Key issues

Advantages of versatile forestry
Tomorrow's needs - tomorrow's forests
Obstacles to developing non-wood products

Advantages of versatile forestry

National authorities should ensure'...sustainable management of all forest ecosystems and woodlands,.. giving particular attention to human needs for economic and ecological services, wood-based energy, agroforestry [and] non timber products... Agenda 21, Chapter 11

An earlier report in this series (Forests, Trees and People) examined forests as multi-purpose providers of better livelihoods and prospects for communities in low-income rural areas It drew attention not only to more obvious forest products such as timber, fuelwood or charcoal but also to often overlooked forest produce other than wood. This natural bounty includes fruits, fibres, oils, gums, funghi, 'bush meat', medicines and a host of other goods and benefits.

In many cases, the importance of these outputs to local or even national economies can equal or sometimes surpass that of wood or wood products, yet their worth and potential are rarely quantified and hardly ever factored into investment, development or management schemes at any level.

The present report focuses entirely on these outputs and their promise as positive factors in future development action. It spotlights their social, economic and environmental importance, especially in view of recent international commitments to sustainable development agreed at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, which highlighted necessary points for concerted action in Agenda 21.

Free access to non-wood products is often essential to millions of people in rural areas, especially women and all members of indigenous, migrant or landless groups, whose choices in life would be desperately few without them. As well as catering to dietary, medical and other pressing needs, they can be traded on local markets, creating steady or seasonal employment for many who otherwise have no prospect of jobs or income.

Outside the local community and economy, some of them command high value as specialty goods in the urban marketplace or even in world trade, creating wealth that can (in principle at least) be re-invested in new or improved development infrastructure at every level.

From a resource manager's point of view, non-wood forest products offer scope for innovative variations on the standard repertoire of forestry, agriculture and forest industry practice. They can make integrated approaches to land use, such as agroforestry, still more versatile. They can make sustainable forestry practices easier to promote by enhancing the value and fringe benefits of standing forests, so deflecting local pressures to over-harvest the timber component.

As well as supplying diverse economic and social benefits, non-wood forest products are a vital influence on living world concerns. At the level of primary environmental care, they can relieve human pressure on natural ecosystems by enabling people to use forests and woodlands sustainably (that is, without depleting their regenerative capacity), while still obtaining secure livelihoods.

By providing economic incentives to conserve natural biomass they bolster larger scale action to protect watersheds or prevent soil erosion. They also provide an extra line of defence against global trends like adverse climate change or general loss of biodiversity (genes, species and ecosystems).

Most of today's staple food crops and many standard industrial, commercial and pharmaceutical products originated as non-wood forest products. Doubtless some of tomorrow's staple products will also emerge from this sector, which represents the 'investment account' of our stake holding in the forest gene bank, while regular forestry or agriculture are its 'current account'.


Non-wood forest products can be defined as all goods for commercial, industrial or subsistence use derived from forests and their biomass, which can be sustainably extracted from a forest ecosystem in quantities and ways that do not downgrade the plant community's basic reproductive functions. 'Forests' embraces the global range of vegetation types where woody plants normally predominate.

Changing perceptions

Non-wood forest products are increasingly seen as a distinctive source of sustainable development innovations (below) rather than (above) as a 'grey area' of minor by-products overshadowed by more widely recognized uses.

Non-wood products

To date, development programmes have focused on forests as sources of timber and of fuelwood. Little attention has been spared for non-wood uses. Action programmes involving national and international organizations are needed to spur growth in this sector.

Forest area and rate of deforestation in tropical regions

The world's forest cover is presently shrinking fastest in tropical regions - at an average rate of 0.9 percent a year during the 1980s. FAO studies suggest that loss of biomass from tropical forests over the same period has occurred at an even higher rate than the loss of forest area revealed here. By encouraging slower utilization of the timber resource, non wood forest products present opportunities to match harvesting of all forest products to natural regeneration processes.

Tomorrow's needs - tomorrow's forests

Urgent and decisive action is needed to conserve and maintain genes, species and ecosystems, with a view to the sustainable management and use of biological resource... The participation and support of local communities are elements essential to the success of such an a approach. Agenda 21, Chapter 15

Sustainable forestry will rely increasingly on growth in the use of non-wood forest products alongside timber, fuelwood and other wood products. Such growth will probably continue to depend largely on market forces and natural opportunities coupled with the basic requirements of rural communities and their ability to innovate. However urgent, environmental protection and conservation concerns cannot be relied on by themselves to award non-wood forest products top priority on the 'shopping list' of development investment, still less in the survival stratagems of needy people.

FAO sees market development harnessed to sustainable forestry as the most worthwhile recipe for more and better use of non-wood forest products in the future. In this perspective, non-wood forest products are not thought of as alternatives to conventional forestry, but as offering potential for multiple-use of forest resources (including conventional forestry) to meet the diverse and changing needs of people in a diverse and changing environment.

Examples mentioned in this booklet show the broad range of these options. They are not all drawn from developing regions; societies profit from non-wood forest products (or suffer from their depletion) wherever forests and woodlands occur.

