Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page


FAO, Forestry Department, Wood and Non-Wood Products Utilization Branch, ROME


Hundreds of millions of people, mostly in developing countries but also in developed countries, derive a significant part of their subsistence needs and income from plant and animal products gathered from forests.

The sustainable utilization of NWFP is widely acclaimed by many national and international conservation and development agencies as an option for forest conservation and increasing rural income generation at the same time. However, there are also many constraints and frequently false hopes that have been raised by the promulgation of the value of NWFP.

There is a wide range of technical needs and social and policy implications involved when promoting NWFP. In this paper a number of important policy issues are reviewed related to increasing the economic potential of NWFP while at the same time, conserving the biological diversity of forest resources. These include: the need to develop suitable management systems; clarification of user rights over the resource, particularly where it is considered common property; research and development needs in understanding the biological dynamics of the resources and in domestication; development of appropriate monitoring and evaluation systems; development of effective processing and equitable marketing systems for the product; various legal issues and trade regulations, including intellectual property rights.

The paper provides an overview of some of these key policy issues and constraints by describing and analysing lessons learned from selected case studies dealing with the promotion of a sustainable utilization of NWFP.

Key words: NWFP, policy, management, forests, processing, trade.


Since immemorial times, people have gathered plant and animal resources in the forest for their food and shelter needs. Examples include edible nuts, mushrooms, fruits, herbs, spices, gums, aromatic plants, game, fodder, fibres used for shelter construction, clothing or utensils, naval stores, and plant or animal products for medicinal, cosmetic or cultural uses. Still today, hundreds of millions of people, mostly in developing countries but also in developed countries, derive a significant part of their subsistence needs and income from plant and animal products gathered from forests.

“Non-wood forest products” (NWFP) and similar terms, like: “minor”, “secondary”, and “non-timber” forest products (NTFP), have emerged as umbrella expressions for the vast array of both animal and plant products other than wood (or timber in the case of “non-timber”) derived from forests or forest tree species. The term “NWFP” will be used throughout this paper for reasons of consistency and clarity and does not imply any value judgement regarding the other above described terms in use.

Deforestation and forest degradation resulting in a severe loss of biological diversity have stimulated many programmes and activities world wide to halt and remediate this process. Among the underlying causes of deforestation is poverty, particularly of socially disadvantaged groups in rural areas. Therefore the sustainable use of forest plant and animal species is receiving even more attention now as a means of mitigating deforestation, hence maintaining forest cover and preserving biodiversity, while at the same time realising a sustainable income from it. NWFP are now widely acclaimed by many national and international conservation and development agencies as a panacea for forest conservation and rural income generation. And indeed, in many cases, their sustainable use can actually contribute significantly towards achieving both objectives at the same time. However, there are also many constraints and frequently false hopes that have been raised by the promulgation of the value of NWFP.

There is a wide range of technical needs and social and policy implications involved when promoting NWFP. What follows is an attempt to provide a short overview of some key development constraints and their related policy issues.

Policy guidelines related to the management of resources providing NWFP

The foremost issue regarding the development of NWFP, be it for subsistence or commercial use, is related to the lack of information on the availability and growth dynamics of the species from which the non-wood products can be obtained. First, the species and their spatial distribution needs to be well known and assessed. In fact, in most cases the distribution of many species providing NWFP is not known at all and even less their potential yield of non-wood products that can be harvested in a sustainable manner. Botanical research and development work is needed in order to define the baseline information required to elaborate available and sustainable supply levels for major non-wood products for key species. Also, harvesting techniques can still be further improved as in many cases, the harvesting of the product (like roots or bark for example) is critically affecting the growth of the species or may even kill it.

