Product file - Mainly for profit

Fibre connections - bamboos and rattans
Mushrooming growth - the trade in fungi
Insect providers - silk, honey and lac
Forest essences - saps, gums, resins, syrups and other extracts

Fibre connections - bamboos and rattans

Many people depend on sale of rattan and rattan handicrafts or other products to supplement their farm income all year round. Others engage in such activities only seasonally or in times of hardship.

In South-east Asia, climbing palms or rattans are commercially the second most important forest product after timber. They are extremely versatile with a wide range of traditional and local uses as building, handicraft and general purpose materials. They also command high value as the raw material of cane furniture. Many people depend on sale of rattan and rattan handicrafts or other products to supplement their farm income all year round. Others engage in such activities only seasonally or in times of hardship.

Rattans are notably important commodities in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Bamboos are more widespread. They are widely used and traded in China, Japan, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and several African and Latin American countries. In places in Southeast Asia where rattans predominate, bamboos are often regarded as a more throwaway or low-grade product for craft or trade purposes.

Virtually all rattans used in trade are collected from the wild. Increasing demand for canes for furniture manufacture has led to useful species being overcut, especially in forest areas near rural settlements, roads and railways, leaving almost no commercial rattans. Since rattans must grow within forests (they use trees as supports to enable them to climb into sunlit positions), the supply tends to dwindle in direct proportion to tropical forest loss. Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand now ban the export of raw canes and the export of semi-processed and processed canes from peninsular Malaysia is prohibited, to conserve the supply for domestic industry.

Such bans have some effect on the supply situation by depressing the value of canes, making the activities of collectors less worthwhile. Pressure on forests may thus be eased in due course but prior to the entry into force of bans there is a spate of collecting for stockpiles that can do more harm to the natural supply than no ban at all.

Rattans occur in many varieties and qualities. For furniture making those that are supple and of good colour are best. Given open access to forest areas, people cut the canes till none are left to bear seeds. At first the market will accept lower grade species, using extra processing - bleaching, staining or steaming - to correct flaws. Once this processing becomes too costly, however, domestication and selective breeding at the source of supply begin to take over.

Harvesting bamboo (China).

A woman increases her income by making rattan baskets for sale in the market (Philippines).

In parts of the Philippines where the natural rattan supply has been exhausted, nurseries are now being established to provide stock to plant out in the forest. In this case, the growth and 'monetization' of the market in the natural product appears to be in the process of converting it from a wild product into a crop. Much the same process may have led to the development of other non-wood forest products into staple crops in the past.

Bamboos are now routinely plantation-grown but, while they can be grown in the forest without the additional expense of owning or renting the land they grow on, like rattan they are likely to remain a predominantly wild or semi-cultivated crop for many years to come. Rattan collection, cultivation and processing also provide important options for buffer zone schemes around protected areas. Replanting indigenous species can help to rehabilitate logged forest and justify maintenance of forest cover.

South-east Asia's rattan trade is dominated by Indonesia's harvest: Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, supplies more than half of the world's raw rattan. Of the 600 species of rattan, those that yield canes of good colour and suppleness are most sought-after as raw materials for cane furniture: they abound in the island's interior, inhabited mainly by indigenous tribal people. In most cases, rattan collector is a part-tine activity for members of families who otherwise earn a living mainly by farming.

Prior to the current ban on raw rattan exports, most of the rattan collected to make furniture was exported unprocessed to Hong Kong or Singapore. Rattan collected in the island's interior now is brought downstream by traders, processed to a rudimentary stage of manufacture then sold on to mainly Chinese exporters.

Manufacture of mats and carpets is, on the other hand, generally done within Kalimantan: in many rattan processing or carpet-making enterprises, women of the Dayak tribe comprise 30 to 40 percent of the workers. The mat and carpet industry is growing to rival the timber industry as an employer and source of rural income in the area of South Kalimantan.

Work is now under way to establish rattan plantations in the areas where wild stocks have been depleted by over-collector, to establish more processing centres nearer the source of collections and to clarify the terms of access and title to forest rattan collector. Ways of utilizing a greater variety of rattan species in trade are also being investigated.

Freshly cut and cleaned rattan enters a rattan products factory in Balikpapan, east coast of Kalimantan (Indonesia).

At least five million hectares of wild bamboo occur in South and South-east Asia. Among literally thousands of uses, bamboos are used in pulp and paper manufacture and as food (in the form of bamboo shoots), as well as for handicrafts or building.

Unlike rattan, which is a climbing plant that normally needs a forest environment, most bamboos grow more outside than inside forest limits. New techniques of bamboo micropropagation are currently being developed by scientists in many Asian countries, with backing from FAO and other international organizations.

