Indonesian degraded lands (see “Myth #6” above). In the context of
our Project POTICO, “degraded land” refers to areas with low carbon and low biodiversity, such
as alang alang grasslands. This project does not promote expansion of plantations on “degraded forest,” which in Indonesia usually refers to secondary or logged over forest, likely containing high-carbon stock and conservation values.

WRI and our Indonesian partner Sekala have developed a method for identifying potentially
suitable areas for oil palm cultivation in Indonesia which prioritizes degraded land. The
method also includes social considerations such as whether local people are interested in oil palm cultivation.

For more information please see http://www.wri.org/stories/2010/11/faq-indonesia-degraded-land-and-sustainable-palm-oil

We request that you issue a correction to your article.

Posted by Michael Oko on 16 Feb 2012

In the Philippines, state recognition and acknowledgement of this approach was formalized with laws and policies in the mid-'80s until end 1990s on community based forest management, passage of the Indigenous People's Rights Act, and the provision of participatory protected area management boards in the law on protected areas. All these emerge from an understanding that people in these forests, many of whom are poor upland communities and are Indigenous Peoples, need basic social services, tenure provided, and rights protected the consequence of which is that these communities will be part of the solution in undertaking forest management and rehabilitation, with livelihood assurance. But somewhere along the way, as with most political leadership transitions and shifts, these programs have become dysfunctional and the change potential dissipated.

Perhaps it is the nature of the state, but the ensuing simplification and the bureaucracy that was engendered rendered many of these programs eventually inefficient, so far failing to achieve the objectives of a "well-managed community is a well-managed forest." But we continue to work with this concept as by far, this is still the most logical, appropriate, and coherent solution.

Posted by Sylvia Miclat on 16 Feb 2012

I entirely agree with your views. Infact Rural people worship 'nature'.

Dr. A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 16 Feb 2012

There are as many myths created here as there are busted. There are conditions under which the 'myths' hold true and there others when they don't. To further the debate in a constructive manner that can be used as a basis for planning, there is a need to be describe under what conditions varying outcomes will occur. This appears to be an opinion piece disguised as analysis.

Posted by Philip Wells on 17 Feb 2012

Dr Jagadeesh is correct - the conditions for sustenance of forests and dependent resources - soil, wildlife, water and even the atmosphere, vary widely according to local conditions - social, technical and economic. Intensification as the devil is a non-starter.

The only part of the article with which I can agree unconditionally is the statement of the lack (absence) of a true valuation of forests and forest products in natonal oe local socio-economic statistics.

Posted by George Nagle BSF PhD on 17 Feb 2012

Fred replaces myth with counter-myth, and one generality with another. The debate needs to get down to specifics to move forward.

Richard Tipper, Ecometrica

Posted by Richard Tipper on 18 Feb 2012

Exactly what I have been doing for years. Helping stop slash and burn with alternatives that simutaniously reduce labour while providing increased yields. This liberates time for growing of cash crops or to develop pro-poor forest enterprises. Its a people and planet formula, which varies in its roll out according to location, which creates thirval community and forest sustainability to mirror the downward spiral of unsustainable survival.

I am not an academic, I am a serial bio-social entrepreneurial activist in business since the '70's. Without sounding venal and smarmy we made a lot of money trashing the planet . . . now
we will make a lot more fixing it up. Without this it won't happen.

Simon Fjell


Posted by Simon Fjell on 18 Feb 2012

Sustenece of forest in a given locality depends on various factors which includes history of land use of the area, socioeconomic condition of the communities and opportunities available to the community for income generation from agriculture' industry etc, intensity of communication net works developed in the area etc. In India participative forest management as Joint forest management has been introduced since late eighties after the sucessful joint management experiment carried out in Arabari, West Bengal. It is seen in some of the areas, where people are involved in intensive agriculture and or having good alt. source of livelihood, forest is well protected but in the aeas having dearth of employment opportunity protection is affected, similarly in some areas due to development of road and railnetwork illegal felling has increased and communities with Forest Dept. Trying to prevent, in many areas people from other areas migrated and settled near the forest area creating problem of forest protection by the communities.

Posted by Asesh Lahiri on 19 Feb 2012

Thanks for an enlightening article, Fred.

I believe consumers hold the key to conserving forests worldwide. In Vermont's Green Mountain Forest, we are working hard to raise awareness about where your forest products come from and how to buy coffee, wood, furniture and other forest products responsibly. Here's an example: http://vermontwoodsstudios.com/content/tiger-conservation

We are with you!

Posted by Peggy Farabaugh on 20 Feb 2012

Fred -- I really think that you rather grossly stereotyped and lumped together many aspects of the people-in-the-forest question. Obviously, it's more of a question of what kind of people, when and where, in what numbers, wanting what.

