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Non-Timber Forest Products

Non-timber forest products

Forest covers 30% of the world's land area. Fifty-six percent of the world's forest is classified as tropical and subtropical and 44% is considered temperate and boreal. Forests are most often valued for their timber resources, however timber is not the only product available from the forest. Forests are also host to an array of non-timber forest products (NTFPs).

NTFPs include berries and fruits, wild mushrooms, honey, gums, spices, nuts, ornamental foliage, mosses and lichens , and botanicals used for medicinal, cosmetic, and handicraft purposes. Although there is debate on the matter, some definitions of NTFPs also include fish, wild game, insects, and firewood. NTFPs can also be referred to as; special forest products, non-wood forest products, minor forest products, alternative forest products and secondary forest products. Many NTFPs come from mature, intact forests, illustrating the need to conserve the forests for the vast renewable resources they provide.

People use NTFPs everyday and don't even think about it. Most medicines contain ginseng or other roots that must be harvested in the wild. A very important drug for the treatment of ovarian and other cancers, Taxol, is extracted from the bark of Pacific yew trees. These trees are scarce in number and found predominately in old-growth forests between California and Alaska.

Indigenous people around the world have a long history of using NTFPs in everyday life. They also have a great knowledge and tradition of the medicinal, nutritional, cultural, and spiritual uses of NTFPs. Settler populations moving into areas inhabited by native peoples throughout history have learned of these diverse uses of NTFPs and also developed their own traditions and culture of use.

NTFPs provide market and non-market benefits and commodities for households, communities, and enterprises around the world without the large-scale extraction of timber. In most countries in the world, large-scale industrial logging has become the main economic focus in the forest, with timber being at the center of forest management . In the last 50 years industrial logging operations have become larger and more mechanized and often controlled by large corporations or central governments. This has left many forest-based communities and forest workers with diminished access to the forest and reduced economic means connected with the forest. Increasing concern for community and ecosystem health has brought NTFPs into the spotlight. NTFPs and the development of community-based NTFP enterprises can be seen as important steps towards a diverse, sustainable, multiple-use forest ecology and economy.

Although not as large as timber trade values, NTFPs are also a valuable commodity on the global market. According to a 1995 assessment by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the annual value of international trade in NTFPs for natural honey is $268.2 million, mushrooms and truffles $210.7 million, plants used in pharmacy $689.9 million, nuts $593.1 million, ginseng roots $389.3 million, and spices $175.7 million. The general direction of trade is from developing to developed countries. The European Union countries, the United States, and Japan import 60% of the NTFPs traded on the world market. China is the dominant exporter of NTFPs along with India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Brazil.

Developed countries import many NTFPs, however, NTFP harvesting and production are also important locally and domestically in the countries of the developed world. For example, researchers estimate that in 1994 the floral and Christmas greens markets alone in Washington, Oregon in the United States and southwest British Columbia, Canada reached a level of US $106.8 million. Mushrooms are also an important product. It is estimated that as many as 36 mushroom species are traded commercially in the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. In 1992 the wild mushroom market was estimated to be valued at $41.1 million increasing from $21.5 million in 1985.

Because of the nature of the NTFPs and the markets dictating their value, it is difficult to come up with exact figures for the value of different products. The figures above for the value of international trade record only those NTFPs that come onto the world market. Because many people in the world are using NTFPs for their own household subsistence the figures above only give a partial picture of the total value and use of NTFPs. For instance, the FAO estimates that 80% of the population of the developing world uses NTFPs for health and nutritional needs.

Furthermore, NTFPs have a social and spiritual value for many people making it difficult to assign a dollar value. Economists stumble when trying to assign a value to activities such as, enjoying a couple hours in the forest picking a bucket full of berries to give to a relative or friend. Economists and policy-makers are focusing more attention on these non-market values and attempts are being made to set these values. Quantifying these important non-market values may provide decision makers with tools to better incorporate NTFPs into land-use planning and management.

