The ways in which the rural poor in developing countries benefit from forests and farm trees have rarely been spelt out in detail. Yet research shows that those without access to land and deprived of employment opportunities depend heavily on access to forests and to trees growing on common land. The food security of other rural dwellers is improved by growing trees in homegardens and on farms.
Many will be surprised at the complex ways in which fruit, nuts, fungi, leaves and other tree products contribute to nutrition. In many societies, foods from forests and cultivated trees are an important, sometimes essential, part of the diet. This is particularly true at certain times of the year when food is scarce, or when the workloads of those whose role it is to feed the family-usually women-are heavier than usual. In some societies, foods from trees provide substantial amounts of protein and carbohydrates; in others they provide essential vitamins and minerals.
The indirect ways in which forests and farm trees strengthen food security are no less important. First, many forest products-such as leaves, rattan, honey, saps and gums-form the basis of small-scale industries that are important sources of income. The money, particularly that earned by women, is often used either to buy food or agricultural inputs that poor families could not otherwise afford. Both contribute to food security. Forests also provide medicines that, by improving health, help to increase the nutritional intake of many rural people.
Finally, forests and farm trees augment food security by contributing to agriculture itself: they help prevent soil erosion, improve soil fertility, enhance the quality and reliability of water supplies, and help ameliorate microclimates.
It is time that the forestry sector itself took the implications of these findings to heart. This will require considerable effort in terms of rewriting forest legislation and adapting forestry institutions to work for the benefit of local communities. These aims can be achieved by educating policy makers and forestry professionals for their new role, accelerating research and designing forestry projects that involve local people, particularly women.
In a world where many still go hungry, these issues are of great importance. I commend this publication for drawing attention to an undervalued natural resource which can make a bigger contribution to the fight against malnutrition. It will, I am sure, play its part in helping to ensure that the world of the 1990s is better fed than that of the 1980s.
Food and Agriculture Organization
of the United Nations