Non-wood products in perspective

Echoes from the north
A local perspective: Zimbabwe's communal areas
A national perspective: India
A regional perspective: The Mediterranean


Forestry is the science, business and art of managing and conserving forests and associated lands for continuing economic, social and environmental benefit. It involves the balanced management of forest resources for optimum yields of wood products, wildlife..., water..., scenic and recreational environments... and a variety of other services and products. Science Council of Canada, 1973

Echoes from the north

Though developing countries tend to be the focus of much analysis of non-wood product use and development, forests elsewhere abound in such products and uses. The extensive forests of the cold northern zones of Europe and North America are especially rich in examples and here too, interest in new approaches to product development and innovative multiple-use is on the increase.

Canada, for example, has recently embarked on an ambitious Model Forests programme aimed at reconciling the country's massive timber and processed wood product industries with environmental requirements, amenity uses such as recreation and tourism, and the special needs of indigenous people, particularly where non-wood products are concerned. The programme's design draws on lessons learned in the many developing regions where Canada sponsors multiple-use forestry projects in a technical cooperation role.

Though not always directly comparable, particularly in view of the very different degrees of development or underdevelopment that form their background, experiences of multiple-use forestry in the world's richer and poorer countries offer illuminating contrasts and potential for valuable information exchange in both directions.

A local perspective: Zimbabwe's communal areas

Detailed investigations during 1991 by a team of Canadian and Zimbabwean researchers, supported by IDRC, into the use of non-wood forest products in small-scale farming communities in three sites in Zimbabwe's Communal Areas, provide a revealing glimpse of the true value in cash terms of goods derived from trees growing in the miombo woodland ecosystem. In the 359 households studied, forest fruits either consumed at source or sold on local markets were calculated to have an average cash or cash equivalent value of around Z$ 280 per hectare per year. Other wild foods were worth Z$ 63, leaf litter used as a farm fertilizer or mulch Z$ 134 and fodder and browse for livestock some Z$ 100 - Z$ 160 per hectare per year. Added to the value of timber, fuelwood and other wood products, the worth of these woodland products was close to Z$ 1000 (US$ 320) a year for each household.

Cash values (The 1991 value in US dollars of various woodland products to the average Zimbabwean household m three Communal Area sites)

A national perspective: India

Non-wood forest products provide the majority of all forest-based exports from India. This oft-quoted fact masks the fact that unsustainable harvesting in the past has depleted forests below commercially viable levels in most of India's formerly richly forested humid zone. Ideally, timber and non-timber production should thrive in equal measure if raised under sustainable multiple-use conditions.

Nevertheless, one positive result of India's dependence on the non-timber sector is the high level of employment generated by forest-based enterprises - jobs enough for more than 30 million people nationwide. Outstanding among products that create jobs are oilseeds (100000 man years/year), gums and resins (87000 man years/year), bamboo (48000 man years/year) and kapok floss (10000 man years/year).

The highest - turnover forest product of all is the foliage of the tendu tree (Diospyros melanoxylon), used to wrap the small cheroots known as bidi that are popular throughout India and several neighbouring countries. India produces some half a million tonnes of bidi leaves a year. Gathering, processing and selling them provides employment for at least one million people.

Now moves are under way in India to intensify the harvesting and marketing of non-wood forest products along sustainable lines to increase the rewards that products sold on internal and export markets bring to poorer communities. In many of the latter, 90 percent or more of community members depend on forest products as their main source of livelihood.

Wild fruits from Landolphia heudelotii linnea (Guinea Bissau).

The Tribal Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (TRIFED) was launched in 1987 to fulfil a nationwide programme of procurement, processing and marketing of forest and agricultural commodities produced in the country's extensive tribal areas. India's officially classified tribal groups number some 8.3 percent of the population and many are highly dependent on non-wood products for their livelihoods and cash income.

The TRIFED scheme has been responsible, it is claimed, for a 90 percent increase in prices earned at market by the collectors and extractors of non-wood forest products between 1988 and 1990. About 50 commodities are traded, including cashew nuts, lac, pepper, sal oil, sisal hemp, aloe, tamarind fruit, turmeric root, cardamon, sarsaparilla and tasar silk. A fortnightly price bulletin is published and circulated to trade, industry tribal and official interest groups. Research and development projects aimed at identifying new products and markets are run from TRIFED laboratories in Bombay and Delhi. Some 5000 local Service Centres are being set up to procure goods at fair prices and a chain of warehouses and refrigerated stores is also under development.

