Overstory #53 - Nontimber Forest Products: an introduction
Nontimber forest products represent an important aspect of sustainable economic growth, conservation, and resource management. This edition of The Overstory provides a brief introduction to the subject of nontimber forest products (NTFPs). A resource section with books, periodicals, and web links about NTFPs is included for further information.
What Are Nontimber Forest Products?
Nontimber forest products (NTFPs) refers to a wide array of economic or subsistence materials that come from forests, excluding timber. Similar terms include "nonwood," "minor," "secondary," and "special" or "specialty" forest products.
There are many kinds of animal and plant resources that are derived from forests, including fruits, nuts, mushrooms, essential oils, florals, medicinal products, herbs and spices, dyes, resins, and animal products such as honey and wild game. These products are often gathered from natural forests. Others may be produced with varying degrees of cultivation and domestication, either within a forest ecosystem or as part of a planted forest system such as an agroforestry or forestry project.
NTFPs represent income opportunities from forests and forestry that do not involve cutting down trees for wood products. In forests with low timber production potential, NTFPs represent the major actual or potential source of income. In other cases, management of a forest for NTFPs does not preclude the option to harvest timber, as well.
While NTFPs are traditionally used and appreciated by peoples of many cultures worldwide, the significance of these products for sustainable economic growth, cultural endurance, and environmental health is receiving increasing recognition by governments and other official agencies.
Examples of Nontimber Forest Products
A wide array of goods are classified as nontimber forest products. They include both animal and plant products. Some involve little processing, serving local markets or family needs; others involve complex management and processing and are bound for national or international markets. Below are some examples of nontimber forest products.
Simple technology processing: Food (e.g. fruits, nuts, berries, root crops, sugar plants) Culinary herbs Mushrooms (e.g., for food or medicinal uses) Wild game Food insects Handicraft materials (e.g. rattan, bamboo, beads) Floral products (e.g. cut flowers, moss, vines, cut greens)
Intermediate processing: Herbal medicines (e.g. kava, ginseng) Vegetable oils Dyes, tannins, colorants Honey Seeds or propagative materials
Complex processing: Essential oils (e.g. lemon grass, vetiver, patchouli, tea tree oil) Pharmaceuticals and medicinals Herbs, spices, flavorings (e.g. vanilla, cinnamon) Resins, gums, saps, and oils (e.g. rubber, latex) Fiber plants (e.g. sisal, wauke, hau)
The Importance of Nontimber Forest Products
For millennia, nontimber forest products have been essential for subsistence and economic activities all around the world. NTFPs are also among the oldest and most long-standing of internationally traded commodities, dating back thousands of years to ancient times continuing in the present day.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO 1997), it has been estimated that:
- 80 per cent of the population of the developing world use NTFPs to meet some of their health and nutritional needs
- Several million households worldwide depend heavily on NTFP products for income
- The estimated total value of world trade in NTFPs is approximately US$1,100 million.
Recently, the importance of NTFPs is being rediscovered. Forests are being valued not simply for their timber, but as intricate systems capable of sustained generation of a great diversity of resources and services. NTFPs have substantial environmental, economic, and cultural impacts.
Nontimber forest products represent a way to meet environmental objectives such as conservation of forests, watersheds, and biological diversity. A growing body of scientific research suggests that NTFPs can help communities meet their needs without jeopardizing forest ecosystems. The growing appreciation for NTFPs stems from the realization that diverse investments and diverse ecosystems are a strong foundation for sustainable economic development.
Timber products have overshadowed NTFPs as major commodities in modern times. However, the important contribution of nontimber forest products to food and resource security and to financial well-being is gaining increasing recognition. In fact, in some areas, the financial impact of NTFPs may be even greater than that of forestry. For example, a study in Zimbabwe revealed that small-scale NTFP-based enterprises employed 237,000 people, compared to only 16,000 employed in conventional forestry and forest industries in the same year (FAO 1995).
In local, urban, national and international markets, forest foods and medicines contribute substantially to national economic growth. The NTFP sector is been estimated in over a billion dollars US, and is growing rapidly, perhaps faster than the timber industry. For example, the market for NTFPs has grown by nearly 20% annually over the last several years, and the related herbal medicine market at a rate of 13-15% annually (Hammet 1999). Future development of NTFPs offer good potential for increasing income, expanding opportunities, and diversifying enterprises in rural areas.
Nontimber forest products are basic cash and subsistence commodities in many cultures. Many local populations continue to have a fundamental reliance on NTFPs. In many cases these products are of far greater importance than the irregular cash income gained from commercial logging. While the preservation of NTFPs is fundamental to the maintenance and continuation of many traditional ways of life, these NTFP sources are increasingly threatened by deforestation and land development activities.
The recognition of intellectual property rights is important for many NTFPs. The fields of herbal medicine and biomedical research are growing rapidly. Often the plants, their uses, and harvesting and processing techniques were studied, selected and perfected over generations by people who used them traditionally. As these discoveries blossom into lucrative enterprises, an equitable share of the benefits are due to the people, communities, and countries from which they originate.
