We can no longer count the benefits of forests: barrier against soil erosion, biodiversity reserve, carbon sink, etc. To this list must also be added a more unknown benefit: forests can, as a last resort, feed vulnerable populations, particularly those dependent on the agricultural sector in the countries of the South, which are very exposed to droughts, floods or tempêtes.
These extreme weather events have a direct impact on agricultural yields, livestock mortality, and ecosystem degradation. Faced with these numerous risks, rural populations are implementing a large number of coping strategies short or medium term, such as the use of credit, migration and crop diversification.
Fruits, roots, mushrooms, hunting…
Among these strategies, forests can also serve as an important safety net. Because tropical forests are rich in products that can be collected, in order to be sold on local markets or consumed directly: fruits, roots, medicinal plants, mushrooms, hunting products, etc. The collection possibilities are important and poorly correlated with agricultural yields. Thus, a household whose agricultural production falls due to drought will still be able to obtain forest products.
This activity also has the great benefit of being accessible to the majority of households, even the most deprived, because it requires little investment and does not require any particular skills. Thus the collection of forest products is often described as an option of last resort, for households with little or no access to insurance and credit markets, and few alternatives for agricultural risk management (lack of work opportunities outside the agricultural sector, obstacles to migration, etc.).
350 million people whose livelihood depends on forests
In total, the World Bank estimates that 350 million people worldwide depend on forests for their livelihoods. However, if this collection of forest products can prove to be a good safety net in the face of agricultural risk, this activity remains too unproductive and profitable to become the main activity of agricultural households, at the risk of trapped in a state of permanent poverty.
Furthermore, the ability of forests to provide an effective safety net depends on the level of pressure placed on forest resources. Excessive exploitation of forest products could compromise this role of forests, or even lead to resource degradation.
Compilation of various data
To evaluate the effectiveness of this safety net that forests can be, a recent post by Jessica Meyer analyzes how household diets change when a meteorological shock occurs, and to what extent the presence of forests helps to moderate this shock. To do this, the analysis is based on the case of Malawi and combines three sets of data:
la World Bank LSMS-ISA database on household characteristics: socio-economic status, food consumption, agricultural and non-agricultural activities.
The rainfall and evapotranspiration data to describe weather shocks which are defined as significant deviations from the average of previous years.
- Forest cover data from the forest cover program NASA remote sensing
The case of Malawi is particularly relevant for examining the role of forests as a safety net against weather hazards. With 80% of its population depends on rainfed agriculture, the country's agricultural sector, and its economy in general, are highly vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as droughts, intense rainfall and floods, which are becoming more and more frequent.
Malawi: a particularly convincing case
During the period 2015-2016, Malawi was affected by a flood, followed by a drought, leading to cumulative losses estimated at $700 million according to the World Bank. In 2019, Malawi suffered severe flooding after the passage of the Cyclone Idai, and in 2023, the Cyclone Freddy caused torrential rains and significant flooding across the country.
Additionally, Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to IMF, 50,7% of residents live below the poverty line, and 25% of Malawians are characterized as extremely poor. It is also one of the countries most affected by food insecurity, ranking 91st out of 113 according to the global food security index in 2022 and with almost 18% of the population suffering from undernutrition.
In this context of climatic and economic vulnerability coupled with great food insecurity, the exploitation of forest products can therefore prove crucial to reduce the exposure and sensitivity to risks of agricultural communities in Malawi. Type forests Miombo, which extend over a large part of central and southern Africa, also contain a diversity of resources such as fruits, mushrooms, honey, caterpillars, etc., which can provide an effective safety net in case of shock.
In Malawi, in many areas, access to forests and use of forest products is governed by the customary law and traditional practices. It is also important to emphasize that forests have the capacity to directly contribute to the mitigation of episodes of drought and flooding through their influence on climate.
Climate shocks and loss of diversified food supply
The results of the analysis were able to show that households which experience weather shocks have a less diversified diet: droughts and excess rain have negative impacts on their agricultural activities, which reduces their means of subsistence and therefore limits the quality of their diet. However, the presence of nearby forests tends to limit the negative impact of these shocks on food supply, particularly when it comes to droughts.
Faced with climatic shocks, however, some households remain better off than others: those who own livestock can partially replenish their income through the sale of livestock products. For these households, recourse to forest resources is therefore less necessary.
Other risk management options are also being studied, such as the possession of durable goods (which can also be resold in the event of loss of income) or the ganyu, that is to say the possibility of working occasionally in neighboring fields. Here, the results are less contrasted: the presence of forests makes it possible to reduce the negative impact of weather shocks on food, whether or not households are in possession of durable goods, and whether or not they can use ganyu.
Nourishing but threatened forests
Overall, this work shows the importance of forest resources for rural populations, particularly in a climatic context where extreme weather events are becoming more and more significant. Thus the preservation of forests is necessary not only from a global point of view, for the conservation of carbon and the conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity, but it is also essential for the resilience of populations in the South.
However, forests in Malawi are under significant pressure. In 1990, the forest area of the country represented 37,1% of its territory, while in 2020, this figure had fallen to 23,8%. The loss of forest cover in Malawi can mainly be attributed to agricultural expansion and overuse of biomass, such as wood, coal and agricultural residues used in particular for cooking and heating. Succeeding in combining the preservation of forest resources while allowing access to the most vulnerable populations therefore represents a major challenge for the country.
Jessica Meyer, Doctoral student in Economic Sciences, Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne University (UPEC); Julie Lochard, University Professor of Economics, Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne University (UPEC) et Philippe delacote, Director of Economics Research at INRAE and Chair of Climate Economics, Inrae