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Patricia Shanley


Rural communities who make their living within regions beset by logging and fire are increasingly faced with biotically impoverished forests. Although a multitude of scientific research projects have been undertaken, little of this has direct, immediate relevance for forest communities. In eastern Amazonia, when the loss of game, fruits and fibres began to outweigh the financial benefits of selling timber, some rural communities asked: "Are there NWFPs that we can sell in lieu of timber?" To answer questions posed by the communities, research was designed to describe the density, regeneration and production of regionally valued NWFPs. Parallel research efforts examined the markets for and household use of NWFPs.

Generating locally useful information was only a first step; disseminating results to isolated, semi-literate communities posed additional challenges. These were overcome by designing participatory workshops in which data was given back through posters, skits, songs and illustrated booklets on the ecology, use and management of NWFPs. Outcomes of these extension efforts have been substantial: increased use, processing and sale of NWFPs, improved negotiations with loggers and the creation of community forest reserves. Results indicate that rural education is an underutilized and under explored tool for conservation and development.

Key words: Non-wood forest products, environmental education, ethnobotany, extension

1. Introduction

The ecological research process often involves an outside team entering an area, taking measurements, posing questions, leaving and writing scientific articles. Unfortunately, the results presented in scientific articles rarely reach the local communities in which they were generated. Indeed, if the pages of such manuscripts ever were to reach the local level, it is doubtful that they would be useful for anything other than rolling tobacco or lighting fires.

Although policy-makers and scientists are important audiences for research results, forest-based communities are also a critical public to reach. First, there is a strategic reason for sharing research results with forest-dependent communities: local communities represent a critical group of people in determining how forest resources are used and protected. Second, forest-dependent communities often have their own key research questions upon which their livelihoods may depend. Third, after taking up considerable amounts of a host community's time, eating their food and involving them in the research process, there is a moral imperative for outside researchers to give back their results in a locally useful form.

To meet the needs of both local and international communities, an ecological research programme must often accommodate two distinct research agendas: on the one hand, it needs to generate rigorous data aimed at informing the scientific community and policy-makers; on the other, it needs to produce and disseminate information useful to communities directly dependent on forest resources. Juggling these two agendas may require that data is collected, analysed and presented in different ways for different audiences.

This paper addresses this challenge by describing the education and extension spin-offs of a non-wood forest product (NWFP) research project in the Brazilian Amazon. After a brief outline of the research setting, a description is given of each facet of the project (ethnobotanical, ecological and economic), conventional scientific products resulting from the research and the limitations of these products in meeting local needs. Subsequent sections describe how results of the research were presented in a practical way for local communities and how they were disseminated through extension and education.

2. Background: NWFP research designed to meet local needs

In Pará, the easternmost state of the Brazilian Amazon, a recent explosion of selective logging, fire and ranching has diminished the diversity and abundance of non-wood forest products (Veríssimo et al., 1992, Martini et al., 1994, Vieira et al., 1996). While logging offers much needed cash to shifting agriculturists, the local costs of timber extraction, such as lower densities of fruit and medicinal species, longer travel time to collect forest resources, and lower game populations, catalyzed some communities to search for forest management alternatives.

By the early 1990s, several caboclo communities (peasant farmers of mixed descent) along the Capim River (120 km from the logging center of Paragominas) felt that the loss of game, fruit and fibre was beginning to outweigh the financial benefits of selling timber and questioned if there were NWFPs that they could sell in lieu of wood. With the assistance of the Rural Workers Union of Paragominas, they sought out research collaborators. Our team of multi-disciplinary researchers from the Woods Hole Research Center (forester, wildlife biologist, ethnobotanist/environmental educator) was contacted and, in conjunction with the community, developed a research plan and objectives.

The foremost questions posed by the community included: "Are the resources we lose from logging more valuable to us than the cash we get from selling our trees?" and "Are there other (i.e., non-wood) forest resources we might sell in lieu of timber?" At that time, these same questions were concurrently being posed by the international conservation community. In this case, by tackling locally relevant questions, the research could also contribute to filling gaps concerning the role of NWFPs in a potential conservation/development strategy (Scoones et al., 1992; Godoy and Lubowski, 1992).

In spite of the similarity of questions, many differences nonetheless existed between the scientific and local communities regarding the time frame and products. For instance, caboclo communities sought rapid answers which would result in cash for forest goods and an increased density of game and fruit species. Due to the inconsistent phenology of locally valuable forest products, however, a rigorous ecological and economic study of selected NWFPs would require many years. Juggling these two agendas took flexibility and patience on the part of both the research team and the community.

