By Chris Arsenault
ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Expanding agriculture is the biggest driver of deforestation around the world, and giving local residents greater control over forested land leads to better environmental management, forest researchers said on Wednesday.
An estimated 1.2 billion people rely on forests for their livelihood, including about 60 million indigenous people who are almost entirely dependent on them, the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) said in a 170-page report.
Expanding agriculture accounts for 73 percent of the world's forest loss, the report, released at the United Nations Forum on Forests, said.
Balancing competing interests is not easy in the face of climate change and a growing population, but forests should be viewed as key food producers and thus be better managed, rather than being seen as a barrier to agriculture, researchers said.
"There are countries that are achieving food security while at the same time reducing the rate of deforestation," Eva Muller, a senior forestry official at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, though she declined to give examples.
Giving local residents the power to take decisions on land use is generally the best way to reach a compromise between forest users and farmers, she said.
Local communities have a natural interest in balancing food production and forest cover on their land, said Cambridge University's Bhaskar Vira, the study's lead author.
"There is considerable evidence to show that when local communities are given a clear stake in the health of forests, they look after it," Vira told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Giving women more control is especially effective."
Globally, nearly 80 percent of forests are publicly owned, so governments have the ability to provide local residents with secure land tenure, the FAO's Muller said.
Powerful logging or cattle ranching interests are likely to put pressure on local residents to sell them forested land, and national governments need to counter this with strong environmental protection policies, Vira said.
In some of the world's most vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel in North Africa, trees contribute 80 percent of the average household's income through shea nut production and other activities, the report said.
Food products harvested from forests in the developing world are worth an estimated $17 billion annually, the report said. About 2.4 billion households in developing countries depend on wood or other biofuels from forests for cooking and heating.
Food products derived from forests, including wild animals, nuts, fruits and seeds are especially important for vulnerable people at times of price volatility, war and drought, the report said.
(Reporting By Chris Arsenault; Editing by Tim Pearce)