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Forests and Livelihood

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 10: Forests > Forests and Livelihood

Forests are an important source of livelihood. Some governments and international organizations say the greatest damage to forests is caused by poor people who cut down trees to farm or earn their livelihood in other ways. But when people do not have enough food, income, or other basic needs, the need to survive becomes more important than the need to preserve forests. Sometimes people have no choice but to cut trees, whether to clear new farmland or to harvest firewood and lumber. The blame for forest destruction is rarely placed on industries that take huge amounts of wood or cut down forests for mining, oil exploration, or industrial plantations.

When people’s daily needs are met they are better able to think about the future, including how to care for the environment. People who live in and care for forests know there are many ways to earn a living from the forest without causing too much damage.

In front of a home, a family dressed in rags stands in a deforested area where new seedlings have been planted.
Deforestation causes poverty and poverty causes more deforestation.

Farming in the forest

Farmers in many places clear spaces in the forest to plant crops, leaving the surrounding forest untouched. They farm there until weeds begin to compete with their crops. Then they clear a new plot and the forest grows back in the old plot and restores the soil. This is sometimes called “slash and burn,” or swidden farming.

Swidden farming has been done for thousands of years. But as populations grow and settle new areas, the amount of forest available to farm this way is reduced. Neither is there enough land to let farm plots be reclaimed by forest. Swidden farming has become unsustainable, both for the farmer and for the forest. Communities that farm in forest areas can get better results and remain on their land longer if they use sustainable farming methods.

Protecting forests and livelihood

In the forests of Andra Pradesh, India, villagers clear patches of forest to grow crops. But in the months when there is little food from their farm plots, many people’s livelihoods depend on things that grow in the forest. Some villagers gather and sell wood for fuel, while others use wood to make tools to sell. The way the villagers are allowed to use forest resources is controlled by groups called “community forest committees.”

When the forest committees saw that some areas were being damaged from overuse, they made new rules to reduce the amount of wood that could be taken. The rules were very strict, and many people’s livelihoods were threatened. People who survived by selling wood for fuel and making tools no longer had this income. During the months when food was scarce, these families suffered.

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The members of the forest committees came from these same communities, so they wanted to find a solution that made sure no community member went hungry, but still protected the forest. After many meetings, a decision was reached. Instead of changing the new forest rules, the forest committees would help to improve farmland by building contour barriers to slow the movement of water and prevent erosion. This would make the soil richer and provide more water for crops so farms would be more productive and there would be more food for everyone without endangering the forest.


From a footbridge over a lush ravine, a guide points out sights to 2 tourists.
Carefully managed ecotourism can protect forests.

Ecotourism is a way to earn money from visitors coming to see the natural beauty of an area, or to learn about the plants and animals that live there. Some ecotourism projects bring people only to enjoy the natural beauty. Others invite them to live with people in the community to learn about protecting the environment. Still other projects invite tourists to actively work on projects to protect the environment.

Ecotourism is a good way for forest communities to earn money. But starting and running a project can be costly, and needs careful planning. Tourists require food, comfort, lodging, guides, and lots of patience in dealing with cultural differences. They may have accidents or need health care. Getting tourists to visit requires advertising in magazines or on the internet, printing brochures, and doing other forms of publicity.

Ecotourism projects are not always sustainable. They must be carefully managed so the money they bring benefits the community, not just outside agents or businesses, or a few local families. Successful ecotourism projects often limit the number of tourists who visit, in order to cause less pressure on the community and less damage to the environment.

Non-timber forest products

Non-timber forest products are anything besides wood that can be taken and sold without damaging the forest. This includes nuts, fruits, medicinal plants, and fibers. Communities that have success selling non-timber forest products have found it important to follow these guidelines:

  • Set clear rules about who may harvest and sell the product, and how to best harvest it in a sustainable way. Once a product becomes successful, it is in danger of being overharvested. Collect only enough of the product that it can continue to grow and reproduce.
  • Find or develop a market for the product. There is no point harvesting products if they will not sell or be used.
Harvesting medicine from the forest
2 women and a man gather plants in a forest.

Near the Bay of Bengal in India, many people go to traditional healers when they are sick. These healers make medicines from plants gathered in the forest. One day, people from a non-governmental organization (NGO) came to a village there to help people earn money by gathering these medicinal plants and selling them in the city. By using their organization to sell these medicines, they helped the community make money from the forest without cutting down trees.

The villagers were glad to have a new way to earn money, and many people began to collect and sell the medicinal plants. But they did not ask the healers how to collect the plants without damaging them, and they were not careful about how much they gathered.

In their excitement to earn money, some villagers harmed the trees they collected from. Instead of digging around a tree to collect a few roots some people cut down the whole tree. In a short time, the medicinal plants had mostly disappeared from the forest. This left traditional healers with no plants to use for healing. So the villagers had to spend a lot of money to buy medicines at the pharmacy when they were sick. In the end, the health of both the people and the forest suffered from harvesting plants in a way that did not protect them for the future.