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Linkages between domestication and commercialization of
non-timber forest products: implications for agroforestry

R.R.B. Leakey and A-M.N. Izac
ICRAF, PO Box 30677
Nairobi, Kenya


People throughout the tropics have depended on their indigenous plants for food security and a host of everyday products, from medicines to fibres. The study of these uses is the domain of ethnobotany, while their place in trade is that of economic botany. Trees, in particular, have been an important group of plants meeting the needs of hunter-gatherers, subsistence and small-scale farmers. Too often scientists have overlooked the needs of people for these products, and considered that'access by farmers to modern inputs such as improved livestock, crop varieties and hybrids, fertilizers, and pest control measures, as well as credit, technical assistance, and improved farm management practices are essential components of a successful strategy to meet food production and development goals' (Pinstrup-Anderson 1993).

With the ravages of deforestation the overlooked indigenous plant resources have come under severe pressure, made worse by the growing numbers of people in tropical countries, many of whom depend upon these sources for fulfilling some of their basic needs. These pressures have led to the concept of domesticating many of these indigenous plants (Leakey & Newton 1994a, Leakey & Jaenicke 1995, and the papers of this volume) and incorporating them in agroforestry systems (Sanchez 1995, Sanchez & Leakey in press) primarily for the benefit of small-scale, resource-poor farmers. This represents a new paradigm for feeding the world. Instead of focusing on a limited number of highly domesticated crops, often grown in monocultures, this new paradigm is based on a much greater diversity of plants, including many partially domesticated tree crops providing an array of products for consumption and trade. Is this a viable option?


In 1992, a conference pulled together the growing amount of biophysical information on the techniques to domesticate a wide range of these overlooked'Cinderella' tree species (Leakey & Newton 1994 a, b) and indicated that this could be the start of a woody-plant revolution (Leakey & Newton 1994c), to match the importance of the very successful'Green Revolution'. Many people and organizations are increasingly publishing information about the use, domestication and marketing of non-timber forest products (NTFPs): see for example the references quoted in the papers of this proceedings. This groundswell of activity augurs well for the future; both for resource poor people in the rural and urban tropics and for the forests which currently bear the brunt of exploitation. However, despite this level of interest among biophysical scientists there is a need, as pointed out by Dewees and Scherr (1996), for policy scientists to'stretch their conceptual framework . . . and to consider more carefully the links between markets, the environment, household production and household welfare'.


Many of the products from Cinderella trees are already sold on local and regional markets, and a few have broken through into the international marketplace. For example, while the pulp of the bush mango (Irvingia gabonensis) is eaten fresh, its extracted kernels and those of the related species I. wombolu, are traded regionally throughout the year. From Cameroon, this trade extends to Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon (Falconer 1990, Ndoye 1995). Similarly, the trade of kola nuts extends from humid zone countries of west Africa up into the dry zone where there is a big demand by the muslim community (Falconer 1990). Chewing sticks likewise are traded northwards in West Africa, with a street value put on the trade from Kumasi market in Ghana of about US$ 9 million per year (Falconer 1992). Again in Cameroon, the bark of Prunus africana (pygeum) is exported to Europe where pharmaceutical products estimated to be worth $150 million per year are produced for worldwide trade and treatment of prostate gland disorders (Cunningham & Mbenkum 1993). In southern Africa, some indigenous fruits are marketed locally as wines and jams, with a liqueur from Sclerocarya birrea fruits (`marula') now on the international market. In Amazonia, products from the peach palm (Bactris gasipaes) are also being exported. The palm heart trade has been estimated at around USD 50 million per annum (Clement & Villachica 1994), with the fruits also having a similar value.

It is clear from these few examples that NTFPs have a place in the economies of tropical countries. Those being traded internationally usually involve some processing, either before or after exportation. Currently, most of these products are being collected in the wild, and of the above examples only peach palm is being grown purposefully for export markets. These examples indicate that one possible way of increasing the welfare of smallholder farmers would be to undertake research on two complementary topics, namely, the domestication of selected tree species by improving specific traits (e.g., quality, extension of period of production, etc.) and the marketing and processing of the NTFP from these selected species to expand the trade for their products and so provide farmers with greater economic opportunities.

