When exploitation means preservation

FAO to support UNCTAD's Biotrade Initiative -- helping conserve biodiversity by making it pay

A woman in Ghana carries a bowl of shea butter on her head.
(FAO/18391/P. Cenini)

The best way to protect a resource, such as forests and their biodiversity, is to make it useful to those destroying it. And if they are willing to preserve it instead, they should receive a fair income from it.

That's the thinking behind the Biotrade Initiative launched in 1996 by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Its objectives, in line with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), are to ensure conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, and to ensure that the benefits arising from its use are shared fairly. The Initiative has practical support from the UNCTAD/WTO International Trade Centre, which assists developing countries with the skills needed for trade promotion and export development.

Now, following discussions in Rome with representatives of UNCTAD and the International Trade Centre, FAO will support the Biotrade Initiative's Trade Facilitation Programme. This is intended to enable sustainable trade in biodiversity products and services, through innovative partnerships in product development, processing, marketing and biodiversity management.

FAO already actively promotes a fair-trade approach to the preservation of genetic resources, one example being promotion of non-wood forest products that can be harvested sustainably from the forest. This gives people an economic alternative to cutting it down for either timber or agriculture. Non-wood forest products range from wild honey to fibres used in car upholstery, and include mushrooms, wild edible nuts, berries and bamboo.

Conservation and use of plants like this anemone in Syria, Jordan and Turkey are part of an integrated approach to forest resource management.
(FAO/20595/M. Marzot)

Why biotrade?
The thinking behind the Initiative is that people will be more willing to preserve biodiversity if doing so offers economic advantages.

Elephants are an example. In Myanmar, about 3 000 elephants are used by the Forest Service as working animals. Without wild elephants as breeding stock, the gene pool of the domesticated elephants would shrink, and they would become inbred; their quality as working animals would decline. So elephants in the wild have been protected.

Another example is the karite, or shea nut, tree. It grows over much of West Africa -- including ecologically sensitive areas on the fringes of the Sahara, where trees are vital.

Karite demonstrates how sustainable exploitation of a resource may help preserve it, according to Paul Vantomme, FAO's expert on non-wood forest products. "Farmers often cut trees down to free land for growing food," he says. "But, increasingly, they are tolerating karite trees in their fields because the nuts provide an edible oil. That oil can also be processed into shea butter, which can be used as a substitute for cocoa butter in chocolates, and in cosmetics. If local farmers earn enough from the income this generates, they will integrate the trees with agriculture. This is now happening."

The next step, says Mr Vantomme, may be that farmers start growing a plant in which they previously had no interest -- or even considered a nuisance. "A "crossover" situation has arisen in which some potentially threatened plants (such as kola nuts in West Africa) are farmed and traded, but wild ones continue to grow in nearby forests. This is good, as the wild populations can be used to maintain the genetic health of the farmed crop."

The principle does not apply solely to forests, but they offer particular potential because they are a critical reservoir of biodiversity. And non-wood forest products are an important business. In 1990/91 the value of the total recorded trade in such products was estimated at US$11 billion. To put this in context, the global coffee-bean trade was then worth about US$17 billion.

Challenges to biotrade
The Rome discussions on the Trade Facilitation Programme centred on a number of key issues concerning sustainable trade in biodiversity and forest products.

Trade in a threatened resource must have sufficient value for it to be worth preserving. But at the same time, the trade may have to be limited, precisely because so is the resource. Species yielding non-wood forest products tend to grow at low densities -- especially in tropical forests. This means there will not be large commercial quantities. So these products must be aimed at niche markets that can be profitable in small quantities. This could include, for example, forest plants used for high-value medicines and herbal remedies.

It is also important to determine where the limits of sustainable harvesting lie for a given wild product. And the technical tools for assessing those limits must be developed and transferred. After this, there must be ways to certify that harvesting is sustainable, in order to set standards for labelling -- but it is difficult to certify products gathered in the wild.

Finally, new initiatives are needed to market unfamiliar products.

Many of these issues should be addressed by the joint activities provisionally agreed to at the meeting. They include:

  • Improving terms and definitions for non-wood forest products, essential for international trade. Work will focus on adding to the classifications already listed by the World Customs Organization.
  • Clarification of certification and labelling issues. Consumers must know that what they are buying was harvested sustainably.
  • Development of benefit-sharing arrangements. These are mechanisms to ensure that those who harvest resources with care receive a fair share of the income. These arrangements also cover, for example, farmers' rights to use commercial varieties of crops developed with genetic material they have helped preserve.
  • Possible joint promotion of trade in key non-wood forest products.

"If this collaboration develops," says Paul Vantomme, "it will help us to help local communities become partners in conservation -- and raise their own living standards at the same time."

4 September 2001

Related links

 FAO Home page 

 Search our site 

Comments?: Webmaster@fao.org

©FAO, 2001