Putting non-wood forest products in the centre of the picture prompts the question: What kind of forests and woodlands will be needed in the future, to take lasting advantage of these choices and benefits and to protect the interests of users who lack other opportunities?


Sustainable development in general aims to create chains of mutual social, economic and environmental benefits at local, intermediate and global levels. Benefits of sustainable development at local level should include the provision of basic needs such as food, water, shelter and health.

The use of non-wood forest products can aid this quest by multiplying opportunities for entrepreneurship, new sources of income and new markets as well as aiding survival and self-sufficiency.

Ideally, poor communities in forest lands should rank foremost among the intended beneficiaries of non-wood forest product development. That does not, however, mean that the needs of these groups can be expected to overrule the play of market forces or the finite carrying capacity of natural ecosystems.

Consumers and traders in distant markets and urban centres may also hold a stake in the development of non wood forest products, as may national exchequers and transnational corporations. It is important, however, that a significant part of revenues from such products is re-invested in improving and renewing the products at their source, as well as in safeguarding the interests of local communities in whose custody forest lands and resources lie.

The NWFP horizon

Non-wood forest products can be classified by source (plant, animal and so on) or by uses, for instance as food, medicines or fibres. This overview symbolizes their great diversity. Vital services such as soil conservation, biodiversity, climate regulation, watershed protection, and so on, are also shown here, though not discussed in depth in this report.

Web of benefits

Main local goods and services that forest lands provide to rural households (based on Campbell et al., 1991).

Obstacles to developing non-wood products

... there is almost everywhere a lack of hard facts, figures and published science-based information about the extraction, use, profitability and potential of non-wood forest products. This makes it still harder to integrate their use into development schemes...

Flawed perceptions on the part of national authorities and forest resource managers regarding the value and potential of non-wood forest products, must count among the most serious obstacles to more and better use of these diverse resources. Even in international circles the attitude persists that their development is a matter of low priority that must wait until other, more 'serious' land use questions are settled.

The same attitude is often mirrored in international agencies or research and development institutes. Some technologists distrust the subject because it hinges on societal factors that can only be usefully discussed in non-technical terms. Some planners and developers have a prejudice against the very idea of 'wild' products because they do not all fit into conventional categories or formal markets, or because they seem to have a retrograde or archaic 'back-to-nature' aspect. On the trade side, major exporters of these products are often cautious about releasing data about quantities and revenue, which they regard as 'trade secrets'.

Partly because of these attitudes, there is almost everywhere a lack of hard facts, figures and published science-based information about the extraction, use, profitability and potential of non-wood forest products. This makes it still harder to integrate their use into development schemes at their outset. Project appraisal techniques exist which take proper account of these products and similar unconventional factors, by building on information provided by local user groups. But these techniques are not widely appreciated or applied by researchers, extension workers and their trainers.

Development can also falter for lack of experienced indigenous users, for example in forested resettlement areas or recently settled pert-urban 'green belts'. In such cases, the wisdom to benefit from NWFP is not inherent and must be acquired secondhand by would-be users.

As already noted, difficulties in securing steady supplies of non-wood forest products can also be impediments to growth in their market use alongside timber and other, more standardized wood products. Their highly local or seasonal occurrence can lead to difficulties in harvesting, storage and delivery. Droughts, frosts or floods may make supplies of the more climate-dependent types of product far harder to sustain than timber.

Commercial non-wood products may also be difficult or costly to transport to the point of sale. Transport costs can amount to as much as 40-50 percent of the overhead involved in trading in forest products, and non-wood products are no exception.

Access and ownership complications can be added to these practical problems. The right to non-wood forest resources and their benefits is rarely specified in detail in forestry concessions, permits or land deeds. Even on acknowledged common land, local traditions can complicate their use. Women, who in many cases and localities form the major user group, are often denied access to the forest because of government legislation which allows the collection of products for subsistence, but not for commercial purposes.

Transport to urban or distant marketplaces can exceed the prices of merchandises in local places. The product pictured here is wild fruit from Sagba senegalensis (Guinea Bissau).

On the demand side, rapid fluctuations in market requirements or consumer fashion can multiply the risks surrounding development of non-wood forest products. General lack of market research, marketing information systems and commercial know-how often mean that entrepreneurs get no early warning of new or changing market needs and trends. Products which may be ideally suited for trade may remain in obscurity while those which have provided steady rewards in the past may suddenly lose their market, leaving many who depended on their trade in ruin.

Like any other land use, the gathering and utilization of non-wood forest products can give rise to competition and conflict. There may be competition with foresters who wish to harvest timber, or between conservation and utilization interests for the wildlife resource. At communal level, conflicts may also arise between indigenous and migrant users or between groups seeking to use the resource in different ways.

The use of non-wood forest products can also have environmental drawbacks. In most instances, it can be justified as a relatively benign use of wild species and ecosystems, but overexploitation, degradation and even depletion of forests can result if extraction practices are not sustainable.

These drawbacks and obstacles to using and developing non-wood forest products are not, however, greatly different in degree from the problems that have confronted other land uses or commodity sectors in the past. The international community can do much to help countries and neighbourhoods conquer these impediments and realize the non-wood potential of their forests and forest lands.