In addition to compiling descriptive and quantitative data on the area and quality in terms of biological diversity of the existing (forest or tree) resources, clarifications on the access and user rights to the resources providing NWFP are part of the essential baseline information. The commercial exploitation of many NWFP is often undertaken in a non-sustainable manner because of a free access system to the forest for harvesting resources in uncontrolled/unlimited quantities. The majority of species, which actually yield non-wood products, occur with low frequency, especially in tropical forests. In general, species with low densities are unlikely to become important suppliers of commercially large quantities, as they are highly susceptible to the impacts of over-harvesting. Basic research knowledge on the resource, in terms of both biology and the socio-economic considerations is essential before any commercial exploitation of a particular NWFP can be promoted. As appropriate and feasible, local knowledge on conservation and use of NWFP resources should be collected, documented and adopted as a basis for their management.

In case of forest based resources, forest management techniques to address the above mentioned resource supply constraints for NWFP are usually done by adjusting silvicultural interventions in a way to promote the growth of the selected species. For example, girdling in the forest of unwanted species around a selected tree is done to favour its growth and consequently increase its fruit production. However, forest management and silvicultural interventions for NWFP are expensive to implement and they also have their technical limits. In addition, in those cases where several user groups have conflicting user claims, like for timber, or for grazing and/or for gathering NWFP, it is quite a challenge to find and implement the silvicultural treatment(s) that would satisfy all. For example in semi-arid regions, there are conflicts between NWFP gathering and grazing interests. Pastoral interest leads to lopping of tree branches for fodder or for setting fire to renew grazing lands. These practices result in habitat degradation and species loss with subsequent reduced availability of NWFP. In dense forest zones for example, conflict between the wood values and non-wood values for many tree species exists, especially when the derived benefit from timber and NWFP are directed to different user groups. Baillonella toxisperma (moabi), Pterocarpus soyauxii (padouk), Carapa guianensis (andiroba) and Milicia excelsa (iroko), to name just a few, have high timber values at overseas markets, but their local NWFP uses (fruits) are valued highly by the native people.

Domestication and farming of species providing NWFP is another option to address resource supply constraints. When highly valued species become depleted in the forests, domestication is and has been usually the most common response. As farm crops, through agroforestry schemes or full-scale plantations, species providing NWFP can be cultivated. Most of our agriculture crops were once NWFP. Gradually, these forest plants and animals were domesticated by farmers and became part of agriculture. This domestication process is still ongoing, as shown by recent and successful examples such as macadamia nuts (Macadamia integrifolia) or tropical exotic fruits like star fruit (Averrhoa carambola) or durian (Durio zibethinus).

However, domestication of the resource through farming is not always technically possible, economically feasible or socially and environmentally acceptable. Domestication and farming of NWFP may work well for some species but not for others, like the case of some highly valued mushroom species but which we do not yet know how to cultivate them. Also, farmed products may be considered qualitatively inferior when compared with wild gathered species, such as is the case of many medicinal plants (ginseng). The economic feasibility for farming NWFP is limited as long as the non-wood products can still be obtained at a lower price from forest gathering. The social dimension of domestication is also important. Often forest dependent peoples or those socially disadvantageous groups, who actually depend on gathering NWFP for their survival and cash income, might not have access to farm land at all, or not be able to compete with large-scale production of NWFP by well-established farmers (such as the large-scale farming of plants like mint or camomile for herbal teas). Farming NWFP also has an environmental implication in the sense that it reduces the economic incentives for forest dependent peoples to conserve the ecosystems in which the NWFP species still may occur.

Policy guidelines related to processing, marketing and trade

Improving processing, marketing and trade of NWFP is the next key issue, especially when a commercial utilization of NWFP for national or international trade is envisaged. NWFP have attracted considerable global interest in recent years due to increasing recognition of their contribution to household economies and food security. Several million households worldwide depend heavily on these products for subsistence consumption and/or income. At the local level, some NWFP provide raw materials for industrial processing, including for (inter-) nationally traded commodities such as foods and beverages, confectionery, flavourings, perfumes, medicines, paints and polishes. Presently, some 150 different NWFP are significant in terms of international trade, of which the most important ones are: gum arabic, rattan and bamboo products, cork, forest gathered vegetables, herbs and mushrooms, essential oils, wild honey and plant and animal parts for pharmaceutical products.

