Development is in Our Nature: A Day with the Center for International Forestry Research


In March 2019, USAID welcomed partners from the Center for International Forestry Research to share new findings and in-progress studies on forestry and development.

How might the spread of Ebola in West Africa relate to bat populations? Will converting land to oil palm plantations affect Indonesian diets? And can chickens help to build a sustainable bushmeat sector? After nearly twenty-five years of collaboration, USAID and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) continue to delve into new research questions like these, which helps both organizations work better and achieve more. At the recent “Development is in Our Nature: New Research for Tackling Food Security, Health and Climate Challenges” event, CIFOR Director General Robert Nasi confirmed that working with USAID is one of CIFOR’s “most impactful collaborations.” Both CIFOR and USAID benefit from research on how forest health affects food security, human health, global security and other key development sectors.

At the CIFOR symposium, researchers and collaborators presented new findings and in-progress studies. Staff from across USAID and partner institutions attended sessions on ecology and Ebola, addressing unsustainable demand for bushmeat, forests and wild-caught fisheries and climate change mitigation. A major theme of the day was turning research and data into action. The first session highlighted USAID and CIFOR’s partnership that aims to advance practical research and to respond to the needs of both wildlife and people. Carlos Zambrana-Torrelio of EcoHealth Alliance shared how USAID’s PREDICT project identified the deadly Marburg virus in bats in West Africa, without any known occurrences in humans in the region. Such surveillance supports the capacity of countries and governments to respond to threats and risks before they become significantly dangerous. Additional studies focus on the correlation between forest loss and Ebola, as well as climate oscillations and other potential drivers of emerging infectious disease spread.

The open discussion highlighted research gaps that could guide CIFOR’s work, including distinguishing between causation and correlation of forest loss and disease transference. A top priority, researchers reiterated, is an integrated approach to tackling the diverse threats to human and environmental health. Cross-sector events, like the symposium, provide essential opportunities and inspiration for engagement and collaboration. Presenters John Fa of CIFOR and Robert Cohen from USAID’s Office of Maternal and Child Health and Nutrition also emphasized the value of connecting science to communities, with more in-country discussions and research to build local ability to respond to threats.

Speakers highlighted a similar community focus in the bushmeat session, with presentations by John Fa, Lauren Coad of CIFOR, David Wilkie of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Natalie Bailey of USAID, and Nancy Gelman of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Bushmeat, also known as wild meat, has provided food, nutrition and income for rural people for thousands of years. However, unsustainable hunting threatens populations of wildlife and steals key sources of micronutrients and protein from rural populations with few alternatives. Fa noted that a sustainable wild-meat sector should address several needs: sustainable consumption; the protection of game species in rural areas to promote food security; and the protection of threatened species. David Wilkie presented three scenarios to illustrate how communities in Central Africa consume wild meat. In smaller villages, wild meat is critical to both dietary needs and cultural identity. Communities in provincial towns tend to be more comfortable adjusting to other proteins, but their isolation forces reliance on wild game and, sometimes, threatened animals. Wilkie highlighted the success of raising chicken to reduce this dependence. In larger cities, such as Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Libreville in Gabon, bushmeat comprises about two percent of diets and, due to high prices, is viewed as a luxury item. For urban communities, bushmeat and its distinct flavors connect them with their villages and heritage. While it may make up a small amount of urban diets, the cumulative impact on wildlife is unsustainable. This presents a behavior change opportunity, and Wilkie described campaigns that promote Congolese culture and encourage younger generations to eat bushmeat only when visiting villages.

With USAID and USFWS support, CIFOR has developed and is refining a tool to advance bushmeat research: the Bushmeat Database. The database is an open-access, scientifically rigorous resource that can help researchers and program managers to understand the global scale of wild meat use. During discussion, symposium attendees emphasized the need for data to include more information about key nutrients (beyond protein) that wild meat provides in rural communities.

In her presentation, Kiersten Johnson of USAID’s Bureau for Food Security, focused on a key question to guide future research and programming decisions: to what extent do rural people in the developing world consume wild animal-source foods in their daily diets, such as wild fish, insects, land mammals and birds? Johnson shared how the Feed the Future initiative has begun to alleviate this knowledge gap by incorporating questions about wild animal-source food intake in surveys. The program has already found that Zambian women who consume wild animal-source foods are seven times more likely to have diverse diets.

Amy Ickowitz, Terry Sunderland and Bronwen Powell from CIFOR contributed their findings about forests and food security in Indonesia, West Africa, Bangladesh and Ethiopia. The research has revealed a positive and statistically significant relationship between forest cover around rivers near villages and local fresh fish consumption. These findings suggest deforestation could impact food security more than research already suggests. Adding to this evidence, Sunderland presented research that highlights the connections between healthy forests and productive agriculture and explores how to maximize these benefits.

CIFOR is also studying deforestation, nutrition and wealth in Indonesia, a country experiencing nutrition transition. As wealth increases, largely from oil palm revenue, dietary diversity concurrently decreases, with upticks in the consumption of meat, dairy and meat. These shifts link to increased rates of obesity, diabetes and stunted childhood growth. After these presentations, the audience collectively affirmed the need to build support for integrative programming by better communicating the role of forests for food security. CIFOR also stressed that the goal is to understand how forests support communities—this knowledge can help to guide programming toward better outcomes.

CIFOR’s Manuel Guariguata and Rosa Roman-Cuesta concluded the day by sharing research on forest landscape restoration and fire risk in the tropics. Guariguata cited a significant 2017 paper that ranked reforestation as the most important natural pathway to mitigate climate change. But many factors constrain restoration, including: the need for multidisciplinary teams; a lack of operational criteria and indicators; insufficient technical capacity; and cost. Guariguata’s literature review also revealed a shortage of key data. Reforestation studies most commonly assess biodiversity and carbon storage; few have focused on how reforestation affects water regulation, pollination, firewood provision, ecotourism benefits and more.

Roman-Cuesta granted the audience a glimpse of her in-progress work to identify fire hotspots in the tropics, predict future hotspots and assess fire interventions. Global fire modelling suggests fire frequency, intensity, severity and patterns are moving toward being driven by global temperatures, rather than rates of precipitation. The shift, Roman-Cuesta said, is exponential: Every degree of warming does more to promote fire than the previous degree.

Continuing a trend of the symposium, Roman-Cuesta pointed to the need for a more holistic and expansive understanding of connections across sectors. Finding a balance of goals, projects and approaches across sectors is difficult but paramount, and CIFOR’s research continues to illuminate how integrated approaches can better protect the natural resources that sustain life.

Learn more about USAID’s work with CIFOR.