Flowering of bamboos is unpredictable and seed collection is difficult, so growers have long used vegetative propagation techniques, using cuttings or divided root masses. Modern techniques enable tens of thousands of 'propagules' to be multiplied from a single parent plant, each of which will form a new generation of bamboos. The impact of this breakthrough on bamboo breeding strategies will be considerable.

Mushrooming growth - the trade in fungi

Many kinds of mushrooms that are important in trade can only grow in very particular kinds of natural habitat under a narrow range of ecological conditions and micro-climates. That often means they cannot be systematically cultivated despite abundant demand in distant and local marketplaces.

Examples are the 'black mushrooms' or morels (Morchellus species) which are widely gathered in wooded areas of northcentral Pakistan and traded internationally in large quantities. Urban entrepreneurs buy them from local collectors and transport them in dried form mainly to overseas markets, especially in Europe, where demand for them as a gourmet or speciality food consistently exceeds local or regional supplies and prices are uniformly high.

Cleaning mushrooms in one of Bhutan's mushroom centres, Unknown until recently, the mushroom is becoming an important crop for Bhutan.

Other kinds of mushroom can be cultivated, or semi cultivated in compost derived from their natural habitat. In Bhutan, for example, four kinds of oyster mushroom (Ostreus species) are grown in year-round rotation on forest logs injected with fungal spores or in compost mixtures made from forest litter.

In the mid- 1980s, in harness with the UN Development Programme (UNDP), FAO project workers helped Bhutan's agronomists and growers identify the most suitable species, refine growing methods and open up potential new markets for the mushroom crop. An association was formed to encourage farmers to grow mushrooms and local canning factories were equipped to process the product for export sale to India, Nepal and Bangladesh. As a result of these efforts, mushrooms have since become a major source of export revenues for Bhutan.

Growing and collecting wild or semi-wild mushrooms is now a significant use of forest lands in Thailand, Chile, Turkey and many other countries around the world. According to a recent FAO study of eight countries in the Mediterranean coastal zone, harvesting wild mushrooms yields on average an estimated cash return to the collector of some US$ 250 per hectare per year, while highly prized truffles (Tuber species) can yield more than three times that amount.

Mushrooms demonstrate many of the most serious disadvantages of non-wood forest products. They are extremely seasonal, local and sporadic in their occurrence and they are difficult to harvest, transport, process and store. They nevertheless support a thriving export trade, bringing solid benefits to all concerned in their collection, processing and marketing.


The per capita consumption of mushrooms during the rainy season in Zimbabwe can be as high as 1.8 kg. They are commonly valued as meat substitutes and they supply surprisingly large amounts of protein (up to 45g per 100g dry weight in some cases) and essential minerals. More than 20 tonnes of gathered mushrooms, mainly chanterelles (Cantharellus species), are gathered and consumed by the some 700000 residents of the Upper Shaba area of Zaire every year.

Insect providers - silk, honey and lac

Insect life forms a major fraction of the animal biomass of forests and forest lands, especially in tropical forests, and gives rise to a great variety of significant forest products. The most obvious use of insects is as food. Caterpillars, termites, bee larvae and other soft-bodied insects are widely consumed as a protein food and dietary supplement. Just 100g of termites can provide 561 calories of food energy, while bee larvae contains ten times more vitamin D than cod liver oil and twice as much vitamin A as egg yolk. Insects also form a large part of the diet of foraging poultry and food fish, so contribute indirectly to human diets in a variety of ways.

Above: Traditional bee hive (Guinea Conakry).

Right: Children collecting wild honey from a Baobab tree (Senegal).

Honey is an insect product universally valued for its high energy content - more than 280 calories per 100g. The blossoms of forest trees and plants growing below the forest canopy provide a year-round supply of food for bees in the form of nectar and pollen. The pollinating action of the bees as they forage is also a crucial factor in maintaining yields of tree crops, especially oilseeds and fruits. In some tropical countries (in Tanzania, for example) trade in honey and other beekeeping products such as beeswax and 'royal jelly' is a larger contributor to the national exchequer than all other forest products put together. Village-level beekeeping in India yields an estimated 37000 tonnes of honey a year.

A vogue for 'health foods' in the diets of consumers in the EC, Japan, North America and other relatively affluent regions - a reaction to the over-processed foods characteristic of economies geared to mass production - has boosted demand for natural products like honey in recent years. Growth in honey production and improvement in beekeeping techniques have consequently assumed high priority in many countries, including Tanzania, the Philippines and Brazil. Honey is also a key item in subsistence diets, particularly where it is available in the 'hungry season' prior to the harvesting of crop plants.