Knowledge of the economics of NTFPs is limited. And knowledge of the ecology of NTFPs is patchy at best. Of course there are some pockets of extensive knowledge. For example, researchers in Finland forecast the volume of several berry species on a regular basis throughout the harvest season, alerting harvesters and buyers of where the best picking will be, based on weather and on-the-ground reporting.

On the other side of the spectrum, little is known about many of the individual NTFP species and their interaction with other species in the greater forest ecosystem . There is a risk that as markets grow for individual NTFPs, they will experience greater harvesting pressures. Lack of scientific knowledge and regulation of harvests may bring over-harvesting in concentrated areas or unexpected uncontrolled market expansion, which could lead to unchecked stress on species with unknown effects on species population and viability. Many NTFP development programs are in fact starting to look to cultivation and agro-forestry alternatives as a way of taking the pressure off of the wild growing species.

As more attention is paid to the opportunities that NTFPs present for multiple-use forestry and locally based economies, it is important that gaps in ecological and economic knowledge be filled. Generally speaking it can be said, that the later years of the twentieth century many regions have witnessed a paradigm shift in forest management from management for timber resources only to ecosystem management .

Management of NTFPs presents complex challenges for policy-makers, managers, scientists, enterprises, and communities. There is a need for greater flow of information about the ecology, economy and social issues surrounding NTFP development and management. The list below exemplifies the difficult challenges in developing sustainable management systems for NTFPs. Traditional policy-makers and forest resource managers will be pushed to expand their grasp of the issue and their way of working. NTFP management demands, among other things, adaptive management planning, non-linear thinking, and the involvement of multiple stakeholders.

Primary considerations for the sustainable management of NTFPs include

  • Understanding the unique biology and ecology of special forest product species
  • Anticipating the dynamics of forest communities on a landscape level, delineating present and future areas of high production potential and identifying areas requiring protection
  • Developing silvicultural and vegetation management approaches to sustain and enhance production
  • Integrating human behavior by monitoring and modeling people's responses to management decisions about special forest products
  • Conducting necessary inventory, evaluation, and research monitoring

The current non-formal nature of much of the NTFP activity does have its benefits for households and communities. It must be kept in mind when developing NTFP management schemes that regulatory systems must be designed so that they protect NTFP ecology but do not result in reduced access for small enterprises and individual users or user groups. For example, regulatory systems involving difficult bureaucratic processes and fee based permits may make it difficult for small actors with less capital to participate in the commercial and recreational harvest.

In many countries in the developing world, women are the primary actors in NTFP trade. In many countries and cultures women are denied land ownership and decision making power but are able to have access to the forest resources to earn income and provide for the subsistence nutritional and medicinal needs of their families. However, according to the Center for International Forestry Research, in many cases, attempts to formalize the NTFP production and trade have pushed women out of these traditional roles. NTFP development programs designed with women specifically in mind have managed to avoid some of this displacement.

NTFP development offers opportunities for communities and enterprises in the forests of the world. The challenge today is to broaden the view of the forest's economic, ecological and social values to include NTFPs. In adopting this expanded view, policy makers, citizens, scientists, and industry must come together to fill in the gaps of knowledge and to plan the continued and sustainable use of the resources.

[Sarah E. Lloyd Ph.D. ]



Emery, Marla R., and Rebecca J. McLain, eds. Non-Timber Forest Products: Medicinal Herbs, Fungi, Edible Fruits and Nuts, and Other Natural Products from the Forest. New York: Food Products Press/Haworth, 2001.

Jones, Eric T., Rebecca J. McLain, and James Weigand, eds. Nontimber Forest Products in the United States. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

Molina, Randy, Nan Vance, et al. "Special Forest Products: Integrating Social, Economic, and Biological Considerations into Ecosystem Management." In Creating a Forestry for the 21st Century: the Science of Ecosystem Management. Edited by Kathryn A. Kohm and Jerry F. Franklin. Washington DC: Island Press, 1996.

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