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Increased development of non-timber forest products in India: Some issues and concerns

D.D. Tewari and J.Y. Campbell

Devi D. Tewari is Associate Professor, Centre for Management in Agriculture, Indian Institute of Management. Ahmedabad, India.

Jeffrey Y. Campbell is Program Officer, Ford Foundation, New Delhi, India.

Note: This article has appeared as Tewari, D.D. and Campbell, J.Y. 1995. Developing and sustaining non-timber forest products: some policy issues and concerns with special reference to India. J. Sust. For., 3(1): 53-79.

Some considerations of the needs and risks associated with increased development and use of non-timber, forest products.

FIGURE 1 - Non-timber forest products (including fuelwood) make a significant contribution to the forestry sector in most countries

The contribution of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) to the forestry sector in most countries is significant, and studies are showing that they have been undervalued in the past. A recent valuation undertaken by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in India estimates that 220 million tonnes of fuelwood, 250 million tonnes of grass and green fodder and 12 million m³ of timber are removed from India's forests annually. These products are estimated to be worth US$ 10 billion (Mukherjee, 1994).

In India, NTFPs provide about 40 percent of total official forest revenues and 55 percent of forest-based employment. Nearly 500 million people living in and around forests in India rely on NTFPs as a critical component for their sustenance (World Resources Institute, 1990). In Madhya Pradesh, the NTFPs which are primarily collected by tribal (i.e. members of local indigenous groups) women are worth more than Rs 21 billion (US$ 700 million) annually (Worldwatch Institute, 1991). Based on a study of ten forest protection committees under the Joint Forest Management programme, it was found that the income from NTFPs ranges from Rs 234 to Rs 5569 (US $8-$186) per hectare per year with a mean of Rs 2299 (US $79) (Malhotra et al., 1991).

Furthermore, revenues from NTFPs have been growing faster than revenues from timber in the past. For example, compound growth rates in revenue from NTFPs in India during the 1968/69 to 1976/77 period were 40 percent higher than those for timber. Export earnings from NTFPs on average account for about 60 to 70 percent of total export earnings from forest products, and this proportion has been rising. Moreover, there is considerable scope for increasing exports further by exploiting untapped resources as the current production of most NTFPs is estimated to be about 60 percent of the potential production. In the case of non-edible fibres and flowers, production is only 7 and 12 percent, respectively, of the potential production (Gupta, Banerji and Guleria, 1982).

It is now felt increasingly that management and development of NTFP resources is essential for various reasons. First, forest management focused on the production of NTFPs may be ecologically and economically sustainable provided that extraction rates do not exceed the maximum sustainable yield. Tribal communities have been involved in NTFP utilization for centuries without destroying the resource base. Managing forests for production of NTFPs also implies maintaining biological diversity of both plant and animal species.

Second, non-timber forest products are a vital source of livelihood for a large proportion of the poor living in or close to the forest in most tropical countries. In West Midnapore district in West Bengal, many village communities derive as much as 17 percent of their annual household incomes from NTFPs (Malhotra et al., 1991). Other estimates suggest that up to 35 percent of the income of tribal households in India comes from the collection of unprocessed NTFPs. Also, since NTFPs involve a large variety of seasonal products, returns are frequent and relatively continuous. Moreover, local processing of NTFPs can increase off-farm rural employment opportunities. Small-scale forest-based enterprises, many of them based on NTFPs, provide up to 50 percent of income for 20 to 30 percent of the rural labour force in India (Campbell, 1988).

Third, in addition to subsistence and income-generating potential, NTFPs also provide food security to large low-income populations, their cattle and other domestic animals, particularly during droughts or famines (FAO, 1989).

A major challenge related to the further development of NTFPs is the limited availability of documentation related to sustainable harvesting levels. In the past, studies on timber have dominated the scientific forestry literature. There are ethnobatanical studies which list a wide variety of forest products, descriptions of economically useful plants and scattered regional profiles of NTFP trade. The difficulty stems from a singular lack of hard scientific data on the economics of NTFP management, trade and marketing in different forest types; on biological production functions for most NTFP species; traditional harvesting and utilization patterns; and the impacts of commercialization and changing use patterns on the state of NTFPs and related activities.

Fortunately, in the past few years there has been a spurt of interest, and several NTFP-related studies have been undertaken. For example, some studies have looked at valuation issues (Peters, Gentry and Mendelssohn, 1989; de Beer and McDermott, 1989; Schwartzman, 1989; Padoch and de Jong, 1989; Campbell, 1988; Malhotra et al., 1991). Wickens (1991) has reviewed the issues related to the development of NTFPs. Richards (1992) has raised serious concerns about the viability of commercializing NTFPs as "eco-protection enterprises". May (1991) has studied the role of institutions in the NTFP markets in Brazilian Amazon. Case-studies by FAO (FAO, 1991a; 1991b) have analysed problems of value addition and organizational management in Southeast and East Asia. The International Tropical Timber Organization has developed guidelines for the sustainable use of all natural resources; these guidelines specifically stress the need for estimation of the present and potential values of NTFPs (Arnetz, 1993). In India, pioneering work has been done by Gupta, Banerji and Guleria (1982). This article discusses some of the challenges related to increasing NTFP exploitation and highlights needs for sustainable management.