Initiating domestication and commercialization

The problems that arise in devising a programme of domesticating or commercializing NTFPs are twofold: which species are the most appropriate for domestication and which of all the possible traits that could be improved by genetic selection, are likely to provide the necessary incentive for market expansion. The first of these problems can probably be answered, at least from the producers' perspective, by consulting a range of actors, including farmers and researchers. Consequently ICRAF has developed guidelines to identify farmer priorities and to modify these according to the scientific knowledge of the species we have and existing market information (Franzel et al. 1996). The second problem is perhaps more difficult. Again, the farmers perspective is useful, but the farmer and the entrepreneur are likely to have very different viewpoints. Consulting with farmers is relatively easy for agroforesters, and certainly farmers know that trees differ in their fruit size, flavour, yield and periodicity of production. This is important information, and even more important is the assistance of the farmer in the identification of individual trees with these different characteristics. Increasingly, farmers' rights and national sovereignty over germplasm are issues of great importance to domestication programmes, which have to be addressed.

In addition to the farmers' perspective, it is essential to obtain the industry's ideas on what is important. This is much more difficult. Agroforesters working in tropical countries seldom meet the people responsible for product development in, for example, the food industry. Furthermore, when they do meet, their motivations and objectives are so different that it is not easy for them to work together.

A'chicken or egg' situation

Before embarking on the domestication of a tree, the agroforester needs to ascertain whether it is likely that there will be a market for its products, while the industry that develops the market wants to know that there is a minimum reliability of supply for a uniform product of a given quality, before committing capital to developing that market. It was our perception of the need to discuss this'chicken or egg' situation that was the inspiration for organizing this conference. Unfortunately, few industrial companies were able to attend the conference. Nevertheless, some progress was made in thinking about the impact on small-scale, resource-poor farmers of domesticating and commercializing NTFPs.

Perhaps the most important outcome of the Working Group sessions (see Reports in this volume) was the debate on the fate of small-scale farmers practising agroforestry, if domesticated trees became commercially attractive to international companies who see large-scale monocultural plantations as the most profitable production option.

Domestication and commercialization: a poverty trap?

There are many definitions of'domestication' (see Leakey & Newton 1994a) and it is clear that the process has evolved as man has become more intimately associated with plants and animals. The steps in this evolution can, in general, be identified as:

This pattern is not followed in every case, and to date relatively few tree species have progressed beyond the fourth or fifth step. However, associated with the later steps we find the development of extensive commercial activity, the start of processing and the expansion of trade. Commercialization is both necessary and potentially harmful to farmers. It is necessary in that without it the market for products is small, and the opportunity does not exist for rural people to make the money they need to pay for the things that will increase their standard of living. A degree of product domestication is therefore desirable. On the other hand, commercialization is potentially harmful to rural people if it expands to the point that outsiders with capital to invest come in and develop large-scale monocultural plantations for export markets. Rural people may benefit from plantations as a result of greater available employment and hence off-farm income, and from the better infrastructure that is associated with plantation agriculture, (that is, schooling, health clinics, and so forth). However, plantations, like monopolies, may also distort market forces to their advantage (for example, by imposing low wages, which will restrict the social and economic development of local people). The major beneficiaries of large-scale exports will probably be the country's elite and, perhaps, the national economy. While expansion of the national economy is of paramount importance, would it be possible to identify ways in which both small-scale farmers and the nation can benefit? Agroforestry appears to be an example where this may be possible. If market developments occur that target small-scale farmers for equity reasons, then numerous low-cost, small-scale processing and marketing units could be established within the rural community. These would enable villagers to capture for themselves the value added to the new products and would thus result in an improvement in community welfare. For a tropical country, another equally important advantage of this small-scale rural development through agroforestry could be the reduction of the deforestation and environmental degradation associated with more sustainable land uses. In the past, monocultural plantations have been responsible for massive deforestation and environmental degradation. Experience shows that agroforestry often results in a land use mosaic. However, we do not yet know whether such mosaics are the most efficient and sustainable form of landuse (van Noordwijk et al. in press).

