Overstory #127 - The contribution of forestry to food security
"Food will last so long as forests do"...so runs an ancient Kashmiri adage (Ann poshi tele yeli poshi van -- Sheik Nur-ud-Din Wali)
Forestry has a large and indispensable role to play in improving present and future food security. Although a great deal remains to be understood about the specifics of this role, it is clear that foresters must make food security a basic consideration in policy formulation, as well as in programme planning, design and implementation.
Trees have been an integral part of the food security strategies of rural people for so long that it is curious and disturbing to note how this relationship has often been neglected in the planning of forestry activities. Even more disturbing, agriculture and forestry have often been, and sometimes still are, viewed as being in opposition. Project reports include such statements as "farmers may be too concerned over providing the daily food to become interested in planting trees". This false dichotomy is perhaps based on the outdated view that forestry is concerned only with raising timber trees on government lands and that agriculture only involves growing crops in open fields.
In fact, farmers have long recognized the importance of trees. They almost invariably incorporate trees in production systems in areas where they have lived for an extended period of time (Sène 1985; Hoskins 1985; Niamir 1989). Inquiry into current and past farming practices has clearly shown that rural people have a wealth of knowledge as to which trees make agricultural crops grow more successfully, which provide fodder during dry seasons, and which help to hold soils for more successful farming on sloping land, etc.
Physical access to food
The range and importance of foods that rural people obtain either directly from the flora and fauna that comprise the forest environment, or produce in an environment sustained and protected by trees vary significantly, depending on living conditions and availability of resources. However, it is safe to say that forest products provide a large range of locally important goods and services in most parts of the developing world.
In wooded areas of Northeast Thailand, for example, 60% of all food comes directly from the forests. At a regional workshop held in Khon Kaen, Thailand, local villagers prepared an exhibit comprising more than 40 plant and animal products gathered from the natural forests nearby, and then carefully explained the use of each. The foresters and nutritionists participating in the workshop were amazed at the variety and quantity of forest foods (FAO 1988a).
By contrast, in a densely inhabited area of Java, where there is very little forest, 60% of all food comes from home gardens where planted trees play an integral role (Widagda 1981).
Trees and nutrition
Tree and forest products play an extremely important role in ensuring adequate nutrition. Although availability of calories is accepted as the most important issue for the world's hungry, certain micro-elements are essential for health. By providing many of these essential nutrients, forest products help to improve both the physical and mental well-being of rural people.
For example, many trees are rich in oil seeds, edible leaves or yellow fruits, all of which provide vitamin A. In parts of Africa, diets based on staple grains depend largely on sauces made from tree products to provide this vitamin which is essential to prevent nutritional blindness. Yet as natural vegetation is depleted, the range of products available for these sauces is narrowed. In many areas, products rich in vitamin A are becoming unavailable; careful forestry planning, including appropriate species selection, could reverse this trend (UN 1987; FAO 1983; FAO 1984; FAO 1986a).
In many countries the distinction between food and medicine is not clear-cut; many plants or other products obtained in the forest are thought to have medicinal qualities and are added to daily meals. For example, honey eaten as a sweetener in many countries is valued as a medicine in Sri Lanka and in Zambia. In other cases, forest products are used as curative rather than preventive medicines in nutritional disorders. In Nigeria, for example, 80% of mothers questioned used a forest-based herbal cure for infant dysentery (Abosede and Akesode 1986). Forest medicines also help to keep the labour force healthy during the agricultural season, thus ensuring higher productivity. Finally, forest plants often provide medicines for livestock diseases (FAO 1986a; FAO 1989a).
A number of forest perennials are not foods of choice in good times but are lifesaving reserves in times of food shortage. Different trees or shrubs or different parts of the same plant may be eaten during famines (FAO 1989a). For example, during periods of extended drought, fruits sometimes contain fewer nutrients since trees store their energy supply in their roots. Under these circumstances, the roots of many trees are rich in calories but often require a great deal of processing to make them edible. When the range of strategies for providing food security in specific areas is understood, foresters can select species and management strategies so as to ensure availability of food at all times and periodic crises, such as droughts, will have less drastic consequences (Falconer 1990a)
Fuelwood and food security
In almost all areas of the developing world, wood provides most of the energy for cooking. Although the exact effects of woodfuel scarcity on diet have not yet been adequately researched, the implicit relationship between fuelwood availability and nutrition should not be overlooked. Cooking releases the nutrients in grains and fibrous foods, making them edible and appealing. Some foods, for example certain varieties of cassava and beans, can even be poisonous if not cooked properly. In this respect, therefore, wood for energy is essential if adequate food supplies are to be converted into adequate diets.
