We are 'undervaluing' the income rural communities in developing countries derive from forests, according to major survey of 25 countries including Brazil, Guinea and Indonesia.
As a result, REDD-type agreements designed to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation by restricting access to forests could deprive rural households of a major part of their livelihood.
The study, undertaken by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), found that income derived from forest sources made up between 20 and 25 per cent of the total household income of rural communities.
Firewood was most important, making up one-fifth of all forest income, followed by timber (10 per cent), plants and game.
Income derived from the forest was not just important for the poorest households either, but the entire forest-dwelling community.
'One surprising finding of this project is that, overall, forest reliance (defined as the share of forest income in total household income) apparently varies little with income levels,' said study coordinator Arild Angelsen. 'Hence, forest income is not just for the poor but for everyone at these sites.'
Counter to the argument that poverty drives deforestation, the survey also found forest clearance was higher among richer households, with the richest households clearing 30 per cent more than the poorest ones.
Angelsen said the study was a 'warning flag' to the debate on REDD to think more about the livelihoods of local communities. Something that had been lost, he said, due to the focus on carbon emissions.
'People are getting quite a lot of resources out of the forests so it is important that if for conservation reasons you need to restrict access to the forest you should be very careful to find out what are the resources that are most important for poor people and incorporate them. The stronger the enforcement of forests, the more the poor are excluded,' he said.
Countries, including the UK, have been pushing for an international agreement to support REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) projects but a deal has been held up by the wider impasse on a global deal to cut carbon emissions and limit climate change.
For some time now there have been concerns about the impact of forest conservation projects on rural livelihoods, particularly where they cut access for local people. In April this year, Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) released a report showing indigenous peoples and local communities risked being 'marginalised' by REDD schemes in Cameroon.
However, the size and scope of this new survey, which covered more than 8,000 households and took six years to complete, adds new weight to the argument.
'If we want to make things more secure and enforce property rights, the tendancy is for them [the poorest] to lose out. It might be good for those who have a little bit of land available, but not for those who are landless or who are given access rights or informally encroaching on land to gather resources,' explained CIFOR principal economist Sven Wunder.
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