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Blog Post
8 December 2017
Author: Linda Hansson

Forest and food, a matter of social justice?

Photo by Joe Nkadaani/CIFOR.

Forest foods in Zambia are diverse and nutrient rich. At a food fair in Luwingu, Zambia, in April 2017, women display items they regularly forage and cultivate.

When it comes to food security, forests can be a life-saver. Forests provide fruits, leaves, nuts and mushrooms. These foods are crucial for nutrition in rural communities, and can cushion against hunger when harvests are low. However, forests are rarely included in food security strategies.

In fact, forestry and agriculture are often managed separately, where one is seen as providing timber and the other one as providing food. That is why access to forest food resources rarely gets into forestry regulations.

With world hunger on the rise again, for the first time in over a decade, we need to look beyond food production indicators to deliver on hunger.

The “Forest for food security – in the light of equal rights and sustainable resource management” session, hosted by Focali during the Agri4D Conference in Uppsala in September 2017, brought attention to this issue, underscoring the fact that food insecurity is more about social justice and respect to human rights than about boosting agricultural production.

We tend to think that solving hunger is about higher yields and free meals. However, many social workers report that it is the same people who come to get a free meal month after month. If you don’t have land for growing food or money to buy it, there is not much choice but to rely on social safety nets.

What is more, we already know that the world produces enough food for everyone. The real issue is that the food is unequally distributed and wasted. We also know that 80% of the food consumed in Africa and Asia is produced by smallholder farmers. Still, it is these farmers and forest communities who represent a big proportion of the world hunger statistics. For them, a nearby forest is something to fall back on.

And so, it appears that factors of hunger are far from the fields. Food security is compromised by unclear and unfair land rights, that often disadvantage women, unequal food distribution, that leaves farmers behind, and regulations, that do not meet the needs of the poor. All of them are rooted in social structures rather than in food production per se. So, ultimately, if we look at hunger as a matter of social justice, solving issues of land rights, gender equity and segregated governance could lead to better outcomes than food aid or agricultural subsidies.

Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR.

Tea pickers from Cianten, within the boundaries of Mount Halimun Salak National Park in West Java, collecting tea leaves in a basket. Starting their day at 6 am tea pickers finish at 10 am and have no other source of income.

Talking about gender

Access to non-timber forest products is essential for women who usually happen to be in charge of cooking and quite often do not own the land. For them, access to forests can really make a difference. What is more, according to the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), when women’s rights are secured within communities, the collective land rights are stronger and the protection of the forest resources increases.

Evidently, when it comes to food security, community land rights, women’s rights and access to forests all go hand in hand. However, even when women have access to forests or work on tree plantations, like oil palm, they are often silent witnesses as gender is still rarely taken into account in the design and implementation of forest management frameworks.

Bimbika Sijapati Basnett (CIFOR), who also presented at Agri4D, highlighted that forestry has a lot to contribute in addressing gender inequality and for achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5. Enhancing women’s inclusion in forestry regulations has proven to have positive effects on public health and economy. Including perspectives and experiences of women is also a source of innovation, which can bring new commercial values from forests, going beyond timber.

Bimbika, as well as her colleague Markus Ihalainen (CIFOR), pointed out that SDG 5 elevated gender issues, but that women empowerment is mostly understood as a means to achieve other goals. Bimbika stressed that “gender equality is a goal in itself!” and that “the synergy effects that are expected from gender inclusion can’t just be passively assumed, instead they need to be built!”

Many of the development interventions aiming for gender equality are designed and implemented at levels where women are underrepresented and have little power, leading to low impact. We must not forget that gender representation and inclusion is not about numbers. Researchers and practitioners acknowledge the existence of the double burden on women. Henrik Brundin (Vi-agroforestry) summarized it with: “When women strengthen their voice in decision making, they still need to mend the household, take care of the children and produce the food”.

Ensuring our policies include women in a qualitative way, going beyond the number of seats in a meeting or job provisions, can make a huge difference for social development. Implementing this approach in one sector, like forestry, is a “two rabbits one bullet” kind of investment because it can have a positive spillover effect on the entire society.

Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/CIFOR.

Photo from the GCS-Tenure Project in Lampung. Women resin transporters, crossing Way Bulak river as they walk carry resin from the fields to the village, for one kilo they earn Rp. 600, – and usually they can carry fifty kilos one way in Penengahan village, Pesisir Barat regency, Lampung province, Indonesia.

Picking power structures

Mamounata Belem (INERA), one of the speakers at Agri4D 2017, highlighted that forest regulation restricts access to forests with the aim to reduce deforestation. What happens on the ground is that local communities cannot use forests at all, neither for foraging nor for making handicrafts. A case in point is an example from Nepal, where the government implemented strict conservation in pursuit of REDD+ credits, which restricted the locals from accessing forests and caused increase in poverty and food insecurity among forest communities. There are similar examples in Thailand and in Vietnam too.

It is useful to apply the social justice lens on land transformation. Moreover, taking this perspective into account is essential when it comes to mitigation strategies, according to Noémi Gonda (SLU). Reforestation and agroforestry practices are effective for climate mitigation, but there are cases when in the race to deliver on climate targets the needs of local communities have been ignored.

Nicaragua, for instance, is one of the countries most affected by climate change, but clearing forests for the purpose of cattle ranching is widespread. Trying to deal with the deforestation and impacts of climate change, the Nicaraguan government pushes poor cattle ranching communities to switch to coffee and cacao agroforestry. These communities are often blamed for the ongoing deforestation and referred to as “in need to be trained” on agroforestry and conservation.

In the meantime, Noémi emphasized, Nicaraguan farmers were socially pressured to deforest by strong capital-rich companies which acquired big chunks of land, pushing the agricultural frontiers of the locals deeper into the forest. “Rather than blaming the farmers for cutting down the forest, which they physically did, there is a need to better understand the power-related dynamics behind deforestation,” said Noémi. This case shows that focusing on smallholders only might not be effective for combating deforestation in Nicaragua. Reversing negative land transition trends is not possible without bringing large agricultural companies on board and without considering social inequality and power imbalance.

Looking deeper into the forest for food security, it seems only fair that people who live near forests can access forest resources. In most cases, forest communities have been doing so for generations and are also the best in taking care of the nearby forests. Because for them it’s a matter of survival.

Once again, we see that a human rights approach is necessary at all levels of environmental and development work. Gender inequality, deforestation, land degradation and, ultimately, food insecurity will not be solved without addressing their root causes, which often lurk in power structures.

It seems that merely increasing the knowledge about the role of forests for food security will not automatically bridge this gap. Having that in mind and putting it against the backdrop of the Sustainable Development Goals, the need to perform multidimensional research, looking into connections between people and the environment, is greater than ever. Because if we are to really end poverty and hunger we need to create societies where human rights and justice are integral to decision making on all levels.

Photo by CIAT via Flickr.

Smallholder farmers in Nicaragua.

Participant speakers:

  • Mamounata Belem, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique et Technologique / Institut de l’environnement et de recherchesagricoles (CNRST/ INERA), Burkina Faso
  • Olayinka Kareem, Phillips-Universitaet Marburg (PUM), Germany
  • Noémi Gonda, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Sweden
  • Markus Ihalainen, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Indonesia
  • Henrik Brundin, Vi-agroforestry, Sweden
  • KEYNOTE BimbikaSijapati Basnett, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Indonesia

This post is part of the coverage of the Agri4D Conference 2017.

Authors
Linda Hansson

Communications Coordinator

Linda is the interim project coordinator for Focali (Forest, climate and livelihood research network) and involved in the SIANI/Focali theme collaboration on “Forests, landscapes and food...

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