Sustainable Resource Management (Excerpt from FAO 1995)
Many people assume that harvests of NTFPs have less impact on a forest than logging. However, this assumption is unfounded. Forest ecosystems have such complex interrelationships that harvests of some non-wood resources can affect plant (and wildlife) populations as negatively as logging. Without a sound knowledge of the resource and regular monitoring, harvests of certain non-wood resources can have a disastrous impact that is not noticed until it is too late to remedy.
For example, overharvesting of fruits or seeds of a tree species can drastically reduce regeneration to the point of local extinction without any visible effect. Large individual trees may remain and the system might appear undisturbed. Only years or decades later, when the large trees die and no individuals replace them, will the damage become evident.
Steps must be taken to understand and inventory the area's non-timber resource. Based on this, a community or enterprise can begin to prepare a plan for management.
For Further Information
Nontimber forest products are key to sustainable economic growth and healthy rural enterprises. They also play a significant role in maintaining biological diversity, forest health, cultural well-being, and indigenous knowledge. As this important aspect of the world's forests gains increasing recognition, more information and support is being made available to people who work with NTFPs. Some useful resources are introduced below.
FAO. 1995. Non-wood forest products 7: Non-wood forest products for rural income and sustainable forestry. FAO, Rome, Italy.
FAO. 1997. State of the World's Forests 1997. FAO, Rome, Italy.
Hammet, T. 1999. Special Forest Products: Identifying Opportunities for Sustainable Forest-based Development. Virginia Landowner Update, Virginia Tech.
Hammett, A.L., and J.L. Chamberlain. 1998. Sustainable use of non-traditional forest products: alternative forest-based income opportunities. Proceedings, Natural Resources Income Opportunities on Private Lands Conference. 141-147.
SPC/UNDP/AusAID/FAO. 1999. A Preliminary Report on Non-Timber Forest Products in Some Pacific Island Countries. RAS/97/330, Working Paper No. 6, SPC/UNDP/AusAID/FAO, Pacific Islands Forests & Trees Support Programme, Suva, Fiji.
Thomas, M.G. and D.R. Schumann. 1993. Income Opportunities in Special Forest Products: Self-Help Suggestions for Rural Entrepreneurs. USDA ADB-666, Washington, DC.
FAO Technical Papers: Non-Wood Forest Products Series An excellent 12 volume series on non-wood forest products (NWFPs) and their role in integrated forestry, agroforestry, and conservation. Provides useful information on the various products, and also the basics of NWFP enterprises for those products. For practitioner, policy maker, or scientist. Order from FAO in Rome (address below).
1. Flavours and Fragrances of Plant Origin, 1995
2. Gum Naval Stores: Turpentine and Rosin from Pine Resin, 1995
3. Report of the International Expert Consultation on Non-Wood Forest Products, 1995 4. Natural Colourants and dyestuffs, 1995
5. Edible Nuts, 1995 6. Gums, Resins and Latexes of Plant Origin, 1995
7. Non-Wood Forest Products for Rural Income and Sustainable Forestry, 1995
8. Trade restrictions affecting international trade in non-wood forest products, 1995
9. Domestication and commercialization of non-timber forest products in agroforestry systems, 1996
10. Tropical palms, 1998
11. Medicinal plants for forest conservation and helth care, 1997
12. Non-wood forest products from conifers, 1998
The major significance of minor forest products (FAO, 1990) contains a global survey of NTFP use. Forests, Trees and People, Community Forestry Note 6. Rome, FAO.
In depth discussion of special forest products that represent opportunities for rural entrepreneurs to supplement their incomes in: Thomas, M.G. and D.R. Schumann. 1993. Income Opportunities in Special Forest Products: Self-Help Suggestions for Rural Entrepreneurs. USDA ADB-666, Washington, DC. Order from Southern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Blacksburg, Virginia.
A very useful treatment of agroforestry practices in the Pacific, including lists and descriptions of many NFTP species, can be found in: W.C. Clark, R.R. Thaman (Editor), Agro-Forestry in the Pacific Islands: Systems for Sustainability. 1994. Unipub.
Non-wood News is an information-rich newsletter produced by FAO's Wood and Non-wood Products Utilization Branch, providing readers with current information on nontimber forest products and their contribution to the sustainable development of the world's forest resources. Non-Wood News, Forest Products Division, Forestry Department, FAO, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla 00100 Rome (Italy), Tel: +39-06-570-52746, Fax: +39-06-570-55618.
The ntfp-biocultural-digest is a free, international internet mailing list promoting knowledge about worldwide NTFP use.
About the Authors
Kim M. Wilkinson is the Education Director for Permanent Agriculture Resources and editor of The Overstory. She has B.A. degrees in Anthropology and Ecology from Emory University.
Craig R. Elevitch is an agroforestry specialist with more than ten years of public and private sector experience in tropical agroforest and forest management. He has a M.S. degree in Electrical Engineering (Dynamical Systems) from Cornell University.
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #71-Nontimber Forest Products (Temperate)
- The Overstory #56--Integrating Understory and Tree Crops
- The Overstory #55--Nontimber Forest Products Part II: NTFP Enterprises
- The Overstory #49--Traditional Agroforestry Systems
- The Overstory #34--Forest Islands, Kayapo Example
- The Overstory #33--Mushrooms in Agroforestry
- The Overstory #13--Value-Added Products
- The Overstory #11--Understory Crops
Tags: Nontimber products