An Overview of Forestry/Agroforestry Issues Vis-à-Vis Food Security

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The intricate linkages between forestry/agroforestry, on the one hand, and food security on the other, highlight the sensitivity of forestry issues as they relate to food security in the Asia-Pacific region. Although not always readily apparent, “forestry” issues are often “food security” issues as well, and vice versa.

 Increases in Population and Demands For Food, Forest Products and Services

The Asia-Pacific region is home to more than half the world’s population. While population growth has slowed down in recent years in many of the countries, the absolute numbers continue to rise and population densities per area of land remain the highest on Earth. Coupled with the huge numbers of people is the increasing wealth being generated in the vibrant economies of the region. Combined, these two factors are placing unprecedented pressures on the region’s limited natural resource base, as people are demanding ever more food and other products.

Not only is more food needed to meet the basic calorific requirements of the expanding population, but increased wealth allows the people to purchase much more meat products than in the past. Meaty diets, of course, require more grain and forage to produce than equivalent vegetarian diets.

The increasing demand for food runs in parallel with the escalating demand for forest products and services, including traditional wood products, water, and electricity from hydro-electric projects. The region’s new-found wealth also has spawned new demand for such things as forest-based recreation opportunities, ecotourism, and attractive industrial and residential sites. Local and international demands for biodiversity conservation, protection of endangered species, expansion of protected areas, and carbon sequestration add to the challenges of forest management and limit options for conversion of more forests for agricultural production.

Forest Conversion and Deforestation

Throughout history, agricultural expansion to increase food production has occurred largely at the expense of forests. When more agricultural land was needed, people simply cleared more forested land for crop planting. It is no small coincidence that the area of new land brought under agricultural production each year is almost exactly equal to the area that is deforested each year-approximately 15 million hectares.

For much of the world, however, the limits of the land frontier have been reached. In Asia, especially, there simply is no more frontier in most areas. More than 80 percent of all potential cropland is now under cultivation (Alexandratos 1988). In comparison with other regions of the world, Asia and the Pacific has a much higher proportion of its land devoted to agriculture (including cropland and pastures), and, conversely, a much lower proportion under forest cover.

In most Asian countries, the areas of easiest access and those with the best cropland potential have long been converted to agricultural production, and any further expansion will necessarily encroach on marginal areas-particularly steep hillsides, infertile sites, and semi-arid regions-that are relatively fragile and have relatively low productive potential. Conversion of additional marginal areas of these types are likely to have a net negative effect of food production and food security, particularly in the long-term. In most cases the adverse impacts of watershed degradation and soil erosion on downstream agricultural systems will be much greater than the minimal increments of food outputs from newly cleared marginal lands. As described above, the clearing of forested areas carries with it the added risk of further degrading the genetic resource base upon which future agricultural productivity may depend.

Despite the critical importance of forests in contributing to food security, the region’s forests are being destroyed at an unparalleled pace. FAO’s last Global Forest Resources Assessment estimated that deforestation in tropical Asia and the Pacific now exceeds 3.9 million ha each year (FAO 1993). This means 7.4 ha are cleared every minute.

Most of the forest losses in the world today occur in the tropics. Of the three tropical regions of the world (Africa, Asia-Pacific and South America), Asia and the Pacific has the fastest rate of deforestation, the fastest rate of commercial logging, the highest volumes of fuelwood removed from the forests, and the fastest rates of species extinctions (FAO 1993). Countries losing the largest areas of forest include Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Philippines, and India.

The underlying causes of deforestation are rooted in a complex web of social, economic, and institutional problems both inside and outside the forestry sector. These include:

  • The combined effects of poverty, inequitable land distribution, insecure land and tree tenure, low agricultural productivity, and rising population pressure;
  • Increasing demand for tropical timber and agricultural products;
  • International debt obligations which push developing-country governments to accelerate forest exploitation to earn needed foreign exchange; and
  • Misguided policies and incentives which encourage, or fail to restrain, the clearing of forests.

Efforts to reduce or eliminate deforestation will necessarily have to address these problems if they are to succeed.

Trade and Marketing Issues

With increasing domestic and global market demands, trade and marketing in forestry and agroforestry products have penetrated into even remote forest areas. This trend presents both opportunities and problems. It can serve as an impetus for increasing household production, income and food availability. On the other hand, over-exploitation to satisfy growing market demands can lead to irreversible damage inflicted upon the natural resource base.

Following UNCED, there has been an upswell of concern for and emphasis on sustainable forest management. National and international criteria and indicators of sustainable management have been or are being developed, as well as mechanisms for certifying that certain products are managed sustainably.

Many contentious issues, some polarized in a North-South nature, are also being debated, including: intellectual property rights; trade barriers and tariffs; and trade liberalization. These are covered in greater detail in subchapters II.A.5 and III.B.

Resource Access and Tenure

Of primary importance to food security is access to resources. This includes access to natural forests to collect food and to hunt wild animals. It also includes access to land (including small urban plots of potential use for food production), secure tenure over food production assets, and access to credit for improving production inputs. Tenure security is particularly important to encourage long-term investments in trees and land improvements to enhance food production.

Food security of local people can be threatened if policies restrict traditional access to badly needed forest foods. On the other hand, unrestricted access cannot be granted to sensitive areas whose destruction would jeopardize the long-term sustainability of downstream agriculture. In this regard, careful land-use planning is needed, backed by practical implementation in the field.

Gender Issues

With ever-increasing numbers of people to be fed in Asia and the Pacific, and increasing land pressures, a reorientation of forestry officials, management priorities, and operating procedures is needed. This will often require compromise on the part of forestry departments away from what is conventionally regarded as “best” from the forestry perspective. It could mean, for example, planting timber trees at wider spacing to allow food crops to be grown for more years before the canopy closes. It could also mean accepting, or even encouraging, the use of non-traditional or fruit-bearing trees instead of timber species for reforestation and watershed protection purposes.

There is an increasing appreciation among resource managers for the traditional knowledge and values that local people have toward forests. This recognition of indigenous forest management knowledge, coupled with frustration over the inability of many governments to solve lingering forest management problems, is leading to the devolution of management responsibility to local communities of local leaders. This trend has major positive implications for food production and food security. Not only are indigenous management systems more apt to be focused on local food production, but they are also more likely to protect the genetic diversity of the forest.

Not surprisingly, such reorientation of management perspectives and priorities is fiercely resisted by some conventionally oriented foresters. Thus, there is a need for strong high-level commitment and extensive retraining of forestry department staff if such management reorientation is to succeed.

Appropriate Technical Solutions

The technical solutions most suitable for enhancing food security through forestry and agroforestry may not always be those envisioned by foresters or extension agents from outside local communities. Projects too often fail because they attempt to push pre-packaged technologies upon local people who may not be willing to accept them.

Most people are logical decision makers. If they do not accept suggested technical approaches, it is either because they do not have adequate information, or because something is wrong with the approach. Forestry extensionists and rural development officials must be sensitive to both possibilities and be prepared to adapt technologies to meet local social, cultural, and economic conditions.

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