Non Timber Forest Products

Non timber forest products – the fruits, roots, bark, flowers, resins, and fibres that people collect from forests – make an important contribution to both subsistence and market economies, worldwide. In India alone, more that 50 million people are estimated to depend on forests for non-timber products (hereafter, NTFP). Locally, NTFP can account for 30-40 % of cash incomes for forest-dependent communities, and at a global scale the value of trade in NTFP runs into billions of dollars.

Our relationship with NTFP has a long history – humans were hunter-gatherers much before they learnt settled agriculture. But managing forests for NTFP has only captured the imagination of conservation scientists in the last couple of decades. This change can be traced back to an influential article by Charles Peters and others, written in 1989, suggesting that the long term economic benefits from managing tropical forests for NTFP far exceeded the benefits from converting them to agriculture or other land uses. This provided a justification for tropical forest conservation that was socioeconomic as well, and not just biological: Forests and their component biodiversity could be conserved, while at the same time enhancing livelihoods of forest-dependent communities through their sustainable extraction of NTFP. Enthusiasm for the dual promise of this “good extractivism” has since had to be tempered – it turns out that managing forests for NTFP often has higher ecological costs and lower economic benefits than originally expected. Yet, understanding the constraints to good extractivism may enable us to seek solutions for sustainably managing forests for NTFP. The set of pan-tropical articles in this special collection attempts to do just that.

Shahabuddin and Prasad, review research on the ecology of NTFP harvesting in India, and provide an overview of the kinds of ecological costs potentially associated with NTFP harvesting. There can be direct deleterious impacts on the target NTFP species, either due to over-harvesting, or due to destructive harvesting practices. In India one of the few places where there has been extensive research on various aspects of NTFP harvesting is the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, Karnataka. Uma Shaanker and colleagues summarise a series of studies that demonstrate how the NTFP harvesting can have consequences that range from genes to ecosystems: Trees of three important NTFP species – Phyllanthus emblica, Terminalia chebula, and Terminalia bellerica – showed reduced genetic variability closer to human settlements, as compared to further away, a difference that the authors associate with a gradient in harvesting intensity. This same effect of harvest intensity was reflected in the number of seedlings and saplings of these NTFP species, a sign of whether or not there is a next generation of individuals necessary to maintain the population. These studies also show that there may be effects of harvesting and other associated human use that extend to other non-target species. For example, they describe altered species composition in forests closer to human settlements relative to forests further from settlements, and lower total biomass in forests closer to human settlements relative to forests further from settlements.

In another study, also in the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, Ganesan and Setty describe the case of two species of amla, Phyllanthus emblica and P. indofischeri, which both occur in this area. P. emblica occurs in moist deciduous forests, whereas P. indofischeri occurs in drier scrub forest. Both species of amla are subject to similar harvest pressure, but P. emblica shows very little regeneration of young individuals, unlike P. indofischeri. The authors suggest that anthropogenic disturbances not directly related to harvesting (e.g., fire and grazing) can also have an impact on NTFP species.

Ecological effects of NTFP harvesting can vary according to the plant part harvested. This is illustrated by Runk and others, from a study in the Darién Province of Panama, where the Wounan and Emberá communities rely on several important NTFP such as fruits of the tagua palm (Phytelephasseemannii) for its vegetable ivory, and fronds of the chunga palm (Astrocaryum standleyanum) for fibre that is woven into fine baskets. Tagua harvest does not jeopardize regeneration of the palm, but the chunga palm is killed to obtain its fronds. The authors also draw attention to the year to year variation in availability of certain products, as well as to the variation in harvest amounts, relative to proximity to tourist markets. They use these findings to make the important point that most studies on harvesting of NTFP are based on shortterm observations, made on small populations, which thereby limit the recommendations that can be made on their basis.

But ecological consequences of NTFP harvesting are not just a consequence of the biology or natural history of the plant or animal concerned. Socio-economic factors such as equity in access to resources, and tenure regime, can also have important impacts on harvest practices, thus on ecological sustainability. Rai and Uhl, in their study of uppage (Garcinia gummigutta) rind harvesting in Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka, show that Brahmins, who have tenurial rights in Soppinabettas, can afford to wait until the fruit is ripe and the rind falls to the ground. This way, there is no damage to the trees, nor competition for fruits with fruiteating animals, and seeds are left in the forest to germinate. On the other hand, people – largely lower caste non-Brahmins, as it happens – who rely on open-access reserve forests for their harvest of uppage, are compelled to harvest the fruit before it is ripe, often cutting branches in order to maximize their gains and pre-empt others from getting the fruit. In the process, the trees are damaged, other non-human consumers of the fruit are deprived of their food, future regeneration is jeopardized, not to mention that collectors get less income per kilo harvested for the lower-quality rind from unripe fruit.

In addition to ecological sustainability, there are a variety of other considerations that constrain good extractivism. These include the low density at which most NTFP occur, their low (and variable yields from year to year), their relative remoteness from markets, and the variability in these markets, thereby making harvest economically unprofitable, even if ecologically sustainable. Plowden illustrates this in his study of andiroba (Carapaguianensis) in humid tropical forests of the Brazilian Amazon region. Andiroba seeds have traditionally been harvested for their oil used as an insect repellent and to relieve rheumatism. There is now growing interest in it as a source of oil for medicinal soaps and natural insect repellent candles. Traditional methods of oil extraction yield small amounts of oil compared to mechanized methods, and investment in the required machinery for local processing may help overcome this difficulty.

Nonetheless, the small quantities of andiroba available for harvesting remains a constraint to profits from collection, and Plowden suggests enrichment planting of this species as a means to achieve economic profitability. Enrichment planting of NTFP has also been suggested by Kathriarachchi and others, from SriLanka. They present the case of two important lianas, Calamus ovoideus and Coscinium fenestratum, the former, a rattan used to make furniture and baskets, the latter, an indigenous medicinal plant. Both have been over-harvested in the wild, and the authors describe results from experiments that suggest they can be grown on degraded land, or in buffer zone plantations outside protected areas.

In contrast to andiroba, açaí (Euterpe oleraceae) is a rather atypical NTFP. It occurs at high densities, it grows in flood plain forests in the Amazon region, making it relatively accessible (by boat), and it is a multi-stemmed palm, so it is possible to harvest both its high-value fruits, and the heart of the palm, without killing the tree. However, there is a downside to açaí: given its high value, and the increasing demand for it, regionally and internationally, there is an increasing trend of forest enrichment with açaí, which is converting mixed flood plain forests to near monocultures. While this type of conversion is not damaging or degrading to ecological processes when compared with clear-felling for timber, or forest conversion to ranches, it nonetheless comes at the cost of another native biodiversity. Weinstein and Moegenburg suggest that there may be ways of achieving a win-win situation with açaí, for instance, by invoking market instruments such as certification, thereby providing people an incentive to maintain native diversity.

A win-win situation is something that Uma Shaanker and others also discuss. They stress the need to monitor impacts of harvesting at several scales in order that they can be mitigated or prevented. In fact, Uma Shaanker et al. suggest that a win-win situation is not merely achievable, but essential, for both ecological security and livelihood security in the long term.

Originally published as:

This is a summary of a special section on “Non-Timber Forest Products” in Conservation and Society 3.2, edited by Ankila Hiremath.

This article is from issue


2007 Jul