UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Forest dependence and forest degradation in southern Malawi Nerfa, Lauren


Rural small-holder farmers in the tropics rely on forests for multiple ecosystem services, such as provisioning services for fuelwood, timber, wild foods and medicinal plants. Yet many of these forests are undergoing degradation and loss, thus jeopardizing long-term ecosystem functioning and services. Measuring levels of forest dependence in agricultural communities is key to understanding livelihood sustainability and potential approaches to forest-based poverty alleviation. Understanding the ecological changes in forests where communities collect forest products, particularly fuelwood, is important for identifying approaches to forest conservation. To address these issues, I conducted social and ecological research in southern Malawi. I conducted household surveys (n=157) in agricultural communities to assess levels of forest dependence. I developed a new index to measure forest dependence that incorporates: the diversity of forest products collected to meet household needs, the effort involved in collection, relative wealth, and alternative livelihood strategies. I compared the index values for the study area to relative forest income values, the proportion of total income comprised by forest-derived income, which is the commonly used measurement of forest dependence. I showed that the relative forest income approach may underestimate levels of forest dependence, and that my new index provides insights into additional livelihood aspects of household forest dependence. I investigated tree species richness, abundance, diversity, composition and aboveground carbon (AGC) in forest plots (n=86) in the miombo woodlands where the farming communities harvest fuelwood, and compared them to reference sites in relatively undisturbed forests. I investigated whether proxies for harvesting access (elevation and distance to the main road) and harvesting pressure (number of settlements within a 3 km buffer) were correlated with the vegetation characteristics in the fuelwood harvesting sites. Tree species richness, abundance, diversity and AGC were lower in fuelwood harvesting sites than reference sites, species composition was significantly different, and the proxies for harvesting pressure and access were correlated with species abundance and AGC. The findings suggest that long-term sustainability of forest collection may be hindered due to forest degradation, which is problematic given the high forest dependence in the area. Interventions to increase sustainability of the social-ecological system could be explored.

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