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Poverty Times #4

Bringing forest livelihoods to the city

It is not surprising that poor families in rural forested areas would draw upon the nearby trees for income from the use or sale of nontimber forest products like wild fruits, construction materials, or medicinals. but the economic value of these forest products can be captured by the urban poor as well, particularly those who have recently migrated to the city.

A study conducted between 1996 and 1999 in the outskirts of Riberalta, a rapidly growing city in northern Bolivia, showed that households gain a signifi- cant proportion of their income from the collection and processing of Brazil nuts and palm hearts. These peri-urban neighborhoods are peopled largely by poor families, many of them recent immigrants from rural areas. The study found that households benefited from nontimber forest products in two ways: some family members (men, mainly) go out to the forest for a few months each year to collect Brazil nuts and palm hearts to sell to processors; other family members (mostly women) work in the processing plants in and around Riberalta where Brazil nuts are graded, shelled, washed, and packaged.

Nearly 60 percent of the surveyed households participated in one form or another in the Brazil nut or palm heart industries. The poorest income group was the most dependent on nontimber forest products income, getting 47 percent of their income from it. Even the better-off families derived more than a quarter of their income from nontimber forest products.

Many recent immigrants were driven to the city in search of employment after the decline of the Bolivian rubber industry in the late 1980s. New arrivals found that their lack of education and formal training, as well as social stigmas, acted as barriers to entry into most sections of the urban labor force. For these migrants, as well as other marginalized sectors of the population, the Brazil nut industry serves as the largest employer because of its high demand for unskilled labor.

For example, migrants with only primary school education or less relied on nontimber forest products for 60 percent of their income. The dependence of the urban poor on forest-related income highlights the rural-urban continuum that exists in many nations, where environmental income continues to play an important role in the income profile of poor households even when these families leave the countryside.

Source: World Resources 2005: The Wealth of the Poor – Managing Ecosystems to Fight Poverty. Washington, DC: WRI. World Resources Institute (WRI) in collaboration with United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme, and World Bank. 2005.