Another important insect product is silk from the larvae of the silkworm moth. Although most of the world's silk is produced under farmed conditions, demand for 'wild silk' and the more robust silk fabrics such as tasar silk, widely produced on 'cottage-industry' scale in Thailand, India and elsewhere, has remained steady.

Trade in lac and lacquerwork also depends on an insect product, the gummy secretion exuded by the lac beetle (Technadria lacca) onto certain forest trees in many parts of Asia. The secretion dries to a hard crust capable of taking a high polish. The lac is collected, purified, coloured and sold in stick-form to handicraft workshops where it is used to give a glamorous finish to wooden toys or other small items of carpentry such as inkwells or pen holders.

Markets for lacquerware products are changing dramatically as mass-produced plastic substitutes for these items flood local and nearby urban markets. Export trade in lacquerware handicrafts has, however, shown healthy growth and larger, mechanized factories have sprung up to cater to this trade, supplanting the mainly women artisans who were formerly the mainstay of small-scale production.

In one town (Channapata) in Karnataka State, India, where lacquerwork is a predominant local industry employing more than 35 percent of the total workforce, annual production in 1991 was worth some 30 million rupees (US$ 300000) and 70 percent of total production was exported.

Another commercial growth area for insect products is the trade in sustainably 'ranched' live tropical butterflies (or their eggs or pupae) to supply exotic butterfly-farming businesses outside the tropics. Many countries of the South Pacific and in Central and Latin America which have a spectacular butterfly fauna are profiting increasingly from this trade.

Forest essences - saps, gums, resins, syrups and other extracts

Extractive tree products include aromatic or essential oils, gums, resins, latex, tanning products and syrups. Extractive products are often of high market value but their development typically faces a number of risks both on the supply and the demand side.

Resin tapping from pine or other resinous trees is perhaps the best-known extractive use of forests and it remains one of the largest forest-based industries in the non-wood forest products sector. Its roots lie in the days of wooden ships, when pitch and tar derived from resin were essential sealants for ships' hulls. The main uses today are for production of turpentine solvent and rosin, a solid lubricant.

Despite sustained demand, the supply of pine resin has nose-dived in several countries in recent years as a result of low market prices and over-extraction. In India, production has dropped from 74000 tonnes in 1975 to 35000 tonnes in 1985 and a national campaign is under way to encourage collectors to adopt more sustainable methods of extraction. Genetic improvement of trees, fairer prices for the raw material and research and development to improve the product are also being urged.

Gum arabic is a resin tapped from Acacia senegal, notably in the Sudan, which supplies 80 percent of the world market in this commodity. Gum arabic is widely used as a stabiliser or fixative in food, drugs and lithographic plates and varnishes. The tree takes only five years to reach maturity, after which it can be tapped for 10 to 12 years before it is cut down or coppiced. It yields about 100 kg of gum arabic per hectare and earns the Sudan millions of dollars in foreign exchange as well as supplying timber, fuelwood, fodder and a host of other benefits to local people during its life-cycle.

Specialty oils such as bay rum (obtained by distillation from bay leaves in several islands in the West Indies and used in perfumery) have a less predictable future. Enlarging the scale of cultivation is the only sure way to keep the price of the novel commodity competitive, but markets can sometimes fail before such economies of scale are achieved.

Several forest trees are sources of tanning materials used to preserve and soften animal hides as leather. Strong competition from synthetic tanning chemicals has lately put many collectors of Acacia bark and other natural tanning materials out of business. In India, plantation growing of appropriate trees is being attempted in an effort to undercut the cost of synthetic substitutes and rescue village industries based on tanning, from collapse.

In much of southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, bark from a variety of Acacia is the source of glues used in the manufacture of particle boards and plywood, both valuable sources of foreign exchange.

The kitul palm (Caryota urens) is a small tree found in Sri Lanka and southern India, in moist forest habitats and home gardens. Its young flowers are tapped and the nectar is fermented to produce toddy, an alcoholic drink, or crystallized to produced jaggery, a popular local sugar substitute at times when imported sugar prices are high. No concentrated effort has been made to bring the kitul palm under cultivation or develop a wider market for it, partly because the tree has a complex life-cycle and partly because the product cannot be preserved for long or processed for export.

In the case of another popular natural sweetener, maple syrup, a major limiting factor on supply is damage to trees that has been attributed to air pollution from industrial sources in Canada and the northern USA. Failing supplies have driven prices of the natural product to unprecedented heights and artificial substitutes now command the bulk of the market. Although, as these examples show, many kinds of extractive non-wood products are 'problem products', their commercial potential remains attractive and offers wide scope for diversification of forest industries throughout the world.

A worker taps natural latex, which becomes chicle (Rio Negro, Amazonia).