New research on forest-based livelihoods


Prof. Brian Belcher and co-authors Mr. Ramadhani Achdiawan (a current RRU MEM student, pictured) and Dr. Sonya Dewi, have published a new article on “Forest-based livelihoods strategies conditioned by market remoteness and forest proximity in Jharkhand, India” We paid the publisher’s optional open access fee of more than $2000 to make the article available free online (well before its Feb 2015 publication date).

The research involved an extensive survey of 1,206 households in 27 villages throughout the state of Jharkand, one of the poorest states in India. We used a geographical information system (GIS) to do a stratified random sampling of the villages, to control for forest resource availability and remoteness. On this basis, the research assesses livelihoods status (measured in terms of total income) and investigates the absolute and relative contribution of forests and other natural resources to incomes of different socio-economic groups under a range of conditions.

The method is novel, allowing us to analyze the role of remoteness, proximity to forest resources, and social class (caste in our case) in determining livelihoods options/choices generally and forest resource use specifically. Typical household incomes are extremely low, with almost all households below the commonly used international poverty line of US$1.25 per person per day. However, an unexpectedly high (>50%) proportion of total income is earned in cash. Forest products contribute substantially to total income, with fuelwood as the most important forest product overall, broadly consistent with findings in the PEN study reported previously. As expected, proximity to forest is associated with higher forest incomes but, surprisingly, more remote villages do not have higher forest incomes or lower cash incomes than less remote villages. Nevertheless, households in villages with better road access do tend to have higher off-farm income and overall higher household incomes. There is a high level of diversity between households both within villages and between villages. Each village has particular economic characteristics and contexts beyond road access and forest resource availability, such as individual entrepreneurship, village leadership and other social capital and physical capital, as well as negative influences such as the presence of insurgents in the area. The paper also raises questions about the conventional interpretation of “forest dependence” by low income households.

From a policy perspective, it is clear that forests and forest products are important in current livelihoods throughout the study area. This value needs to be recognized and protected. Planning should take into account quality, quantity and availability of forest resources. It remains unclear whether or not the forest sector offers good potential for development or for supporting poverty alleviation/livelihoods improvement. The current environment is extremely limiting due to poor services, infrastructure and markets and the threat posed by armed insurgents. As a result, there is little forest-based enterprise development, or indeed any other types of business. However, there are some forest and agroforest products that do have market value even under these restricted conditions, which indicates that there may be potential for higher and more efficient production, processing and marketing. Looking at the overall situation, the development priorities should be rural infrastructure development and service provision.

While the study did not reveal a strong livelihoods advantage to those with better education, the very rudimentary levels of education and basic health care indicate a high need for improved services. The low productivity of agriculture also presents a great challenge and opportunity for substantial improvements through improved water management and basic agricultural extension. Unfortunately the combination of weak government and the ongoing insurgency in the area present serious obstacles to development.