First comparative study in northern boreal and temperate forests shows important role of declining forest resources
Despite gas infrastructure and the availability of commercial groceries, many Eastern European communities still depend on what they can collect from forests and nature to meet a significant portion of their household needs, and even for their survival, a new study shows.
Over the summer, the Forest Law Enforcement and Governance Program (FLEG II) completed surveys of over 1250 households in forest communities in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine as part of its forest dependency study. The group presented preliminary results of the study, one of the first of its kind in Eastern Europe and in northern boreal and temperate forests, in late October.
“Forest and wild products are vital to the livelihoods of many rural people in Eastern Europe,” said Riyong Kim Bakkegaard, the consultant hired by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one of the FLEG II implementing organizations, to oversee the study. “Forests are important for subsistence and cash income at the household level, particularly in areas where poverty and a lack of jobs are forcing many people to move away.”
Across the region, survey respondents cited over one hundred different products they collected from the forests, with the majority being various foods and fuel wood. On average, forest-derived income made up between five and 17 percent of total income in each country, with forest income comprising higher shares of total incomes of certain, especially poorer, households.
While the study found food resources, for both cash and subsistence use, such as berries, nuts and mushrooms comprise over half of the total household income from forests, almost all country samples identified fuelwood as a central forest product. According to the study, fuelwood comprises 17 percent of all forest income and is collected mainly for subsistence.
However, study authors warn that the numbers likely understate fuelwood’s true value to rural households which can lead to underestimations of overall forest dependence. This is a result of complex regulations around fuelwood collection which can discourage respondents from revealing their true level of fuelwood consumption.
Fuelwood is the main source of heating and energy for cooking in most forest communities and is essential to household survival in winter months. Across the countries, national government fuelwood provisions vary and are often not sufficient to meet the energy needs of rural households. In areas with available natural gas, it is often too expensive for poor households to make a total switch to gas for heating and cooking. As a result, much fuelwood is illegally cut and therefore unreported.
Communities also noted that forest resources were becoming less available. They cited reduced forest cover from both legal and illegal logging, overharvesting, especially from outsiders coming to the forest to “cash in” on lucrative berries and mushrooms, and destructive harvesting techniques that increase short-term harvests but hinder regrowth. They also blamed climate change for reducing forest cover, drying marshes, increasing disease and changing the distributions of forest products like mushrooms and cranberries.
“This study brings to light a significant reliance on forests that has gone unmeasured until now and which is at risk,” said Richard Aishton, FLEG II Program Coordinator for IUCN. “It also highlights the importance of incorporating the needs of people most dependent on forests into the policies which govern natural resources.”
The study authors are finalizing the results and hope to make them available to the public in early 2015.