Major impediments for trade in NWFP include: the irregularity of supply and the large number of low volume products involved; unsuitability of product standards to regulations and consumer preferences; the absence of quality control and product information to consumers; and in many developing countries the insufficiency of transportation infrastructure (roads) for the rapid shipment of the products between production zones and the nearest major market (especially for fresh food products). For overseas trade, further bottlenecks are: the lack of regulations on the importation of these products (especially for food and medicinal plant products) or when they exist, cumbersome administrative customs procedures and lack of harmonization of NWFP import regulations among the importing countries.

Commercially successful processing and marketing of NWFP is basically a private sector driven issue, be it at the level of households, cottage industries or trans-national companies. However, commercial success also depends on appropriate government policies to create the conducive environment for the development of NWFP-based enterprises, particularly for those aimed at the household or village level of socially disadvantaged groups. National strategies may focus to facilitate the start-up of small-scale enterprises and that could include for example: technology and product development by providing access to improved technical standards, providing a framework for technology transfer and training programmes towards household processing or village level enterprises for marketing food products like mushrooms, herbs, fruits or nuts; fiscal incentives and promotion of export and/or import substitution schemes. Along these lines, the FAO Community Forestry Unit has recently developed a toolkit on “Market Analysis and Development for community-based tree and forest product enterprises”. This toolkit has been designed for extension workers to assist local people identify potential products and develop income generating activities through improved processing and marketing of NWFP. (

Fair trade associations often have a catalytic role to play towards a successful commercialization of NWFP. The aim is to promote the development of autonomy and emancipation of small-scale rural producers through the establishment of commercial relations based on fair trade. These organizations either buy products directly from the producers for resale at more rewarding (inter-) national markets or provide technical and marketing support to the rural producers associations locally. The profits are transferred back to the producers to be invested in the further development of their activities. This concept constitutes an important market support for developing countries to promote new products, and a growing number of cooperatives word-wide market their NWFP by means of this channel. Most successful are local (or village-level) processing activities to increase value adding, such as grading, improvement of packaging and conditioning of products. The aim is to ensure that demand and supply develop in parallel, that the supply is from sustainably managed resources, and that the products satisfy the expectations of the clients on the one hand, and improve the income of the producers on the other. This is a big challenge and may be difficult, but it is not insurmountable. Working progressively, it is clear that many more NWFP will be able to follow the commercial path taken by numerous products that are now presently sold in large quantities in the international market such as herbal and aromatic products, honey and mushrooms, and handicrafts made with all sorts of non-wood forest products like pine cones, rattan, palmleaves, lianas or other natural fibres. An overview of some fair trade agencies, their activities and how to contact them is presented by Durbeck in the FAO Forest Department publication Unasylva, nr. 198: “Non-wood Forest Products and Income Generation” (1999/3), pg 9–11.

Policy guidelines for institutional support

Lack of institutional capability is a major constraint to the development of NWFP and weaknesses in the interrelated aspects of the above presented resource-processing-trade aspects are a symptom of an underlying lack of institutional capacity. Institutional strengthening involving clear policies, rules and regulations, development of skills, improved strategic planning, organisational systems and structures, decentralisation of activities and mechanisms for committed participation as an area requiring urgent attention by governments. For example: information on trade in NWFP is scarce and data are rarely collected or published at a national level. When data on NWFP are recorded, under-reporting, double counting, grouping of NWFP at different stages of processing or taken together with other products from agricultural sources, and the use of unrealistic prices, are systematic shortcomings of such statistics. Also, much of the production and consumption is at subsistence level and as a consequence their economic importance is still largely under-estimated or even ignored in government decision making regarding rural development, natural resource management planing and in government budget allocations.