Obviously there's a difference between a small-farmer colonist near roads and an ancient indigenous lineage in an isolated region. And even the data of antiquity do not offer a clear view. For example, there's mounting evidence of large pre-Columbian Indian populations in Amazonia and ALSO evidence that much of the southern Amazon had shifted to cerrado grassland (possibly as a result).

Additionally, I see little discussion of forests as rainmakers. So here's a NEW TOPIC SUGGESTION: There's an extremely important new meteorological theory that argues that forests make rain and therefore climate:


The "biotic pump" meme rings true for researchers of Amazonian climate. A single large tree can pump 1000 liters of moisture into the air each day during the hot dry season and determine whether the forest survives the drought. There is absolutely no discussion of this among advocates of selective logging, etc

Here is a powerful TED talk by the Brazilian climate scientist Antonio Nobre:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01jYiXbpnoE (click CC for English subtitles)

This stuff is freshly making its way into more general awareness. It really alters the way we formulate the question of human activity in the forest.

This is new thinking. It needs help to bring to attention and more discussion. Please do what you can. It really matters.





Posted by Lou Gold on 20 Feb 2012

Here is some recent research on the roles of large old trees in maintaining the forest as an ecosystem or network of life:



Obviously, selective logging that removes individual trees before they reach full maturity can be highly disruptive to the forest and plantations should NEVER be equated with forests.

Posted by Lou Gold on 21 Feb 2012

Regarding myth #6: I don't think it's correct or fair to say that degraded lands are being ignored. While it is great to point out that degraded lands still have a significant biodiversity and shouldn't be sacrificed if given a choice there has to be a moment to consider that if an oil palm plantation is going in, it's got to go somewhere so where would you prefer: a degraded yet still 75\% biodiverse land or a virgin 100\% biodiverse land?

Myth #6 counterpoint really is more of sad story that "degraded" really isn't as worthless as the label would lead us to believe and hold the potential for high quality restoration.

I enjoyed the rest and will keep my eyes peeled for more information to test these new ways of viewing old arguments.

Mr. Pearce you have a habit of writing fascinating articles, keep it up please!

Posted by Tynan on 05 Mar 2012

The protected area of the cionmg reserve of Borneo should become 224,000 square Kilometres. That's about half of France. It would be a good start. When the Chinese and logging companies of the West get their dirty hands out of Papua, the Salomon's, the Molucca's and Central Africa we could still enjoy it more and discover the greatness of the superb biodiversity in tropical forests for many decades to come ...Many thousands of vertebrates need to be discovered and many millions of invertebrates, to tell us more about their habitat and their ecological relations with the Biotopes.

Posted by Patricia on 02 Apr 2012

I have to wonder if "myth 7" confuses correlation with causality.

It is a tautology that with more intensive agriculture it is possible to grow the same amount of food on less land. So, if it really is a myth that more intensive agriculture reduces pressure for land conversion, it must be because agriculture is made more intensive in conjunction with other developments that increase the demand for food. Certainly as a nation becomes wealthier through, say, increased international trade and/or capital investment, it may also obtain the wherewithal with which to farm more intensively. At the same time, though, perhaps some of the increased trade will be in agricultural products, or as local people become wealthier, they will demand more food.

One pattern we see in much of the world is that as people get wealthier they eat more meat. As feeding animals generally requires multiples of the land area that would be required to maintain a population on a vegetarian, or at least a less-meat-intensive diet, the causation may run from wealth to diet to farming methods.

These are all very difficult empirical questions, and I think you do us all a service in writing these fascinating and provocative articles, Fred. By the same token, though, I think a challenge to us the readers is to think carefuly through alternative explanations and interpretations, and see if we might identify a different set of primary drivers. My own sense, as I suggested above, is that we might accomplish more for conservation by reforming our diets than by many measures that might seem to have a more direct impact.

Posted by David Simpson on 07 Mar 2013

The presentation of "myth six" is misleading. It implies that it is wrong to try to prevent degradation of unlogged forest. I think the point si that unlogged forest are still quite worthy of
conservation, AND logged forests are ALSO often worthy of conservation.

Here in the Pacific Northwest of North America we have the "Northwest Forest Plan" which sees
to retain most of the remaining native forests, as well as grow back many forests that were clearcut in the past 50-80 years.

We need both protection of undamaged forests and active restoration of damaged forests.


Posted by Doug Heiken on 22 Mar 2013

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Pearce has written about the environmental consequences of humankind’s addiction to chemical fertilizers and the promise of“climate-smart” agriculture.



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