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Fruits of the forest: Beyond timber

A.Z.M. Obaidullah Khan
Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative
FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

It is a great pleasure for me to welcome all of you to the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, and to this "Regional Expert Consultation on Non-Wood Forest Products: Social, Economic and Cultural Dimensions."

It is extremely heartening to see the outpouring of interest in this topic and this particular meeting. When we originally planned this consultation, we anticipated having approximately 20 to 25 participants. It appears that we have perhaps three times that number actually in attendance. And since I know that FAO's budget for the meeting was not increased, I can only conclude that a great number of you are here at your own expense, or under funds provided by other organizations. For this, we are very grateful and encouraged. It reinforces our strong belief in the importance of this meeting and the topics to be addressed.

This is the second time that the FAO Regional Office has organised an expert consultation on non-wood forest products. Three years ago, specialists from 11 Asian countries also met here to discuss forest products other than timber. That consultation focused primarily on the biological resources themselves and management aspects of non-wood forest products. While it did a good job of elucidating basic information on non-wood forest products, it was largely a meeting of foresters.

While I have nothing against foresters (some of my good friends are foresters), we must acknowledge that interest in non-wood forest products transcends the narrow field of forestry. In this meeting, therefore, we hope to look beyond the biological aspects of non-wood forest products, toward the social, economic and cultural dimensions. In this respect, we are happy to have a wide range of specialists joining this meeting. In addition to foresters, we have sociologists, economists, marketing experts, buyers of non-wood forest products, researchers, product development specialists, rural development officials, pharmacists, and even a lawyer!

Although foresters never completely ignored non-wood forest products, these products usually received only secondary or tertiary attention relative to timber management. Traditional foresters, all too often, have been mesmerised by timber production and wood prices. It is the modern conservation-minded foresters, scientists, and development workers who seem to have "rediscovered" the non-timber products of the forest.

Historically, forest products which had no immediate commercial consequence, were lumped together as "minor forest products," in spite of their sometimes considerable subsistence value to local communities. The perception of these products is changing rapidly, however. As the late Dr. Y.S. Rao, former FAO Regional Forestry Officer, pointed out a few years ago, "these products have been relabelled as non-wood forest products for reasons with more potent logic than simple addiction to semantic nuances."

To the developing countries of Asia and the Pacific, non-wood forest products provide considerable opportunities for local employment and income generation. Local communities collect, process and market bamboo, rattan, beedi leaves, resins, gums, lac, oil seeds, essential oils, medicinal plants, and tanning materials. Rural people also draw heavily upon the forest for food such as honey, mushrooms, fruits, nuts, tubers, leaves, bush meat, and numerous other non-wood forest products. Recent international interest in non-wood forest products has been driven by the recognition of their immense commercial and industrial possibilities, and their potential to offer alternatives to destructive timber harvesting.

Serious questions remain, however:

· Will this broadened interest in non-wood forest products truly benefit local people?

· Will rural communities retain control over the vast genetic resources with which they are familiar and which they have been utilizing for centuries?

· Will increased attention on non-forest products reduce the rate of deforestation and enhance the sustainability of forest ecosystems?

There are reasons to fear that the answers to these questions will not be positive. It is quite possible that access to timber and non-timber forest resources by local communities may even be curtailed. International patent laws favor those with resources, scientific know-how, and lawyers. As Alan Durling points out in State of the World, "Under prevailing laws, forest dwellers in much of the world own neither their land, nor their knowledge of that land."

The economic value of plant-based medicines, for example, is staggering-an estimated US$ 43 billion a year. But if a traditional healer knows how to cure a disease with a herbal remedy, it is folklore. If a pharmaceutical company isolates and markets the active chemical, it is protected with a patent or rewarded with international monopoly. In the absence of tenure for forest dwellers both over land and indigenous knowledge, biodiversity prospecting, or the current "gene rush," is likely to yield the same results as the past resource booms in the tropics - more poverty, less forest. This is the devastating result that we must guard against if we are to successfully promote commercial development of non-wood forest products.

Placing local people at the center of attention prompts the question, "What kind of forests and forestry will be needed in the future?" The time has come for forestry policies to be reoriented and redesigned to transform forest-based activities into more efficient agents of socio-economic change. Such policies should contribute to effective integration of the marginalised rural poor into the mainstream of society by increasing the opportunities for them to conserve and utilise the forest resources around them.

More and more, the world is being driven by market forces. There are precious few groups of people, or regions of the world, content to maintain subsistence lifestyles. Increasingly, people yearn to enter the cash economy. For many rural people, forests and forest resources offer the best, or only, opportunities to enter the cash economy.

And because timber interests have long been dominated by the rich and powerful, it is the non-timber forest products that often provide the only practical means for rural people to earn cash.

The key to successful development of non-wood forest products lies in the people themselves-and in their empowerment. Local people must control development programs themselves, based on their own priorities. Most importantly, assurances must be made that local people will, in fact, benefit from the forests. Sustainability can be achieved only when communities using the forest resources recognise the benefits of their conservation efforts.

Some encouraging examples are emerging to illustrate these principles. Here in Thailand, in the province of Prachinburi, for example, a highly successful industry based on growing, harvesting, processing, and marketing of bamboo shoots has developed. Rural people grow and harvest the succulent young shoots on a regular basis and sell them to local canning factories. Chopped, dipped in salt solution, packed in cans, and labelled "Product of Thailand," these bamboo shoots find their way to the dining tables of Chinese restaurants all over the world. The dollars that flow in help Thailand in its drive to become a newly industrialised country, and the baht which the canning factories pay local people help propel the rural population into the cash economy that they so desire.

During this consultation, I understand we will learn more about other encouraging non-wood forest products development, including forest nuts in the Solomon Islands, ecotourism in Fiji, forest fruit preserves in the Philippines, and medicinal plants in Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia. These cases all have one thing in common: local people receive direct, tangible, and immediate benefits from their efforts.

These examples are encouraging, but more systematic support is needed to achieve major results. Much is still unknown about these products, their management, and their long-term market prospects. A determined effort is needed to shape forestry policies and strategies to spearhead effective programs for promoting these products. Foresters, biologists, and researchers have an important role to play in providing data and in advising policy makers and planners on how to accelerate the development of non-wood forest products. Economists can help assess the short- and long-term feasibility for specific product development. The advice of marketing and trade specialists is needed to enhance the profitability of products. Sociologists and development specialists are needed to formulate programs that effectively involve local people. Legal specialists and empathetic legislators must help protect the rights of the powerless and ensure that maximum benefits reach the rural poor. Public officials with strong political will and ethical fortitude are required to create a favorable environment for non-wood forest products development.

This consultation embraces a large number of these groups of people. We look forward to learning from your experience and expertise, and we hope that you will help us form a sound framework for the sustainable and sound development of non-wood forest products.

Finally, lest we lose sight of the deep-rooted and critically important cultural aspects of non-wood forest products, I would like to conclude with another quote from the late Dr. Y.S. Rao, one of the most eminent Asian foresters of recent times:

"Our quest should be directed toward discovering and rediscovering the cultural memory and the nature of dependence of forest communities on forest resources, and how we can foster a new and shared consciousness about wise use of these resources. If we assume that the relationship between these forest cultures and nature around them is governed solely by the exigencies of need, such understanding could be characterised as shadowy and partial. For at least some of these communities, the forests and the sacred trees they contain, serve as images of the cosmos, symbols of the inexhaustible source of life's force."

The key to successful development of NWFPs lies in the people themselves - and in their empowerment


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