Nontimber Forest Products Essay

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Also called special forest products and minor forest products, nontimber forest products (NTFPs) are renewable forest resources that can be sustainably extracted. Typical NTFPs include gums, resins, oils, sap, nuts, wicker, rattan, bamboo, dyes, incense, fungi, mushrooms, fruits, berries, bark, roots, plants, insects, honey, and eggs. Human beings have relied upon and managed NTFPs for fuel, fodder, food, fiber, medicine, art supplies, and building materials for millennia.

Even today, NTFPs are gathered seasonally and across the spectrum of tenure possibilities by a diversity of people in all countries. Indeed, they play an essential economic and cultural role in the livelihoods of about one-fourth of the world’s population, not counting those who retail and consume NTFPs in metropolitan areas.

Regional and global trade in NTFPs is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Many environmentalists and human rights advocates seek to link global demands for NTFPs in ways that promote forest conservation through sustainable extraction and meet the economic needs of forest peoples and neighboring communities.

Forest peoples worldwide developed ways to manage and regulate access to NTFPs to ensure sustained yield. By their nature, most NTFPs are common property resources, or resources held in common by a defined collectivity. Traditional knowledge of desired NTFPs and their ecologies both shaped and reflected the customary rules of forest access and harvesting practices.

As more distant markets for NTFPs developed, and colonial and state regimes expanded their authority into ever more remote areas, customary rights of forest access blended with or gave way to the imposition of codified rules and regulations enacted in cities. In addition, many NTFPs were purposefully moved to facilitate their production under private, scientific, and colonial control. The most famous example of this was when the British naturalist Walter Bates smuggled the seeds of natural rubber (Hevea brasilensis) out of the Brazilian Amazon in the 19th century. Passing through botanical gardens, the seeds facilitated plantation rubber production in British colonies in south and southeast Asia, temporarily ending the demand for the Amazon’s wild rubber.

Beginning in the 1970s awareness of new and alarming rates of tropical deforestation prompted thinking about alternative forms of rain forest development. By the 1980s two issues moved NTFPs to center stage in a search for unorthodox solutions. In 1985 the Rubber Tappers National Council of Brazil proposed extractive reserves, or collective long-term land-use rights to forested areas. This plan sought to defend rubber tapper livelihoods against expanding timber and ranching interests in the Amazon basin. The high-profile 1988 murder of Chico Mendes, the charismatic leader of the National Council, by a rancher opposed to his activism only served to galvanize the institutionalization of extractive reserves in Amazonia. By 2006 there were over 120 extractive reserves in Brazil cared for by 200,000 people.

A benchmark 1989 article demonstrated that a hectare of tropical rain forest contained a variety of NTFPs of approximately equal value to timber from the same hectare. The implication was that the sustainable extraction of NTFPs would be worth more over time than a one-time timber clearing. If given the opportunity, rain forests could pay for their own protection by giving forest peoples and national governments an economic incentive to protect them-this was before the growth of ecotourism, which has a similar objective. Recognition of the economic viability of healthy forests strengthened governmental willingness to grant usufruct rights to forest peoples dwelling on ostensibly “national lands.”

By the 1990s one important outcome of this convergence was global awareness about the problem of tropical deforestation, and a willingness of industrial-world consumers to buy products that supported or collaborated with NTFP producers. By the early 1990s, however, scholars were already documenting the limits of NTFP extractivism for achieving environmental, economic, and social objectives, as extractors continued to live in poverty and had limited abilities to confront colonists or traditional extractive enterprises, including bioprospectors.

Nontimber forest products play important social and environmental roles in temperate countries as well. For example, it is estimated that up to onequarter of the entire population of Scotland collects wild edibles. Meanwhile, recent Latino and Southeast Asian immigrants to the Pacific Northwest region of the United States are actively involved in NTFP extraction from National Forests. Permits for a single plant, beargrass, suggest that the activity is worth $10 million annually. Mushrooms, floral greens, evergreen plants, ginseng, and berries are also sought from national and private forests across the United States. The economic importance of NTFPs in industrialized countries will likely continue to grow as rural logging economies restructure and new legislation is passed intended to improve NTFP management.


  1. Marla R. Emery and Rebecca McLain, eds., Non-Timber Forest Products: Medicinal Herbs, Fungi, Edible Fruits and Nuts, and Other Natural Products from the Forest (Food Products Press, 2001);
  2. Charles Peters, Alwyn H. Gentry, and Robert O. Mendelsohn, “Valuation of an Amazon Rainforest,” Nature (v.339, 1989);
  3. Mark Plotkin and Lisa Famolare, , Sustainable Harvest and Marketing of Rain Forest Products (Island Press, 1992);
  4. Nick Salafsky, Barbara L. Dugelby, and John W. Terborgh, “Can Extractive Reserves Save the Rain Forest?,” Conservation Biology (v.7, 1993).

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