1. Introduction

Why are non-wood forest products important?
Who uses non-wood forest products?
A basis for sustainable forest management
A range of options

In recent years forests have been increasingly recognized as rich reservoirs of many valuable biological resources, not just timber. The term non-wood forest product (NWFP) emerged as an umbrella term to recognize the products derived from these various forest resources as a group.

This volume originates from an International Expert Consultation on Non-wood Forest Products, cosponsored by the FAO Forestry Department and the Indonesian government in January 1995. It represents a first step taken by FAO to respond to that meeting's recommendation that FAO prepare guidelines for planners and entrepreneurs to use in developing NWFPs activities.

The definition of non-wood forest products used here is the one which was adopted at that meeting in Indonesia (FAO, 1995):

NWFPs consist of goods of biological origin other than wood, as well as services derived from forests and allied land uses.

This definition is intended to encourage better accounting of NWFPs, of both plant and animal origin, as a group and their contribution to the national economic indexes which policy-makers use to decide development priorities and policy. As such, it admittedly does not cover many important cultural and environmental forest functions. The definition will no doubt continue to be refined as the field evolves.

Why are non-wood forest products important?

For most of recorded history, people have valued forests not for wood, but for other products. Ancient writings from China, Egypt and India record a wide variety of uses for forest plants, and compilations of botanical knowledge from Western Asia were prized by the ancient Greeks (Wickens, 1990). Whereas wood products have become major international commodities in modern times, NWFPs rank among the oldest traded commodities (Iqbal, 1993). Ancient Egyptians imported gum arabic from Sudan for use in paints and the mummification process. International trade in sandalwood oil dates back to the twelfth century A.D.

Through the experience of forest communities, forestry professionals have recently rediscovered the great importance of NWFPs (ranging from food, fruits and fibres, dye stuffs, flavours and medicines) for meeting people's needs. In recent years, a growing body of scientific research has suggested that, given certain basic conditions, NWFPs can help communities to meet their needs without destroying the forest resource.

The most commonly cited instances come from Latin America, where the term extractive reserves describes a system where forest is set aside for low-impact use by traditional communities in the area. No single model can suit all conditions, however.

Why have modern science and governments overlooked the importance of this non-wood forest wealth for so long? The answer is threefold. First, most of these products are used mainly for rural subsistence or local markets. They often go unrecorded in official statistics, which focus on nationally traded goods (Chandrasekharan, 1994). Second, because modern government administration has divided these products among forestry, agriculture and horticulture, statistics do not recognize even nationally and internationally important non-wood forest commodities as originating from the forest. The divisions between, and the lack of clear definition of, agriculture and forestry have created a large blind spot in the way we reckon our dependence on forests. Finally, modern forestry has favoured timber and large-scale enterprises, and has generally regarded non-wood products as incidental. However, studies show that forests produce many more types of products than wood products particularly in some tropical forests. (Toledo et al., 1992). Small-scale forest-based enterprises in Zimbabwe, which mostly are based on NWFPs, employed 237,000 people in 1991, compared to 16,000 employed in conventional forestry and forest industries for the same year (Arnold et al., 1994).

Who uses non-wood forest products?

For most of the world's rural households, NWFPs provide essential food and nutrition, medicine, fodder, fuel, thatch and construction materials, mulch and non-farm income. These products are particularly important in relieving the "hunger periods" in the agricultural cycle, and in smoothing out other seasonal fluctuations. Dealing in NWFPs can provide employment during slack periods of the agricultural cycle, and provide a buffer against risk and household emergencies.

Poor households, in particular, depend on these products for their livelihood because they usually have more access to the forest than to other resources.

For the same reason - greater dependence on open-access forests, for lack of other options women usually rely more than men on NWFPs for household use and income. In many places, women are responsible for the household activities that involve forest-based foods and medicine, as well as fuelwood. In this respect NWFPs are particularly important to women, addressing their needs for food security and nutrition.

In local, urban, national and international markets, forest foods and medicines contribute substantially to national economic growth.

NWFPs are therefore important to three main groups:

rural populations (the largest group) who have traditionally used these items for livelihood and social and cultural purposes;

urban consumers (a smaller group, but growing faster), who purchase these items;

traders, and product processors, whose numbers in the NWFP sector increase as urban markets for these products grow.

A basis for sustainable forest management

NWFPs, by complementing wood-based management, offer a basis for managing forests in a more sustainable way. In fragile ecosystems, NWFP activities hold prospects for integrated forms of development that yield higher rural incomes and conserve biodiversity while not competing with agriculture (Sharma, 1995). An important concept in realizing these prospects is adding value locally, usually through some form of rural processing, to ensure that a fair portion of a product's market value accrues to the people who manage the forest resource.

Agenda 21, approved by the UN Conference on Environment and Development (1992) which provides a global plan for action, has recognized the role of NWFPs in sustainable forest management. UNCED highlighted the importance, already recognized by many governments, of informed participation by local communities in all aspects of forest management and planning.

1. Resin tapped from Chir Pine in Northern Pakistan has many uses in various industries. (Photo: M. Kashio)

2. Bamboos are used worldwide for construction, furniture, handicrafts, food (young shoots), erosion control, and many other purposes. (Photo: M. Kashio)

3. Babassu kernel oil in Brazil is a major subsistence product in rural Amazonia and has also a critical industrial and commercial value. (Photo: G. Blaak)

4. Bactris gasipaes in Brazil is widely used for the production of palm heart, fruits, beverage. (Photo: G. Blaak)

Local participation is important for sustainable management of NWFPs for several reasons: (1) to recognize the full extent of local demands on the forest resource; (2) to fully consider the local knowledge of the resource that has developed over time; (3) to engage nearby communities as stake holders in managing the resource, ensuring their commitment to long-term management goals; (4) to engage the energies of local people in their own economic change, which can include decisions on social and cultural priorities that outsiders do not realize.

Involving communities in managing local resources is therefore not simply an equity issue; it is an issue of wise resource use. Failure to do so has broad consequences. Witness the case of Australia, which although home to more than 20,000 species of native flora, until quite recently produced no new food crop except macadamia nuts (Macadamia species), which were domesticated elsewhere. This singular failure is probably because European settlers refused to accept that the indigenous people knew any plants worth cultivating (Wickens, 1990). For more in-depth information on community participation, see FAO (1990).

A range of options

This publication aims to provide some principles and to outline approaches for action by producers of NWFPs and by the agencies that support them - government agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and research organizations.

It is important to recognize that it is not a choice of either timber or non-wood products. Traditional management systems of forest peoples and modern scientific experience with multiple-use management suggest that, with careful planning and monitoring, forests can yield both timber and non-wood harvests on a sustainable basis.

This publication builds on the premise that forests offer a variety of production activities for improving local incomes that do not jeopardize the forest ecosystem. Forest management for NWFPs can provide a continuing source of livelihood and help to maintain the forest resource for future generations. The focus here is on activities that produce items for subsistence and market use. It also considers several activities, such as ecotourism (environmentally and culturally sound tourism based on local scenic attractions) and environmental data gathering (also called "biodiversity prospecting"), which involve no harvest, just observation.

This volume points to the varied cultural roles of forests and their non-wood products, but a full assessment of these is beyond its scope. Rather, it concentrates on the decisions by which people choose to manage non-wood forest resources for livelihood purposes.


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