Have your forest, and (your livestock) eat it too

Semi-arid forest in Iran provides food and fuel, generating income for rural households and supporting grazing in the dry season for goats and sheep.

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The open, semi-arid forests of Iran’s Zagros region
The open, semi-arid forests of Iran’s Zagros region. Photo: Ali Mahdavi

Forest may not be the first image that springs to mind when visualising the Iranian landscape. Yet, the open, semi-arid forests of Iran’s Zagros region are oak-pistachio savannas keeping one-fifth of households from falling below the poverty line.

This contribution to rural livelihoods has not been well understood previously, so in a study, published in Forests, Trees and Livelihoods with partners from the University of Ilam (Iran), we analysed forest / tree savanna-derived incomes of rural households in the Zagros region. The results were quite surprising, and we needed to get creative about how we quantify income from the forest, when we saw that considering direct income alone gives only a partial picture. Indirect income from forest in-cropping and grazing must be included in order to gain a fuller understanding of the role of this semi-arid forest.

Zagros, Iran. Photo: Ali Mahdavi

We used CIFOR’s Poverty and Environment Network (PEN) survey methods to quantify extractive incomes from these open forests which, lacking timber and charcoal harvesting, made up just 6% of total household income in Zagros. For comparison, among the two dozen of pantropical PEN cases (humid and dry forests), the average forest share in household income was as high as 21%. Less productive forest ecosystem would thus also imply less forest importance in people’s livelihoods strategies, it would seem.  

However, as we discovered along the way, the seasonal indirect forest contributions to agriculture, including cropping on forest soils and dry-season livestock grazing inside the forest savannas were combined economically much higher than the direct forest extraction we had quantified first. The inputs that one sector (forests) delivers into the output of another (agriculture) are not systematically captured in the PEN survey methodology. And forest grazing is barely being marketed as a “forest environmental service”, so we had to use different ad-hoc non-market valuation techniques to obtain realistic range approximations for the income contribution generated in forests for other sectors.


Seasonal indirect forest contributions to agriculture, including cropping on forest soils, increase household incomes.
Photo: Ali Mahdavi

Some 20–25% of total harvested crops In Zagros are planted in selected tree savannas, thus generating 7–9% of household incomes. In turn, all forestlands support goat and sheep grazing in the dry season as a vital refuge of vegetation resources, likely resulting in a household income contribution of 6-10%. Hypothetically speaking, without access to forestland grazing, livestock activities in Zagros would probably have to be downscaled drastically, because the alternative source of purchased fodder is just too costly. When thinking about sustainable forest management strategies, it is thus worth to keep in mind that cattle, as the literal ‘cash cows’ of the local economy, depend heavily on access to these forests during the months when the pastures are not so green.

Goat and sheep grazing on forest lands in the dry season can result in a household income contribution of 6-10%.
Photo: Ali Mahdavi

Seemingly, little economic-quantitative research, especially on the topic of livestock grazing in forests, has been done so far. Given its apparent economic importance, one might want to look closer into those forest-farm linkages, especially in semi-arid and/or specialized pastoralist zones with a marked dry season – including in the Mediterranean. Indeed, I should be very glad to hear of any such studies, so please get in touch!

Read the full paper:
Mahdavi, A., Wunder, S., Mirzaeizadeh V. & Omidi; M. (2019). A hidden harvest from semi-arid forests: landscape-level livelihood contributions in Zagros, Iran Forests, Trees and Livelihoods, DOI: 10.1080/14728028.2019.1571447