Fuelwood is also essential in processing and preserving foods. In fishing communities, for example, a scarcity of fuel for drying and smoking fish, by far the two most widely used preservation methods in the developing countries, can effectively limit the utilizable daily catch.
However, fuelwood scarcity is not an isolated problem; where wood is in short supply, food and time are apt to be scarce as well. Forestry strategies that attempt to deal with fuelwood shortages alone seldom attract farmer interest. Farmers realize that trees, even those that produce fruit or other products, all provide some wood for cooking. Therefore, strategies that emphasize the use of multipurpose trees to address various locally identified needs are more likely to gain support (FAO 1988c).
Sustaining agricultural production
Beyond the direct contribution of food, trees and forests play a critical role in ensuring sustained agricultural production, including animal husbandry and, in some instances, fisheries.
Under the most basic forms of agriculture, where land availability allows a relatively low labour strategy to work effectively, shifting cultivators alternate cropping with fallow periods in which tree cover is allowed to regenerate and restore soil fertility. As land pressure increases, forcing a move toward continuous cultivation, various forms of intercropping develop. On hillsides in Haiti and the Philippines, living hedgerows of Leucaena leucocephala stabilize soil on terraces and increase fertility, allowing farmers to produce crops on a sustainable basis on what would otherwise be marginal farmland. In Nigeria, research centres have developed an extremely intensive intercropping system in which trees and crops are grown in alternating rows. This system uses the leaves of the trees as green manure to enrich the soils and enhance crop production (Ngambeki 1985). However, to be valid under field conditions, intensive approaches such as this require secure long-term use rights to land which is a luxury not available to most shifting cultivators.
Trees are also used to protect crops from wind damage. For example, in the Antilles, Argentina, China, India, the Niger, Papua New Guinea and Tunisia, the use of trees as shelter-belts has resulted in increases in grain production ranging from 30% to 200%. In Algeria, China, India, Mauritania, the Niger, Senegal and other countries, trees are being used to stabilize dunes and protect soils from being covered by sand.
Of course, the use of trees in cropping systems is not limited to the production of food crops. For example, Costa Ricans plant trees to give shade necessary in the production of coffee and several other crops; Cameroonians use natural forest for the same purpose. Trees are also an important source of fodder for the animals of the world's 30-40 million pastoralists. In the Sudano-Sahelian zone, Faidherbia albida (formerly termed Acacia albida) provides 30-40% of all livestock feed in the dry season (Wending, in New, 1984), while in Mexico Prosopis spp. is the main dry season fodder. Seventy-five percent of all indigenous tree species in tropical Africa are used for browse (Wickens et al 1985).
Under special circumstances, trees also have a role in supporting fisheries, thus ensuring a major food source for many coastal populations. In the Pichavaram mangrove in southern India, for example, 74% of the prawns caught in adjacent coastal waters use the mangrove as nursery grounds (Krishnamurthy 1984).
Thus, tree and forest resources contribute to food security of ensuring physical access to adequate food supplies since they:
- provide a direct source of regularly utilized foods, often in significantly greater quantity and variety than is generally recognized;
- provide essential nutrients and medicines that increase the nutritional impact of other foods, and help to maintain the health of rural people. Medicines from the forest are especially important for populations with no access to other types of medication;
- fill the gap in "hungry seasons" by supplying food during seasonal shortage periods and act as emergency foods in times of drought or other crises;
- yield fuelwood for cooking, preserving and processing foods;
- support sustainable food and agricultural production by helping manage soil and water systems and by controlling wind;
- support livestock systems by providing fodder, especially during seasonal shortages in arid and semi-arid zones;
- provide a storehouse of genetic resources for the improvement of domesticated food crops.
Abosede, A.O. & Akesode. 1986. Self-medication with Agbo-Jedi in Lagos, Nigeria. J. Research on Ethnomedicine, 1(1).
