Forests have, historically, had a very important role in food security in upland areas of South and Southeast Asia – both as sources of wild food and as sites for grazing, planting food trees and bushes, and various types of shifting agriculture. However, since at least the early 20th century, agricultural development and forest management have been treated as discrete policy areas, with separate institutions. This brief shows how natural resource management policies and institutions influence livelihoods and food security for communities in upland areas of Thailand, Vietnam and Nepal.
In Thailand and Vietnam, forest protection and management policies since the 1980s have led to the resettlement of communities living in or close to forests, prohibiting forest-based livelihoods and encouraging a shift to intensive agriculture. In Nepal, in contrast, such forest-based communities have not been resettled, and community forest management is widespread; however, these communities still face multiple restrictions on their access to the forests, e.g. limitations of the traditional practices of grazing in the forest. In all three countries, forest and agricultural land are discrete land-use classifications, and there is no classification for integrated land use or agroforestry. Hence no form of agricultural activity is permitted within areas classified as forest. This is influenced by the dominant international discourse that treats forests only as sources of timber, sites of biodiversity conservation or carbon sinks. While community management of forests has gained ground in some places, it generally does not include a mandate to develop the food security and livelihood potential of forests. Even non-governmental organizations advocating for the rights of forest people tend to limit their demands to the right to manage forests for protection purposes.
The evidence of the fieldwork suggests that to allow villagers to re-orient their livelihood strategies to boost food and income security, policies and institutional approaches should enable a shift from intensive cultivation of marginal areas to more integrated land use. Forest officials in all three countries commented that food security issues lay outside their mandate, which means lost opportunities for developing forests to contribute to food security. Many of the interviewed farmers, village leaders and government staff argued that policies should support upland forest communities in making a living from the forest, and develop integrated forms of land use, like agroforestry, in order to reduce the amount of exposed agricultural land. This would reduce the risk of crops and soil being lost to flash floods, landslides and drought. They believe that in upland areas, agroforestry landscapes are less sensitive to climate-related risk than landscapes where forest and farmland are segregated.