With almost a quarter of the world's population relying on forest resources for their livelihoods, understanding how forests can improve the lives of the poorest people is an important topic in economic development.
In a recently published World Development article, Nicholas Hogarth and colleagues show that rural households in a poor and remote mountainous region in southern China get more than 30% of their livelihoods from managing plantation forests.
Since 1994, the Chinese government has been engaged in a national poverty reduction plan incorporating a number of important policies to promote forest-based cash crops while increasing both forest cover and the area of forestlands allocated and managed by rural households.
In the 15 years since it established its Priority Forestry Programs, including the national Conversion of Cropland to Forest Program, China has become a huge-and unprecedented-source of knowledge and experience on afforestation and promotion of forest product markets for poverty reduction.
Overall, 75% of people surveyed in Tianlin County in Guangxi Province, where Hogarth conducted his fieldwork, perceived an improvement in their living conditions in the five years preceding the study.
This was due in part to their improving markets for forest and agricultural products, as well as overall growth in national income levels. Tianlin is an area where 80% of the land is classified as forest, and where, at the time of the study, almost half of the population was living on less than US$1 per day.
Among the 225 households surveyed, the greatest source of cash income (over 20%) came from marketing of forest products, compared to around 10% from crops and business respectively.
Although forest-related income was important to households at all income levels, the poorest households got a significantly higher share of their cash income from forests than did better-off households; the poorer the households were, the more important forest income became.
In examining this data, Hogarth et al. reveal that inequality in land ownership and access to off-farm jobs, and market barriers and price fixing, prevent the poor from profiting fully from markets, especially for timber.
Even though China's national policy on land allocation was intended to give more land to larger families, in reality, better-off households have both more land and smaller families.
In absolute terms, the richest 20% of families earn three times as much cash from forests than the poorest 20%. They also derive the biggest part of their income from business activities and have substantial wage incomes, reflecting a very different access to opportunity across the sample population.
The data show that economic inequality in Tianlin is clearly linked to the unequal allocation of forest and crop land; those with more land per family member were invested in lucrative activities such as livestock production and other income sources. But many households were left behind, and continue to live in poverty.
Although 15 years is enough time to measure change and to assess the initial results of China's forestry and poverty alleviation measures, there remains more to be done.
According to Hogarth, much more research and development work is needed to improve the welfare of the rural poor in places like Tianlin and other remote, mountainous parts of China where rural poverty remains stubbornly rooted.
Greater economic opportunities will come from timber markets once stocks reach harvest age. Better targeting of programs of payment for forest services and efforts to reduce the capture of benefits of such programs by local elites should improve the livelihoods of lower income households.
So would better sharing of the total land area. Hogarth et al. suggest that could be achieved not necessarily through a new distribution of land, but potentially through local household-to-household compensation schemes based on the size of local family land holdings, such as have been tried elsewhere in China.
This study is just one of many conducted in 24 countries by CIFOR's Poverty and Environment Network (PEN). It sheds new light on a key topic in world forestry research: how allocating forestland to the rural poor can contribute to reducing rural poverty and increasing overall forest productivity.
The study confirms that forests can play an important role in bringing rural folk out of poverty. While land was unequally distributed and some families were left far behind, even very small forest plots managed by families in Tianlin were important drivers of rural economic development.