Non-Timber Forest Product Harvest Smells Sweet in Venezuela

Community member Alexander collecting copaiba oil in the Caura River basin, Venezuela. Copaiba oil is a popular cosmetics ingredient.

Community member Alexander collecting copaiba oil in the Caura River basin, Venezuela. Copaiba oil is a popular cosmetics ingredient. (© CI/photo by Eduard Niesten)

Earlier this year, we posted a blog about CI’s partnership with Givaudan — the world’s largest fragrance and flavor company — supporting a conservation agreement with a Venezuelan community that harvests tonka beans, an important perfume ingredient. Recently CI’s Eduard Niesten paid a visit to this community.

While walking through the town of Aripao, in the Caura River basin in eastern Venezuela, I almost believed I could smell the tonka beans in the air — a complex scent combining vanilla, cloves, cinnamon and other, hard-to-pinpoint spices. That was my mind playing tricks on me — the forest was an hour and a half away by canoe, and the tonka beans were still enclosed in young fruit hanging from the branches of what is known in Spanish as the sarrapia tree. Still, it was tempting to take the imagined smell as a promise of a plentiful harvest in early spring next year.

A good harvest will offer a significant contribution to the livelihoods of the people of Aripao, and reinforce their motivation for protecting the forest. It is also important for our corporate partner Givaudan, which uses tonka bean extract as a perfume ingredient. The sarrapia trees were flowering, the branches weighed heavily with fruit, and some trees had recently shed green leaves, which older people in the community say signals a good tonka harvest to come.

This was my first time visiting the site of our conservation agreement with the community of Aripao, an initiative centered on non-timber forest products (NTFPs). I had spent time with Givaudan’s perfume makers in Paris and corporate leaders in New York, but now finally I got a firsthand look at the first step in the transformation from prized natural ingredients derived from healthy natural forest into a luxury perfume.

In addition to the sarrapia fruit in the trees, local community member Alexander showed me how copaiba oil, another cosmetic ingredient, is tapped from distinctive towering yellow-hued trees. These two NTFPs provide an income-generating opportunity for a growing number of people from Aripao — and soon, additional communities in the region.

One challenge facing commercialization of NTFPs like tonka beans and copaiba oil is that buyers are reluctant to travel regularly to remote places like Aripao to pick up small amounts of products. To address this, an association comprised of Aripao community members is constructing a storage facility where individual collectors’ harvests will be deposited, measured, checked for quality and stored until enough product has been collected to make it worthwhile for the buyer to come pick up a shipment.

Non-timber forest products storage shed under construction in Aripao, Venezuela.

Non-timber forest products storage shed under construction in Aripao, Venezuela. (© CI/photo by Eduard Niesten)

The storage facility will also allow the association to manage the timing of its sales to take advantage of periods with better prices. Thus, the construction of a small and simple building will empower Aripao to participate in markets in more strategic ways.

This project is supported by CI’s Conservation Stewards Program (CSP), which enables resource users to commit to conservation actions that protect priority ecosystems in exchange for benefit packages that address local development needs and priorities. These negotiated exchanges are explicitly defined in a “conservation agreement,” offering direct incentives that make conservation viable and attractive for community members.

The progress achieved in Aripao reflects success of CSP’s conservation agreement model and especially of our local partner, Venezuelan NGO Phynatura. I look forward to seeing them replicate this success as they expand the initiative to indigenous communities living up the river from Aripao.

Eduard Niesten is the senior director of CI’s Conservation Stewards Program.

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