In the broader picture, Sanchez and Leakey (in press) argue that through the combination of this commercially intensified, small-scale agroforestry with an enabling policy environment, and the alleviation of soil fertility depletion, a better balance between food security and natural resource conservation can be achieved, which could transform land use in Africa, where per capita food production continues to decline.

Can agroforestry spring the trap?

Interestingly, two papers in this conference provide examples of industrially important natural products that are produced in agroforestry systems by small-scale farmers (gum arabic -see Seif el Din and Zarroug; damar resin and jungle rubber-see Michon and de Foresta). This suggests that commercial interests and small-scale production, as in agroforestry, are not necessarily incompatible.

Agroforestry has been a collective term for land-use systems and practices in which woody perennials are deliberately integrated with crops and/or animals on the same land-management unit, either in a spatial mixture or a temporal sequence. The trees in agroforestry practices generally fulfil multiple purposes, involving the protection of the soil or improvement of its fertility, as well as the production of one or more products (Cooper et al. 1996). The domestication of these agroforestry trees should enhance their capacity to fulfil either or both of these service or production functions. Domestication should also aim at increasing the social and economic benefits of agroforestry, through improved profitability, reduced risks and diversified sources of income to buffer against crop failure (Sanchez 1995). This will act as an incentive for adoption by farmers.

The other potential benefit of agroforestry is that of the diversification of species grown on farm. Through this, and the domestication of an increasing number of tree species, it should be possible to make small-holder farming both more biologically diverse and more rewarding economically. Through the incorporation of a range of domesticated trees into different agroforestry practices within the same landscape, agroforestry can become, as recently defined (Leakey 1996), a dynamic, ecologically based, natural-resource management system that, through the integration of trees in farm- and rangeland, diversifies and sustains smallholder production for increased social, economic and environmental benefits. Perhaps the best examples of agroforests of this sort are the complex, multistrata damar, durian/cinnamon and jungle rubber agroforests of Sumatra, described during this conference as'domesticated ecosystems' (Michon & de Foresta, this volume). These economically viable, biologically diverse systems suggest that agroforestry can produce NTFPs commercially and in a sustainable way. If we can understand the set of circumstances, including the policy environment, within which this has occurred in Sumatra, it may be possible to introduce domesticated trees into agroforestry systems to produce NTFPs for national and international markets without industrial pressures converting them to monocultures. In other words, the evolution of the domestication process can perhaps be stopped before the step into plantations.

Instead of big is beautiful, this new paradigm is in tune with the African proverb that says:

If many little people,
in many little places,
do many little things,
they can change the face of the earth.

What are the new conceptual frameworks for policy development required to ensure the economic viability of agroforestry for small-scale farmers? Alternatively, under what conditions is small-scale production competitive with large-scale production? These are questions for urgent consideration if natural forest resources are to be protected from destruction and used in a Woody Plant Revolution to alleviate poverty in tropical countries.


Leakey R.R.B. 1996. Definition of agroforestry revisited. Agroforestry Today 8(1):5-7.








W3735e05.JPG (18990 bytes)Plate 2. In Brazil `heart of palm' from
Bactris gasipaes is bottled for domestic and
international markets. (photo: P.A. Sanchez)




W3735e06.JPG (24352 bytes)Plate 3. Fruits of marula (Sclerocarya birrea),
one of the priority indigenous fruits of the miombo
woodlands of southern Africa. (photo: R.R.B. Leakey)




W3735e07.JPG (38876 bytes)

Plate 4. Ámarula', a liqueur prepared from
the fruits of the marula tree (
Sclerocarya birrea),
is marketed internationally. (photo: R.R.B. Leakey)








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