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Can forests be sustainably managed for non-wood forest products?

P. Vantomme

Paul Vantomme is Forestry Officer (Non-wood Forest Products) in the Forest Products and Economics Division, FAO Forestry Department, Rome.

For the past quarter century, non-wood forest products (NWFPs) have been receiving increasing attention for their potential to improve the income of forest-dependent people. Since the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), NWFPs have also been recognized as important elements in the conservation of forest biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in its expanded Programme of Work on Forest Biological Diversity, recommended a balanced approach between conservation and use of forests and emphasized a third goal, equitable benefit sharing. Can forests really be managed for NWFPs in such a way as to accommodate all these expectations?

This question, among other key issues related to the sustainable development of NWFPs, was discussed in a side event to the XII World Forestry Congress entitled “Strengthening Global Partnerships to Advance Sustainable Development of Non-Wood Forest Products” in Quebec, Canada on 20 September 2003. This full-day side event was organized by the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations (IUFRO), the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and FAO.

Evidence presented at the side event revealed that in some cases management of forests for NWFPs has indeed significantly improved the livelihoods of the NWFP producers and that in some cases the use of NWFPs has maintained species diversity in forests. There have also been cases, however, where NWFPs have demonstrated little potential for either long-term income generation or biodiversity conservation.

The case of bamboo growing in Anhui County in China was probably the best example of how a single crop, over ten years, significantly improved rural income for many people over a vast area. The forest vegetation (heavily degraded) of the hills was gradually replaced with bamboo, but the bamboo fields that came to dominate the landscape had a level of biodiversity comparable to that of a field of maize. The question also remains, of course, whether bamboo, when intensively cultivated by farmers, can still be considered a non-wood forest product.

Cases from the Amazon, on the other hand, showed that NWFPs have indeed been harvested using practices that have maintained species diversity. Examples included rubber (from Hevea brasiliensis) and Brazil nuts (from Bertholletia excelsa, whose felling is prohibited by law). However, in general, gathering of NWFPs may not have contributed to improving rural income in the Amazon in a significant and lasting way. The production volumes of most NWFPs from the Brazilian Amazon have been declining from high outputs in the early 1970s to almost insignificant levels today as several products have become obsolete or have been substituted by farmed outputs.

Between these extreme cases of NWFPs managed for either income generation or biodiversity conservation, there is a whole range of intermediate situations, and in most cases it is difficult to assess the overall sustainability of managing forests for NWFPs. Much progress has been made in the study of the socio-economic aspects of NWFP management, but little is known about the ecology of the species producing NWFPs, particularly in tropical countries, or about biodiversity in managed forests. Methodologies for assessing the impacts of techniques for managing and harvesting NWFPs, and particularly for assessing the sustainability of the resource over time and space, still need much improvement.

The questions concerning management of forests for NWFPs touch on many sectors, not only forestry. It is hoped that the process of improving partnerships set in motion through the side event at the World Forestry Congress will continue, and that enhanced collaboration will facilitate the development of a set of harmonized and globally understood terms, tools and reliable methodologies for the identification and monitoring of key parameters needed to evaluate the sustainability of managing forests for NWFPs.

All documentation related to the NWFP side event at the XII World Forestry Congress is available on the

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