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Biodiversity in tropical forests is threatened by many socio-ecological factors, including overharvesting of NTFPs, a shift in lifestyles from hunter-gatherer to agripastoralist (and the common practice of shifting cultivation), the development of forest-based industries and fragmentation of continuous forest cover. Unsustainable extraction of NTFPs by indigenous peoples can lead to widespread biodiversity loss and erosion.Attention is given to biodiversity conservation in the Arunachal Pradesh and Karnataka areas of India. Local people extract various NTFPs, including yams, wild fruits (amla [Phyllanthus emblica], pipli [Piper peepuloides] and lichi [Illicium griffithii]), honey, wildlife for hunting, building materials (bamboo, thatch grass, cane leaves), orchids for both aesthetic and medicinal purposes, etc. Besides being used for subsistence within local communities, certain NTFPs offer interesting commercial potential for income generation and lifestyle improvement.

Too much pressure on forest resources to satisfy subsistence and commercial requirements can alter the forest structure and ecological processes that underlie biodiversity. Biodiversity can only be conserved against the background of sustainable NTFP harvesting. Harvesting will be sustainable if the rate of removal of products does not exceed the rate of natural regeneration, ensuring repeated and indefinite collection of resources without any long-term deleterious impact on reproduction and regeneration. Such harvests should also respect the populations of associate species and ecosystem functions operating within the forest. In short, guaranteeing a balance in the demand-supply gap for NTFPs is a prerequisite for effective biodiversity conservation. (Source: U. Shankar and M. L. Khan. Arunachal Forest News, 15[1&2]: 40-46.)

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As the social, economic and cultural importance of NTFPs in the Congo basin becomes increasingly clear, certain hypotheses which once appeared environmentally appealing now need to be reconsidered. Evidence from the Yaoundé (Cameroon) area questions the hypothesis that the harvesting, commercialization and transformation of certain NTFPs by the rural poor can be a means of shifting efforts away from the unsustainable exploitation of ecologically sensitive forest products such as wildlife.

Some researchers and conservationists consider that providing alternative cash-earning possibilities to village populations by means of NTFPs could contribute to a viable conservation approach. On the contrary, our observations reveal that rattan harvesting and the commercialization of game are two complementary and mutually supportive activities in terms of time allocation, the use of scarce cash and the increasingly intensive use of peri-urban forest space.

Like many other NTFPs, rattans (notably Ancistrophyllum secundiflorum and Eremospatha macrocarpa) play an important economic role in the interface between the populations of Yaoundé and its hinterland, which is slowly but surely being emptied of its natural resources. Harvesters from more than 20 villages in the area provide rattan to a wholesale market at Mvog Mbi which in turn supplies approximately 117 workshops with the sticks and climbers needed to craft a variety of products ranging from baskets and mats to items of furniture such as beds, sofas and bookshelves, which even a casual observer in the city cannot fail to notice. These products are in vogue with all social classes of this expanding city of more than one million people.


"The sections of an orange, the leaves of a tree, the petals of a flower are never identical. It would seem that beauty derives its charm from this very diversity."

Pierre-Auguste Renoir


Most villagers engage in diverse economic activities, and rattan harvesting is just one of many. Others include: food production for consumption and sale of surpluses; cocoa farming; hunting and fishing; wood extraction and the small-scale cutting of planks; harvesting of other NTFPs such as leaf wrappers, wild mango, nuts and palm wine; extraction of sand needed for building; distillation of odontol (local alcohol made from palm wine); and so on. Although physically exacting (heavy loads are carried over long distances), painful (because of the sharp thorns in the rattan's outer casing) and dangerous (because dead branches are often pulled down with the climbers), rattan can provide rapid cash at any time of the year with no investment. The problem of seasonality which handicaps so many other economic activities does not apply here. It is still widely available around numerous villages and the large number of craftworkers in Yaoundé make it relatively easy to sell.A survey was recently carried out among rattan harvesters to find out whether it would make economic sense for them to abandon commercial hunting or hardwood extraction and devote their time and efforts solely to rattan. The survey established that there is a high degree of complementarity between hunting and rattan harvesting:

Most rattan harvesters also hunt. They have numerous snare traps set in the forest space which they pass through in order to find rattan. Checking or setting up these snares is efficiently done while on their way to cut rattan. Moreover, harvesters identify paths taken by animals while looking for rattan and set up traps accordingly.

Sale of game pays for transportation costs. Villagers have serious cash flow problems; money earned by selling rattan is usually spent on the spot for basic necessities. Consequently, they do not return to the village with the surplus needed to pay for a lorry to transport rattan to the market the next time. A porcupine or antelope caught and sold along the road or in a nearby town provides the money needed to pay rattan transportation costs.

Many harvesters are themselves craftworkers. Again, because of cash flow problems, they do not have the necessary money to purchase the equipment required to work the raw material. Cash is needed for nails, butane gas, varnish, etc. and can be earned by selling what has been caught in a trap. Conversely, the cash earned from selling rattan pays for cable used in snares.

Given the present economic conditions and constraints in the Yaoundé hinterland, as well as the inventiveness of villagers to find survival strategies, combining numerous and complementary economic or subsistence activities is the rule. Can rattan help save wildlife? Unfortunately not. The response is not rattan or wildlife but rattan and wildlife. (Contributed by: Théodore Trefon and Louis Defo, Avenir des Peuples des Forêts Tropicales, Université Libre de Bruxelles, CP 124, 44 avenue Jeanne, 1050 Brussels, Belgium;
fax: (+32 2) 6504337;

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