Challenges associated with increased exploitation

As development of NTFPs increases, there is a danger of unsustainable exploitation. Unsustainable extraction practices may occur for many reasons. Increasing demand can lead people to disregard traditional harvesting techniques. For example, prices of chironji seeds (Buchanania lanzan, B. latifolia) or Cuddapah almond, used as a substitute for almond in various delicacies, have increased more than 150 times or so within a span of five years in India. Many tribal people prematurely harvest chironji fruits and overexploit them to the extent that natural regeneration is now being hampered, especially in Madhya Pradesh.

In West Bengal, faulty techniques of collecting mahua flowers (the collectors break the apical twigs which affects flowering in the following year) were found to do considerable damage to the natural stock (Rama Krishna Mission Lokashiksha Parishad, 1992). In Central India, mahua forests are burnt repeatedly to simplify collection of the yellow flowers from the forest floor, damaging regeneration. As a result, young mahua trees are becoming scarce and some experts suggest that the species will be extinct by AD 2200.

Similarly, the indiscriminate collection of raw materials from forests for the incense stick (agarbatti) industry in Karnataka State in southern India has created large environmental losses in some areas. Two examples out of many in the state are the extensive loss of gulmavu (Machilus macarantha) trees in Coorg and Malanad districts resulting from debarking of the trees, and of species such as Ailanthus malabarica (halmaddi) and Borewellia serrota owing to unsustainable exploitation (Parameswarappa, 1992). Similarly, the indiscriminate felling and collection of NTFPs from uppage (Garcinia cambogia) trees in Karnataka has resulted in widespread losses.

Policy and institutional challenges

Institutional and organizational processes need to be better understood in order to help communities manage NTFPs as part of a larger livelihood strategy, while maintaining an equitable distribution of responsibilities and benefits. It is possible for inappropriate, although well-meaning, policies to have an effect contrary to that desired.

A very good example of a policy and institutional response that proved inappropriate is governmental intervention in the NTFP industry in India. In an attempt to tap the potential more fully in terms of production and employment generation of the forestry sector in India, the Government of India set up the Forest Development Corporations (FDCs) in 1976, on the recommendation of the National Commission on Agriculture. One of the major objectives of the FDCs was to help tribal NTFP collectors by eliminating the large profit margins pocketed by local entrepreneurs and passing these benefits to tribal people in terms of better wages and working conditions.

An FDC was set up in each state; in addition, several government-supported cooperatives were also established. But the functioning of these cooperatives has often been detrimental to the interest of tribal people, and such organizations have not been cost-effective. As a result, tribal people sometimes receive as little as 10 to 40 percent of the sale price in the nearest NTFP market (Chambers, Saxena and Tushaar, 1990).

Tenure and ownership issues

Another challenge relates to tenure and ownership. Unless access and usufruct rights are given to users, there is little incentive to manage NTFPs sustainably. In an attempt to develop these resources, some Indian states nationalized many NTFPs. For example, Madhya Pradesh nationalized bamboo, khair, sal seeds, harra, gums and tendu leaves, among others. The tribal people were required to sell their produce exclusively to the Forest Department to the agent contractors appointed by them.

Production levels of some NTFPs declined sharply following nationalization (Chambers, Saxena and Tushaar, 1990). For example, production of tendu leaves in Madhya Pradesh declined from 5.1 million bags in 1981/82 to 3.9 million bags in 1985/86 - a decrease of 23.5 percent. In Orissa, the production of tendu leaves stagnated over a longer period. Similarly, after nationalization, the collection of sal seeds fell from 200000 tonnes in 1979 to only 60000 tonnes in 1987 -a decline of 70 percent. The average annual production of lac also declined from 32000 tonnes during 1961-70 to 16000 tonnes during 1981-86 - a decline of about 50 percent.

FIGURE 2 Unsustainable collection of Ailanthus malabarica for the match Industry has resulted in widespread losses, particularly In Karnataka State, India

FIGURE 3 - Improper collection of the fruits of uppage (Garcinia cambogia) trees used in making ghee, a buffer substitute, can result In severe damage to the resource base

Nationalization can significantly reduce the remuneration to collectors of NTFPs. For example, the government of Madhya Pradesh, a central Indian state, paid only Rs 0.55 per kilogram of sal seeds collected as opposed to Rs 1.31 per kilogram, which a study (Chambers, Saxena and Tushaar, 1990) estimated could have been passed on to collectors after meeting all the expenses and margins of the Forest Department.

It can also result in delays in payment to gatherers, as government agencies often find it difficult to make prompt payments. This can stimulate the development of black market activities, with associated higher margins required to cover the costs of illegal activities. All these factors reduce tribal people's collection and incomes (Chambers, Saxena and Tushaar, 1990).

A number of experiments are under way to empower local communities in the protection and management of forest resources. India's Joint Forest Management programme in which local communities become partners with the State Forest Department, sharing responsibilities and benefits from forests, is an exciting step in this direction.