As recommended by the International Expert Consultation on Non-Wood Forest Products (Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 1995 -governments should undertake formulation, review and/or revision of policies having direct impact on NWFP, with clear orientation towards sustainable management of resources by:

These proceedings are available on-line at

The Expert Meeting further recommended that: governments should establish clear identity for NWFP by suitably incorporating it in the public forest administration system. Public administration agencies having jurisdiction over (and/or financial interest in) forest resources should have a clear mission and plans that proclaim and explicitly strengthen their commitment to stewardship of NWFP and partnership with local resource users, NGOs, private sector and other stakeholders and financial institutions. Planning, programming and intersectoral coordination (including development of relevant statistical information) should be explicit functions of the agency responsible for implementing forest/NWFP policy. Governments should support the establishment/strengthening of research institutions having capability to conduct research on the different aspects of NWFP and provided with funds, support facilities, trained researchers, and an effective mechanism for involving users of research results. Information systems (statistical, technological/scientific and others) need to be established, covering resource inventories, resource distribution, production, processing, marketing, utilisation, trade, consumption and other vital aspects.

The above mentioned policies and institutional support which specifically govern the conservation, management, harvesting, processing and trade of NWFP are lacking in most countries, but efforts have been made recently to redress this. Overall, the development and implementation of national policy frameworks to support the development of the NWFP sector remains a major challenge. Key elements for further policy debate and improvement include the regulations about the access to public forest resources and clarification of duties, responsibilities and user rights among forest owner and user groups. Particularly delicate and complex to address is the case of highly valuable NWFP such as medicinal plants where indigenous people claim their intellectual property rights and call for the implementation of benefit sharing arrangements with pharmaceutical industries or other resource user groups.


In conclusion, much of the current effort on NWFP development is focusing on providing or increasing alternative sources of income for forest dwellers or poor populations living near the forest. Large-scale commercialisation of a product is neither guaranteed to benefit these people nor to protect the resource. It may not even be technically feasibly or socio-economically viable. Calls for increased attention to production of NWFP are often less motivated by economic considerations than by environmental and social concerns. There is a range of policy implications involved and many important issues are being grappled with in the current efforts to tap the economic potential of NWFP. These include: the need to develop suitable management systems; research and development needs in understanding the biological dynamics of the resources and in domestication; clarification of user rights over the resource, particularly where it is considered common property; development of effective processing and marketing systems for the product and improving their trade regulations; and various institutional strengthening needs, particularly on the issue of intellectual property rights as to elaborate how the country, the local user or other entity can be adequately compensated for use of the resource by outsiders.


FAO, Département des forêts, Sous-Division de l'utilisation des produits ligneux et non ligneux,


Des centaines de millions de personnes, principalement dans les pays en développement mais aussi dans les pays développés, tirent une part importante de leurs revenus et satisfont une part importante de leurs besoins de subsistance des produits végétaux et animaux provenant des forêts.

L'utilisation durable de produits forestiers autres que le bois est applaudie par de nombreux organismes de protection de la nature et de développement nationaux et internationaux, qui y voient une possibilité de préserver les forêts tout en augmentant les revenus des communautés rurales. Toutefois, de nombreuses contraintes se présentent aussi et souvent la promotion de la valeur des produits forestiers autres que le bois a suscité de fausses espérances.

La promotion des produits forestiers autres que le bois met en jeu une gamme étendue de besoins techniques et des incidences d'ordre social et politique très diverses. Dans le document un certain nombre de questions importantes de politique générale sont exposées, qui portent sur les moyens d'augmenter le potentiel économique des produits visés tout en préservant la diversité biologique des ressources forestières. Il s'agit des éléments suivants : nécessité de mettre en place des systèmes de gestion durable; clarification des droits de l'usager sur la ressource, en particulier quand elle est considérée comme un patrimoine commun; besoins en matière de recherche-développement pour comprendre la dynamique biologique des ressources et pour les mettre en valeur; mise en place de systèmes efficaces de surveillance et d'évaluation; mise au point de systèmes efficaces de transformation et de commercialisation équitable du produit; plusieurs questions d'ordre juridique et réglementation commerciale, y compris la question des droits de propriété intellectuelle.

Le document contient un exposé général de quelques-unes de ces questions fondamentales de politique et de ces contraintes et expose et étudie les enseignements tirés de certaines études de cas consacrées à la promotion de l'utilisation durable des produits forestiers autres que le bois.

Mots clefs: Produits forestiers autres que le bois, politique, gestion, forêts, transformation, commerce.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page