3. Ethnobotanical inventory

As a first step in the research process, a one hectare ethnobotanical inventory was conducted to document the floristic composition of the region and to identify species with high use-values (Alexiades, 1996). Traditional outcomes of ethnobotanical inventories are lists of the scientific names of plants and collections of voucher specimens which are sent to national and international herbaria. Although critically important to botanists, such products are inaccessible to semi-literate rural communities. To address this, our research team gathered extra plant specimens for the community's use in addition to those collected for herbaria. Although they will disintegrate with time, the specimens catalyzed group discussion, promoted an exchange as to plant uses, and demonstrated how scientific names clarify the identity of plants possessing various common names. To familiarize literate community members with botanical nomenclature and to remove doubt about the identity of certain species, common names as well as scientific names were placed on aluminum tree tags.

Instead of abandoning the study hectare after the inventory was concluded, the hectare continues to support ongoing research efforts aimed at documenting the longitudinal use of non-wood forest products. To this day (six years later) the owner of the hectare and his family weigh the game, fruit, fibre and medicinal plants which they consume from the study site. Annually, we jointly compare the subsistence value of these products with that of the value of the hectare if logged. While a graph of net present value might mean little to the family, they know that their long-term survival is linked to the fruit trees and the game their fruit attracts. This is in contrast to the sale of their trees, which offers a single, and relatively trivial, amount of money.

To ensure the usefulness of the hectare to the wider community, we designed it as a forest "reserve." To this purpose, a winding trail was constructed to guide visitors by trees of economic interest. Underneath several of the largest trees, small clearings were made to serve as resting and meeting points. As research in the Capim basin bore results, the small reserve served as a "forest value" workshop site in which villagers shared the project's results with neighbouring communities. One weekend workshop drew 140 elders, mothers, children and villagers of all ages who trekked to the site by canoe and foot from as far away as 50 km. Villagers who had been involved in the research process presented ecological and economic data through stories and illustrated posters. Upon viewing the grandeur of the piquiá (Caryocar villosum) and bacuri (Platonia insignis) trees, visitors from a heavily deforested neighbouring region spontaneously hugged trees and filled their pockets with seeds.

In addition to sharing data resulting from the research, community members exchanged recipes, management techniques, NWFP processing tips, and lore. Hands-on sessions with local experts included medicinal plant preparation, soap making from forest fruits, jam and basket making. Such traditional ethnobotanical information had immediate utility for households, many of which no longer recalled how to extract oil from the fruit of uxi (Endopleura uchi), how much oil of andiroba (Carapa guianensis) was needed to make soap, or the proper dosage of pau d'arco bark (Tabebuia spp.) for the relief of internal inflammation.

4. Population ecology studies

To explore the marketing potential of products with the highest use-values as indicated by the ethnobotanical inventory, it was necessary to know how much of the various resources were present in the forest. Therefore, basic ecological information was gathered concerning the density, distribution, size class and fruit production of the three most promising species (Caryocar villosum, Platonia insignis, Endopleura uchi). Local research assistants took part in species selection and helped to locate conspecific trees throughout a 3 000 hectare area. Due to the extreme irregularity of annual fruit production, production studies were carried out over a relatively long-term time frame (six years). The work involved was often tedious and time-consuming and the routine results, histograms and regressions do nothing to fill the stomachs of hungry smallholders.

To provide more rapid results to the community, preliminary data from the first and second years were presented. Research assistants who had learned how to use a compass and create transects exhibited the information on maps. Other villagers made posters displaying the mean fruit production of different species, showing how entire trees sell for values equivalent to the cost of a meager basket of ten fruits. The escalation of prices along the marketing chain became abundantly clear when villagers presented posters showing the prices of wood as sold from their own forests ($5 - $40/tree) as opposed to the prices of wood as sold in sawmills ($40 - $300/m3).

Figure 1. Presenting ecological data.

To make data fully accessible, data give back to locals required different analyses and presentation than for a scientific audience. For instance, a commonly used unit of measurement for ecologists and economists, yield per hectare, was of little use to caboclos when applied to species which exist in densities of less than one tree per hectare. Instead, illustrations depicted production per tree. Similarly, the economic value of a pile of fruit may be meaningless in monetary terms to persons with little access to cash. However, comparing prices and sacks of fruit with sacks of farina (the primary agricultural commodity) was clearly understood, as was the amount of labour involved in each activity.

To determine where clumped densities of economic species occurred, the research team made poster-size maps indicating different species of fruit trees and the trails which linked these. Although mapping the forest resources was time consuming and did not offer any immediate source of cash to the community, understanding how much of the resource existed in the community's forest was a first step in estimating the economic value of their standing forest and was critical for successful negotiations with loggers. Prior to mapping the trees, residents had severely overestimated the abundance of particular fruiting species occurring on their land, inaccurately assuming that it was possible to sell timber from large swaths of land and still retain a profusion of fruit and medicinal oil trees. Mapping the economic species present on their 3,000 hectares made clear that, instead of the estimated thousands of particular fruit trees, a few hundred actually existed.

