Forests and Human Health January-09-2012

Features and Commentary

Forests are more than just carbon

The United Nations General Assembly named 2011 as the International Year of Forests. Interest in the world’s forests has grown to unprecedented levels as people are slowly realizing that forests are more than just carbon.

The concept of forest production has widened to encompass all types of wood and non-wood forest products. Non-wood forest products (NWFPs) are defined as ‘goods derived from forests that are tangible and physical objects of biological origin other than wood’. In FAO’s latest Global Forest Assessment 2010 (FRA) report, a total of 92 countries representing 79% of the total forested area of the world, reported data on non-wood forest products. Food was by far the largest of the ten most reported categories; the others included exudates, ornamental plants, etc.

Asia accounted for the largest share of NWFP removals by volume, being almost exclusively of plant origin. Africa, mainly Northern and Eastern, provided data which show that NWFPs like food, medicinal plants and aromatic plants are important there too. Of the 50 European countries, 31 provided information on their removals of NWFPs. Also here, food is the most important category. The Americas and Oceania reported that tree exudates, food and fibre materials are most frequently utilized. However, many non-wood forest products are used and consumed non-commercially, so the figures reported are often a significant underestimate of the full range of non-wood forest products and their volumes.

According to the report, the total value of forest product removals in 2005 was US$121.9 billion, about 15% coming from NWFPs (about US$18.5 billion). However, information is still missing from many countries where NWFPs are highly important and the true value of subsistence use is rarely captured. Asia and Europe accounted for some 20-26% of the total value of NWFPs, the lowest figures coming from North and Central America, about 4%.

Five major categories accounted for 90% of the total value of NWFP removals: food products 51%, other plant products 17%, honey 11%, ornamental plants 6%, and exudates 4%.

At the country level, China and Russia accounted for about half of the global value of NWFP removals and 23 countries for 96% of the global total. The significant values cited clearly underline the importance of this sector for national economies, rural development and poverty alleviation.

FAO (2010) Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010 – Main report, Forestry Paper 16, pp. 103-107.

New messages from international organizations

The Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) stated in October 2011 that forests can play an even greater role in feeding the world, with products ranging from vitamin-rich leaves to fruits and roots. According to UN reports, there are over 1.6 billion people in the world, whose livelihoods depend on forests. For the rural poor, access to food, fuel, water and medicine is vital; forest products often help these basic subsistence needs.

Apart from FAO, the UN-backed CPF includes the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and the UN-backed Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Other members include the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

CIFORThe Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) recently released a new message, according to which more attention to forest foods and services can improve food security in poor nations. CIFOR emphasized that forests can play an even greater role in feeding the world and helping farmers cope with climate change, but their potential to do so has not been fully realized. In the world, there are still nearly one billion people suffering from chronic hunger.

Forest foods and wild animals form a small but critical contribution to the otherwise bland and nutritionally poor diets of rural people. Furthermore, the processing of tree and forest products also provides opportunities for increasing their income. In addition, agroforestry provides a climate-smart agricultural alternative. Forests also provide environmental services that support sustainable agricultural production.

According to UN Ecosoc 2007 Issues Paper, an estimated 1.6 billion people depend on or live in or around forests and use forest resources for fuel, food, medicine and income. 1.2 billion people use trees on farms to generate food and income. Forests provide multiple ecosystem benefits that form the basis for rural livelihoods in many countries. In almost all of the least developed countries, especially in Africa, the majority of the population relies on wild game and fish products for 20% of protein intake, much of which comes from forest ecosystems. Wild fruits and vegetables are also an important source of vitamins and minerals that can be used by the poor. Fuelwood is the main source of energy for a majority of the rural population in most developing countries. Forest ecosystems also help provide clean water that is less likely to bear disease. However, in many cases, poor management and unsustainable use of forest resources put these benefits under threat.

NWFPs play an important role in filling income and subsistence gaps for the rural poor and in some cases can serve as a foundation for poverty alleviation. A combination of conditions is required to use non-timber forest products to alleviate poverty, including an enabling environment which ensures access and tenure, equitable market access, sustainable use, as well as household capacity for both product development and marketing.

What is the value of forests, trees to human health?

The aim of the European Union’s COST Action E39 ‘Forests, Trees and Human Health and Wellbeing’ was specifically to set out the key health priorities identifiable within European countries and assess how forestry can contribute to meeting them, to engage health policy interests in the identification of information gaps in this field and to develop a network of researchers, and research institutions in forestry, health, the environment and social sciences.

COST Action E39 was carried out over four years by scientists from 25 countries working in different fields, and it produced the groundbreaking book ‘Forests, Trees and Human Health’, published in 2011 by Springer.

Although the book focuses primarily on health priorities as defined within Europe, it also draws on research from North America and elsewhere and will have relevance worldwide. A key contribution of the book is its synthesis of material across both disciplines and nations, providing a vital reference for researchers in forestry, health, natural resource management and environmental policy. It is currently the only unified body of work on this topic.

Nilsson, K., Sangster, M., Gallis, C., Hartig, T., de Vries, S., Seeland, K. & Schipperijn, J. (eds.). 2011. Forests, Trees and Human Health. 1st Edition. 427 p. Springer. ISBN: 978-90-481-9805-4.

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