The size of enterprise development

Another challenge associated with the increased exploitation of NTFPs is a shift from small-scale to large-scale activities. If not carefully planned and managed, this shift can produce undesirable results, particularly in terms of benefits to local people.

Case-studies from India, Indonesia and Latin American and African countries on NTFP-based activities reveal that NTFP-based small-scale enterprises have some common characteristics. Obviously, these are small in size, are based in the household and are frequently seasonal in labour and employment generation. They are labour-intensive, are based on simple technologies, have low capital requirements and provide direct benefits to the local economy. Most important, they are accessible to low-income and socially disadvantaged groups and are most often managed by women (FAO, 1987; 1991a).

Large-scale enterprises typically incur higher collection and processing costs compared with small-scale enterprises because NTFP resources are scattered and hard to reach, making mass extraction and transfer costs high. Furthermore, for large-scale enterprises the minimum output required to break even may demand unsustainable exploitation and rapid moves in and out of the market. A very good example of the latter is the depletion of natural stands of edible palm species in southern Brazil during the 1960s by the palm-heart canning industry which has now moved to the states of Pará and Amapa. Further unsustainable harvesting practices of palm hearts are stressing the resource base in these states too (Richards, 1993).

However, small-scale enterprises also face some common constraints, including limited access to institutional finance and a lack of tax incentives, highly risky market environments and income-sharing problems. Moreover, as NTFP markets expand and efforts are made to increase local processing capacity in order to capture the value-added benefits, traditional patterns of management, income distribution and the division of labour can become disrupted (FAO, 1991a; 1991b). In Karnataka, studies by the Indian Social Studies Trust showed how increased commercialization of one product and improved technologies applied to another negatively affected the predominant user group in each case women. As men saw greater value attached and felt attracted by new, more mechanized technology, women were marginalized (FAO, 1991b). A similar story can be heard from Raigarh village of West Bengal, India (Rama Krishna Mission Lokashiksha Parishad, 1992). About six or seven years ago, NTFP collection was a low-key activity, mainly done by women in Raigarh village. But, after the introduction of a Joint Forest Management programme under the Forest Department, as NTFP collection became a major activity for some families, men have taken over women's employment.

Requirements for sustainable management

Given the considerable potential of NTFPs to contribute to local livelihoods, there is a real need for: field-level research; synthesis and collection of information on NTFPs from as many published sources as possible, and their dissemination in the form of practical guidelines for NTFP identification, regeneration, extraction management, collection, processing, storage and marketing; and training on technical issues, including silviculture, extraction management, processing and marketing issues.

The sustainable extraction levels of NTFPs are not easy to calculate, and yet they are a prerequisite for NTFP-based development. In order to ensure this, much more information is needed on current rates of extraction and on productivity rates for different products. Indiscriminate extraction practices have already resulted in the depletion of natural regeneration and local extermination of species in some cases.

Without good yield data and matching data on extraction rates (the flow) per unit of area, it is almost impossible to decide whether a given practice is sustainable in the long term or not. What is needed are systematic methodologies for rapidly assessing the distribution and yields of NTFPs and current and potential extraction levels.

More precise research is needed on the ecological requirements and functions of NTFP species, their regeneration rates and yields in different forest types and ecological zones and on innovative silvicultural techniques for managing multiple products.

Research is needed to clarify tenurial arrangements and understand the often conflicting layers of traditional rights, use pattern settlements, concessions and privileges and gender relationships.

Institutional processes and organizational arrangements need to be better understood in order to help communities manage NTFPs as part of a broader livelihood strategy, while maintaining an equitable distribution of responsibilities and benefits.

Research is needed on the values of selected commodities in village, district, national and international markets, on the marketing chain and the profits of collector/producers, processors and entrepreneurs.

The impact of product substitution and the possibility of creating new markets need to be examined, together with the impacts of changes in collection, processing and marketing patterns. Price supply and demand trends will need to be assessed to determine the medium- and long-term economic viability and market absorptive capacity of each NTFP.

FIGURE 4 In many cases, small scale Industries based on NTFPs - for example, furniture making from rattan - can be more sustainable and provide more local benefits than large scale exploitation

The role of marketing cooperatives, forest corporations and voluntary agencies should be examined to maximize benefits to collectors and producers. Special emphasis should be placed on developing appropriate small-scale processing technology and enterprises which maximize value added at the local level but do not strain the resource base.

All this should be carried out simultaneously. Information from field-level research and existing sources should be used as inputs for training and extension, technical and credit support.


As local people's resource and livelihood needs come to the forefront, particularly their dependency on forests and their myriad products, forest management strategies are increasingly devoting attention to the current use and future potential of non-timber forest products. NTFPs represent significant opportunities in terms of products, employment and income generation but, as with other renewable resources, attempts to utilize this potential further carry with them the risk of resource depletion. Moreover, the current character of NTFP exploitation, i.e. primarily small-scale and of direct benefit to rural people, risks being changed or even lost. Development of NTFPs merits immediate and long-term attention but should be undertaken with clarity and caution.


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