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Non-timber forest products provide opportunities to reduce poverty

Historically, non-timber forest products (NTFPs) have played a significant role in shaping economies worldwide. Examples of NTFPs include items like mushrooms, berries, medicinal herbs, and bamboo.

From the Roman Empire, which significantly bolstered its revenues with customs taxes on spices like black pepper, to the Middle Ages when Europeans colonized Asia to dominate the spice trade, these products have consistently been economic stalwarts.

Yet, despite their substantial contributions to the economies of many countries, global trade statistics, both in the EU and worldwide, often neglect these products today.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that non-wood products generate $88 billion annually for producers. Including processing and other value-added activities, their total economic impact reaches trillions of dollars.

Undervalued forest products

Professor Carsten Smith-Hall from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food and Resource Economics highlights the overlooked potential of NTFPs.

“We estimate that roughly 30,000 different non-timber forest products are traded internationally, yet fewer than fifty are currently assigned a commodity code in global trade accounts,” noted Smith-Hall.

This oversight renders these valuable products invisible in official statistics. Consequently, it deprives the communities that harvest these products of potential earnings and investment in local processing industries

“These goods play a significant role in food security, health, and employment, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. By underestimating these goods, we miss clear opportunities to combat poverty,” said Smith-Hall.

Economic impact

One striking example of the potential of NTFPs is caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis), known as the “Viagra of the Himalayas.”

Harvesters collect caterpillar fungus on the Tibetan plateau, where it is highly valued in China as an aphrodisiac and traditional medicine. It commands prices as high as €11,500 per kilogram.

“This trade significantly enhances the local economy, enabling communities to invest in education and housing,” explained Smith-Hall. “Yet, its benefits are curtailed due to its exclusion from formal trade records.”

“When these products are excluded from official trade accounts, they are also neglected in the development of industry policies and technology, missing out on crucial investment opportunities.”

Non-timber forest products

Recognizing the enormity of the task, Smith-Hall suggests we prioritize and effectively manage economically significant products.

“By identifying and focusing on a concise list of key products, countries can better direct their research and investments towards developing cultivation techniques and enhancing local economies.”

Additionally, the researchers advocate for systematic data collection on traded volumes and prices at all levels. They note that existing tools for this purpose could be more widely used.

“We have a huge untapped potential here that can contribute to tackling extreme poverty while conserving nature and biodiversity,” said Smith-Hall. “We must broaden our focus beyond just timber and recognize the value of all forest resources.”

Rethinking forest resources

The critical role of NTFPs highlights the need to reevaluate how we value and manage forest resources. By incorporating these products into official trade statistics, we can unlock their potential. This would support sustainable development and aid in poverty alleviation.

Consequently, this shift not only promises economic benefits but also ensures the preservation of biodiversity and the enhancement of global food security and health.

Properties of non-timber forest products

Non-timber forest products encompass a broad array of resources harvested from forests that do not involve logging trees. These products hold immense ecological, economic, and cultural significance and are crucial for the biodiversity of their ecosystems. Characteristics and benefits of NTFPs include:

Ecological benefits

NTFPs are key components of forest ecosystems, providing critical habitat, food sources, and maintaining ecological balances. They help in:

  • Pollination support: Many NTFPs such as fruits and flowers provide resources for pollinators, which are essential for the reproduction of many plant species.
  • Soil enrichment: The harvesting of NTFPs like fallen leaves, seeds, and certain fungi contributes to nutrient cycling and soil fertility.
  • Forest structure: The varied use of different forest layers for NTFPs helps maintain the complexity of forest structure, which is vital for diverse wildlife.

Economic importance

NTFPs offer significant economic benefits, particularly in remote and rural areas where they serve as a primary source of income:

  • Trade and livelihoods: Local and international trade in non-timber forest products provides livelihoods for millions of people globally. Items like resins, essential oils, and decorative flowers have substantial markets.
  • Micro-enterprises: Many NTFPs serve as the basis for small-scale industries at the community level, such as basket weaving, natural dyes, and artisan crafts.
  • Tourism attraction: Eco-tourism and cultural tourism often promote the unique aspects of local NTFPs, attracting visitors interested in organic and native products.

Cultural significance

The cultural implications of NTFPs are profound and varied:

  • Traditional knowledge: Many communities have deep knowledge of the medicinal, nutritional, and spiritual properties of forest products, passed down through generations.
  • Spiritual and religious use: Certain NTFPs enhance their value and the need for sustainable management by being used in spiritual or religious rituals.
  • Cultural heritage: Crafts, folklore, and festivals often revolve around the collection and use of NTFPs, embedding these products into the cultural fabric of societies.

Health and nutrition

NTFPs are vital sources of nutrition and medicinal benefits:

  • Medicinal plants: Many plants used as NTFPs have recognized medicinal properties, used in traditional medicine systems like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
  • Nutritional supplements: Forest foods such as nuts, berries, and edible mushrooms are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, contributing to food security and nutrition.

Challenges and management

Despite their benefits, the sustainable management of NTFPs faces several challenges:

  • Overharvesting: Without proper management, some valuable NTFPs are at risk of overexploitation, which can lead to the depletion of resources.
  • Legal and policy frameworks: In many regions, there is a lack of clear legal frameworks that regulate the sustainable harvesting and fair trade of NTFPs.
  • Climate change impacts: Changes in climate patterns can affect the growth cycles and availability of certain NTFPs, requiring adaptive management strategies.

Effective management of non-timber forest products requires an integrated approach that respects ecological balances, promotes fair economic benefits, and preserves cultural values. This necessitates policies that support sustainable practices, promote fair trade, and include local communities in conservation efforts.

The study is published in the journal Forest Policy and Economics.


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