Falconer, J. 1990a. "Hungry season" food from the forests. Unasylva, 41 : 14-19.
Falconer, J. 1990b. The major significance of "minor" forest products. Community Forestry Note 6. Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome, 232 pp
FAO. 1983. Food and fruit-bearing forest species. FAO Forestry Paper No. 44/1. Rome.
FAO. 1984. Food and fruit-bearing forest species. FAO Forestry Paper No. 44/2. Rome.
FAO. 1986a. Food and fruit-bearing forest species. FAO Forestry Paper No. 44/3. Rome.
FAO. 1988a. Proc. FAO/Khon Kaen University Workshop on Nutrition in Forestry, Khon Kaen, Thailand, 18-21 October 1988. ESN/NIF/88/27. Rome. FAO.
FAO. 1988b. Forestland for the people. A forest village project in Northeast Thailand. Bangkok, Thailand, Bureau regional de la FAO for Asia and the Pacific.
FAO. 1988c. Planning self-help fuelwood projects in Asia. Based on the Workshop on Planning self-help Fuelwood Projects in Asia, Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen, Thailand, 2-13 February 1987. Bangkok, Thailand, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
FAO. 1988d. Report of the Expert Consultation on Forestry and Food Security. Trivandrum/Bangalore ,India, 7-20 February 1988 . Rome, FAO.
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Hoskins, M. 1985. The promise in trees. Food and Nutrition, 11(2): 44-46.
Krishnamurthy, K. 1984. Humans' impact on the Pichavaram mangrove ecosystem: a case study from southern India. Proc. Asian Symposium on Mangrove Environment, Research and Management. Kuala Lumpur , 25-29 August 1980, p. 624-632.
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Ngambeki, D.S. 1985. Economic evaluation of alley cropping Leucaena with maize and maize-cowpea in southern Nigeria. Agric. Systems, 17: 243-258.
Niamir, M. 1989. Herder decision-making in natural resource management in arid and semi-arid Africa. Rome, FAO, Forestry Department.
Sène, E.H. 1985. Trees, food production and the struggle against desertification. Unasylva, 37(150): 19-26.
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Wickens, G.E. et al. (eds). 1985. Plants for arid lands. Proc. Kew Int. Conf. on Economic Plants for Arid Lands. London, Allen and Unwin.
Widagda, L.C. 1981. An ecosystem analysis of West Javanese home gardens. Document de travail. East-West Centre, Environment and Policy Institute.
This article is excerpted with the gracious permission of the publisher and author from:
Hoskins, M. 1990. The contribution of forestry to food security. Unasylva 160, Vol. 41 - 1990/1. FAO, Rome. Web site: fao.org/docrep/t7750e/t7750e02.htm
About the author
Marilyn Hoskins is an anthropologist with a communications background who has dedicated her professional life to working in the area of local governance and community development with equity, especially in relation to the interface between the local men and women and the tree and forest resources upon which many of them depend. Within the field of community forestry she has worked on a number of issues related to policy, planning and field activities including food security, local/communal management, tenure and access, gender and equity, conflict management, local organization, communications (both up and down), participatory training of professionals and communities, markets and information systems to improve local incomes from various forest products and small scale enterprises, and social science tools including RRA and PRA. She has carried out research and has designed, managed, backstopped, monitored and evaluated programs and projects. She has developed, organized and carried out training, courses, seminars and workshops.
She lived five years each in Southeast Asia and West Africa and has worked in community development in over 40 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and is now also working with forestry issues in the United States. In 1978-79 she helped design the community forestry program of the United Nations and then joined the Food and Agriculture organization in Rome (1984-1996) to further develop and manage that multi-million dollar, multi-donor global program within the Policy and Planning Division of the Forestry Department. Previously (1980-1984) she was the Title XII International Development Chair at Virginia Tech and initiated and coordinated their Participatory Development Program after having established and managed her own consulting company Diversified Development Services (1978-84). In 1996 she returned to the US where she writes and lectures to universities and international meetings and continues work with FAO, USAID, World Bank and various forestry and community NGOs including Ford Foundation. Her current focus is on policy and planning issues for more successful both long and short term community benefits, social capital, communal management of forest and other natural resources and issues of monitoring and evaluation of participatory activities.
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