Various initiatives have also been taken at state government level to encourage the growing of trees that yield useful wild goods, on 'home farms' and in between field crops in farming systems. In Orissa State, bonus incentives are payable to farmers who grow tendu, neem, sal and other productive trees, including those which play host to the lac beetle. The Bihar State Government pays fixed prices for a number of forest tree oilseeds, which have become nationalized commodities. The prices offered are set at much higher levels than pre-nationalization prices.


In Finland the use of non-wood forest products both for rural self-sufficiency and in trade might be expected to be dominated by service aspects of multiple - use forestry rather than characterized by strong dependence on specific products. In fact, though service functions of forest lands are more prominent than in India's case, products such as wild berries, mushrooms and wild game are of considerable economic significance.

Of a potential harvest of some 400000 to 700000 tonnes of wild berries, some 5 percent is harvested each year (10000 to 20000 tonnes) mainly for household consumption, though between 300 and 800 tonnes comes to market in larger urban centres like Helsinki. Mushroom consumption follows a closely similar pattern. Commercial trade in lichens (used, for example, in production of food additives and industrial chemicals) is substantial: the annual production of 0.5 million kilograms is mainly exported and revenues from this sector average FIM 8.6 million.

Herding of semi - domesticated reindeer as meat animals is a lucrative business in Finland and most Finnish forests, both private and public, are of importance as reindeer grazing grounds. Annual trade in reindeer meat grosses 3400 tonnes of product, worth some FIM 100 million. But trade in wild game from forest lands out-performs the reindeer meat trade almost two-fold both in quantity and value.

Owing to widespread state ownership of forest lands, amenity, recreation, nature conservation, watershed protection and other service functions are of great importance in Finland. The fact that these values can be maintained alongside harvesting and use of non-wood products in a sustainable fashion means that, even where public forest passes into private ownership, the pressure to monopolize the newly privatized forest for wood production is moderate. In many cases the mix of uses after privatization remains surprisingly constant, because profitable use can be made of forest lands without recourse to intensive mechanized forestry.

A regional perspective: The Mediterranean

FAO studies for Silva Mediterranea, of non-wood forest product use in Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, Greece, Italy and the coastal zones of France and Algeria, indicate that trade in the Mediterranean of commodities such as cork, resin, mastic gum, honey, mushrooms, wild fruits and wild game, added to the value of trees used in livestock production (mainly as sources of fodder) had an estimated cash value of more than US$ 1 billion in 1992, with a development potential of anything up to US$ 5 billion a year.

Historically, the Mediterranean region has been the home of tree crops like olives, sweet chestnuts, dates and many other commodities of high food value. These crops have crossed over into cultivated use at some point in the distant past, but are still only semi-cultivated in places.

The wild fauna and flora of the Mediterranean have suffered waves of depletion and man-modification in past ages. Current developments, such as the grafting of EC farm policy on to traditional Mediterranean agriculture, are tending to erase still further the region's distinctive patterns of land use. In many ways, vernacular Mediterranean agroforestry is a model of sustainable land use. The use of non wood forest products in the region is currently being challenged by pressures not unlike those which operate in many more southerly developing regions.

A special factor in the Mediterranean's case is its importance as a tourist destination. Almost 100 million visitors seek recreation in the coastal zone each summer: they represent a mobile market for forest products like honey or wild game that is independent of the trade and tariff restrictions that operate in larger markets such as the EC. Nevertheless, positive management interventions will be necessary in the Mediterranean, as anywhere else, to secure a prosperous future for non-wood forest products.

Value (in US$ per hectare per year) and estimated regional production (in tonnes per year) of some typical non-wood forest resources and outputs in the Mediterranean coastal zones of Algeria, France and Italy, and in Spain, Tunisia, Morocco, Greece and Portugal:

Value (US/ha. year)

Production (t/year)










Medicinal &c herbs









Historically the Mediterranean has been the home of cultivated tree crops like the olives shown here (Tuscany, Italy).