Figure 2. A comparison of wood prices: value of standing tree; and values of 1 m3 in roundwood and sawnwood for 4 different timber species (in Brazilian real, R$).

5. Market studies and subsistence use of NWFPs

To examine the comparative economic value of non-wood forest products and timber, the research team conducted market surveys of locally valued fruits, medicinals, game and fibres in the closest city, Paragominas, and in the state's capital, Belém. Rather than offering complicated economic analysis to villagers, we discovered that the research team's greatest contribution to the community's economic understanding was simply keeping them informed of up-to-date market prices. Time and again villagers underestimated the value of forest goods (two to ten-fold).

The community had hoped that the research would demonstrate that they could gain more from the sale of NWFPs than timber. While the combined ecological and economic results did highlight the significantly higher economic value of select forest fruits and medicinal oils as opposed to timber, this did not necessarily translate into increased income for many villagers. Logging companies arrive in distant communities; fruit vendors do not. Because loggers appear with money-in-hand, cash-poor villagers commonly accept anything they are offered from timber companies.

The tendency of many communities to market wood in lieu of NWFPs does not signify that NWFPs have no economic value. Subsistence (direct use) of non-wood forest products contributes significantly to the well being of rural households (Schreckenberg, 1996; Melnyk, 1996; Falconer, 1990). However, both smallholders and economists rarely account for the economic value of subsistence use of NWFPs. One reason for this is that measurement of the "invisible" economic value of subsistence utilization of NWFPs requires tedious, invasive methodologies (i.e. daily diaries). In this instance, our research team asked 30 families from one community to weigh all fibres, fish, game and medicinal plants and to count and record all fruits they consumed each day throughout the course of an entire year. While the exercise itself may have acted as a learning tool for the families involved, the conventional products (i.e. graphs of fruit consumption and pie charts of game off-take) did nothing to solve the problem of decreasing game capture and hunger.

What did appear to be useful to the community was to portray the economic value of the direct-use (subsistence or non-market) value of NWFPs to individual households. For example, the heads of four families stood in front of the community holding posters (hidden behind their backs) with a number representing the weight of game or the fruits their families had consumed monthly and the cost of these products if purchased in the nearest market. Other community members guessed the market value of the game or fruit these families had consumed. They frequently based their estimates on the household's hunting ability, the number of children, the proximity of the home to forest or, in one case, the size of the father's stomach. Invariably, the value of NWFPs consumed from forests was hugely underestimated, awakening villagers to the very substantial "invisible income" that they daily gain from their forest.

6. Forest value workshops

Generating information and giving it back to the communities in which it was generated was only a first step. Disseminating concrete information to surrounding communities under pressure from logging and ranching posed additional challenges. In the hopes of slowing rampant deforestation throughout the region, extension teams composed of villagers and researchers traveled to neighbouring communities, sharing the data described above in participatory workshops (Shanley et al., 1997).

To effectively reach different audiences and to accurately portray the value of NWFPs in various regions, it was necessary to recognize the fact that fruits and medicinal plants were not the most highly valued non-wood forest products. Instead, to a chronically hungry and sometimes protein-deficient population, game animals often took precedence as the forest product of greatest local value (Bodmer et al., 1997; Redford et al., 1992). Data demonstrating that during one year, 79% of game consumed by the community was captured in the mature forest (as opposed to secondary forests or agricultural fields) offered a strong incentive for habitat protection and the creation of community forest reserves (Cymerys et al., 1997). By ranking select fruit species according to their ability to attract game, hunters quantified the fact that the economic value of particular species is not limited to the fruit that they produce. Over time, avid hunters became workshop leaders and proponents of reserves, recognizing that without an area to reproduce, the game population would continue to steadily decline.

To further highlight the value of standing forests and the substantial economic loss that often accompanies their sale, socioeconomic and ecological data were woven together and used in skits. Caboclos acted out the roles of loggers, ranchers and fruit vendors, while their fellow villagers watched with a mixture of mirth and sorrow as smallholders were sweet-talked out of their forest for a pittance. Based on real-life tales, 40 hectares of virgin forest were traded to a logger for a stove; one hectare of forest worth hundreds of dollars in fruit and game was "sold" to a logger for one fifth of its non-wood value; and one logger removed thousands of dollars worth of trees from a villager's forest and left, without ever paying.

