Located in the humid tropics and at the heart of the sunda shelf, the Malaysian forests are well endowed with rich biological resources, including non-wood forest products. Among others, the non-wood forest produce include rattan, bamboo, palm, resin, tannin, ferns, barks, vegetables, fruits, wood-oil and medicinal plants. Of these produce, rattan, bamboo, medicinal plants and wild fruits are most highly sought after.
Of the 106 species of rattan found in Malaysia, only about 20 species are being utilised commercially. The most important ones are Rotan Manau (Calamus manan), Rotan Sega (C. caesius), Rotan Semambu (C. scipionum), Rotan Dok (C. ornatus) and Rotan Dahan (Korthalsia spp.).
Due to the lack of appropriate inventory methodology, the rattan resource in the country has not been fully assessed. However, information on this resource has been included in the Second National Forest Inventory for Peninsular Malaysia which was conducted in 1982 which forecasted the total rattan resource of 3 metre length/clump to be 2.3 billion clumps. This total comprises of 847.9 million (36.6%) clumps of C. manan, 213.8 million (9.2%) clumps of C. caesius, 320.3 million (13.8%) clumps of C. scipionum, 396.0 million (17.1%) clumps of C. ornatus and 538.8 million (23.3%) clumps of Korthalsia species. C. manan and C. ornatus are found mainly in the unlogged forest, while C. caesius, C. scipionum and Korthalsia species in the logged-over forest.
Besides existing in the natural environment, rattan have been planted in plantations within the logged-over forest and under rubber trees. As at the end of 1995, some 11,499 ha of C. manan and C. caesius are established in this manner in Peninsular Malaysia. In addition, owners of rubber small holdings are also encouraged to plant rattan, under the rubber plantation to supplement their incomes and to date 1,584 ha have been so established.
Rattans are versatile materials and are currently in great demand for furniture manufacturing in the country. They also provide raw materials for handicraft and cottage industries, for the manufacture of baskets, walking sticks, rattan balls, picture frames, mats, hats and other novelty items, which are mainly for domestic consumption. Hence, besides providing gainful employment to the populace, the industry has also generated much revenue to the government, amounting to about RM 91 million in 1995 in terms of export earnings.
As for bamboo, there are about 70 known species in Malaysia: 50 in Peninsular Malaysia, 30 in Sabah and 20 in Sarawak. Of these species, only 12 species are being commercially utilised. The distribution of bamboos is from sea level to 3000 m above mean sea level. In general, they occur in significant quantities in disturbed situations, such as logged-over forests, wasteland or in areas fringing the forest, river banks and hill slopes. The total estimated hectarage of bamboo by forest compartment is 421,722 hectares in Peninsular Malaysia. However, they do occur naturally with the best example being the bamboo stand in Chebar Besar Forest Reserve in Kedah which covers an area of 20,902 hectares.
Similar to rattan, information on the extent of the bamboo resource is incomplete due to the lack of appropriate resource inventory design and assessment. However, as for rattan, this information is also captured descriptively under the Second National Forest Inventory for Peninsular Malaysia where it was forecasted that the country's bamboo resource in forest lands of 6-metre length/stick stands at 1.7 billion sticks, comprising 839.1 million sticks of Dendrocalamus asper, 843.1 million sticks of other species with diameter equal to or less than 3 cm.
There are many uses for the Malaysian bamboos. Bamboo shoots are popular food item while bamboo industries are mainly associated with the production of satay sticks, toothpicks, chopsticks, bamboo splits, basketry, handicrafts and furniture meant for the domestic market.
Since time immemorial man has known to use plants for traditional remedies. These medicinal plants include herbs, vines, shrubs, roots, leaves and barks. It is estimated that some 1,300 species of plants and at least 100 species of ferns are known to have pharmaceutical properties. Extractives from the medicinal plants have been used to treat various ailments and diseases such as diarrhoea, skin complaints, headache, fever, coughs, wounds, hypertension, diabetes, rheumatism, etc. The traditional medicinal plants are especially popular in the rural areas, not just because of the high cost of modern drugs, but also these plants are more readily available in the rural areas and knowledge of their healing power have been passed on from one generation to another. However, keeping track of their production and consumption pattern is rather difficult and is currently not being monitored. Some common medicinal plants include members from the families Euphorbiaceae, Begiminosae, Graminae, Verbenaceae, Solnaceae, Simaroubiaceae, Vitaceae, Malavaceae, Palmae and Rubiaceae.
A variety of fruits are also found in the natural forests. These include, among others, Parkia speciosa (petai), Durio zibethinus (Durian), Mangifera spp. (Macang), Pithecellobium jiringa (Jering), P. bubalinum (kerdas) and Baccauea spp. (tampoi). These fruits are well liked by all Malaysian communities.
As far as trend is concerned, it is envisaged that there will be a greater utilisation of the non-wood forest produce in the future, resulting in a general dwindling of the resource base. It is also envisaged that there will be greater efforts/research being directed at identifying, quantifying and valuing the non-wood forest produce, both in-house as well as through bilateral projects in line with the current concern and emphasis for biological diversity conservation.