Assessing poverty-deforestation links: evidence from Swat, Pakistan

This blog is based on a paper that contributed to the debate on the links between poverty and forestry degradation; the view that due to poverty and the meeting of subsistence needs the poor use natural resources more intensively and hence cause them to degrade. Using the case of forest-rich Swat district, Pakistan, the paper addressed the issue empirically, historically, and institutionally

By Shahrukh Rafi Khan
Published: Sunday 15 September 2013

This blog is based on an essay published by my co-author an me in Ecological Economics (68, 2009, 2076-2618).  We explored the debates around poverty-resource degradation linkages; that the poor are more resource dependent and consequently contribute relatively more to resource degradation.  Our quantitative results show no clear association between income (poverty) and resource dependence.  Utilizing satellite imagery and poverty mapping, we also demonstrate that there is no necessary overlap between poverty and forest degradation.  We turned to a historical and institutional analysis to explain forest degradation.

Our historical analysis starting with the 17th century indicates that selective and rotating ownership patterns provided limited incentive for resource conservation.  However, once the walis of Swat took control in the early 20th century, ownership was frozen and resources were protected by stringent oversight of the forest department they created.

When Swat was administratively merged into Pakistan in 1969, the government declared forests protected and created tensions between customary and statutory law.  They also did not invest in developing the managerial ability required to protect resources.  Given the rapid rise in timber prices, the forest department officials have more incentive to collude with “forest mafias” than to protect community resources.  Furthermore, the lack of co-ordination between the forest and revenue departments and the lack of an implemented land demarcation enables encroachment on forest land for alternative uses via corruption and accommodating courts.

The populist government that absorbed Swat exacerbated the conflict between de jure owners with property rights and tenants or de facto owners.  Unless de jure owners were also de facto owners, the nature of contracts resulted in tension and forest degradation.  Swat district residents depend substantially on natural resources for subsistence use and as an income source.  Such dependence underscores the need both for defining the rights to these resources clearly based on an understanding of local history and institutional evolution.  It also requires instituting sound management systems that avoid perverse incentives.  Only with such policies in place can the current rapid rate of deforestation be avoided and sustainable resource use ensured.

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