As our extension team traveled to different villages, we collected additional ethnobotanical, ecological and market information, songs, stories and lore on a wide range of species. We preferentially focused on locally and regionally valued forest tree and palm species, with wide distribution throughout Amazonia, and on those which had received insufficient research attention. As the team's species specific knowledge base grew, so did the relevance of our workshops throughout a greater geographic range.

Figure 3. A forest value workshop comparing the value of timber harvesting and fruit collection (Photo: P. Shanley).

7. A different kind of manuscript: Illustrated booklets

After traveling on foot, canoe and muddy logging roads to arrive in remote villages throughout Pará, our extension team realized that the need for such information in isolated niches of Amazonia was far greater than direct outreach efforts could meet. Although the written word is not fully understood by all residents of rural communities, we wondered if it would be possible to put our workshops on paper in book form, in a way that would be readily comprehensible to both literate and semi-literate audiences. Such an illustrated text could reinforce outreach efforts where workshops were conducted, be used as a training tool for extensionists, and arrive in distant communities which our team could not reach.

We took the ecological and market data, posters, songs and lore used in workshops and presented them on paper. The resulting book describes thirteen forest fruit and medicinal oil species which have broad distribution and economic significance throughout Amazonia (Shanley et al., 1998). Simple, accompanying text conveys information in the language of small holders, describing the ecology, use, nutrition, economics and management of the trees, many of which had received scant prior study. Blending scientific literature, market data, forest inventory results, lore and traditional knowledge, the book offers an example of how to return relevant data to communities to assist in improving rural livelihoods and in conserving forest resources. To help all populations comprehend the book, many botanical and popular illustrations are included on each page (See Figure 4).

8. Practical outcomes of give back

When the extension team began to give back our research data to communities through workshops and books, we did so in the hope that the information could, in a small way, contribute to lessening deforestation and to improving rural livelihoods. The outcome of workshops exceeded our expectations. We discovered that the skits, posters and stories embedded in the forest value workshops and the fruit book served not only to expose unfavourable prices, but to catalyze improved strategies for negotiating logging contracts. In subsequent interactions with timber companies, villagers began negotiating to conserve fruit and medicinal oil species (see Figure 5). They also limited the number of hectares logged, in some cases preserving areas with clumped distributions of economic species as forest and game reserves. In a number of cases, logging contracts were cancelled. Return visits to communities in which workshops had been conducted demonstrated that in each case favourable forest management choices had been made.

Figure 4. Flowering and fruit months of Caryocar villosum (a timber species with edible fruits), and presented in number of trees per hectare and per `alqueires' (a local unit of land measurement).

Figure 5. Small holder insisting logger abides by contract.

Through the rescue and exchange of traditional NWFP recipes, families preserved fruit by making jams, jellies and soaps, thereby increasing the use and processing of NWFPs while decreasing timber sales. Women of the communities, who customarily said little regarding the sale of timber rights, began to speak up and to attend community meetings, urging the men not to sell the logging rights cheaply and to preserve the fruit and medicinal oil trees for the future.

Newly aware of market prices for NWFPs, women began experimental sales of fruit and medicinal oils and contributed a section to the book entitled: "Lessons learned from fruit sales" which offers practical tips on packaging, transport and marketing. The incremental income that they earned was wisely invested in goods to benefit their families and community. This was in stark contrast to the profits from timber sales which, landing in the hands of husbands, was commonly spent on parties, radios and liquor.

Figure 6. Preparing and selling medicine oil of Carapa guianensis.

9. Rural extension: Underutilised potential in conservation and development

In spite of the success that can result from solid educational programmes, a cautionary note is needed. Even the best extension programmes cannot forestall the waves of logging and fire that are sweeping forested regions worldwide. While smallholders can make fire barriers, conserve forest fruit trees and create reserves, fundamental changes in forest policy are desperately needed to lessen both biotic and human impoverishment.

Moreover, as deforestation proceeds at an unprecedented pace, it is imperative that ecologists begin to recognize that scientific publications are no longer a tenable measuring stick of success for our research endeavours. Rather we need to question who the primary beneficiaries of our research really are, as well as the common assumption that our research is complete once the scientific article has been sent to press. Rural extension is an underutilized, cost-effective way to ensure that hard won field data not only lands on the desks of other scientists but is also given back to the forest-based communities who need it most.


The author would like to thank the Earth Love Fund, the International Center for Research on Women, the Netherlands Committee for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the Rufford Foundation and the Durrell Trust for Conservation for support to conduct the education/extension activities on which this paper is based. Ecological research was conducted while the author was Research Associate with the Woods Hole Research Center and was generously supported by the Biodiversity Support Program USAID/GCC, the Educational Foundation of America, the Merck Foundation and the Netherlands Committee for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.


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