Newsletter no 24 – Editorial

Forests, foraging and the commons

Illustration: Iwasaki Kan’en, Herbario, 1830

About 75 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas in developing countries. Most survive on subsistence farming, artisanal fisheries and/or nomadic herding and many are landless, working as seasonal labour on farms, plantations, in fisheries and industry. Their daily food needs are met primarily through local production, foraging, hunting and fishing — often by women — on small farms, common grazing lands and in woods, forests, streams, rivers and lakes. Reduced access to these ecosystems or decrease in the foods gathered in these environments can result in hunger and acute malnutrition.

Forests, fields, hill/mountain slopes, wetlands and water bodies — which include rivers, streams, ponds, lakes and seas–are integral to the lives, cultures and economies of rural communities all over the world. They are crucial repositories of biodiversity and literally sustain life. The food, water, fibre, fuel, medicinal plants and roots, wood, grasses, leaves, resin and other materials they provide are the only safety nets that rural populations have in times of hardship. But even in good times and among rural communities that are not poor, wild foods – foods that are foraged, hunted and fished — are significant components of local, traditional diets, and non-timber-forest products (NTFPs) and marine resources are important sources of supplemental income.

Many communities — especially indigenous peoples — have sacred or spirit forests, which house the sources of local rivers and streams. Forests and woods are important catchment areas: protecting forests thus also means protecting the communities’ water sources. Forests are important spaces for local education and knowledge: children learn the value of plants, animals, poisons and medicines by accompanying their elders to forests. The demarcation between forest and agricultural lands is often blurred in swidden cultivation: fields that are not planted become forests, and vegetable gardens and orchards are often planted in forests to ensure hospitable growing conditions. Similarly, coastal and marine communities worship the sea as the source of all life and have elaborate social-economic rules to protect sensitive eco-systems. Here too, children learn the value of different types of fish and marine resources, and how to harvest them respectfully and sustainably. The cosmo-visions of indigenous peoples all over the world respect nature as parents who give and nurture life, and teach peoples and communities to live in harmony with nature.

These practices and the eco-systems that shape them are increasingly under threat from intensifying demands for farmlands, forests and water sources by investors, corporations, and speculators, as well as from changing weather and precipitation patterns because of climate change. The conversion of diverse natural landscapes to industrial agriculture and aquaculture, and energy intensive human settlements destroy crucial ecosystem functions such as recharging aquifers, retaining soil nutrients, sequestering carbon and balancing natural cycles, and accelerate climate change. They exacerbate inequality of access to land and natural resources among communities and between men and women. Local communities are squeezed onto smaller and less fertile parcels of land and compelled to rely on smaller resource bases for food and income. Fresh water reserves are monopolized by industry and the wealthy, creating and exacerbating water scarcity, sparking conflicts among local populations over water, forest products and the commons. Particularly affected are the rights of indigenous peoples to control, use, administer and preserve ancestral territories.

Protecting and regenerating diverse natural environments and ways of eating and living in harmony with these environments are essential elements of food sovereignty. Equally important, they are a direct form of resistance to the commodification and financialisation of nature, and to capitalist markets.

Shalmali Guttal, Focus on the Global South