What on Earth is a ‘non-timber forest product’?

Queretaro Province, Mexico.

A forest in the Queretaro Province of Mexico. (© Robin Moore/ iLCP)

Editor’s note: From “climate adaptation” to “blue carbon,” from “landscape approach” to “ecosystem services,” environmental jargon is everywhere these days. Conservation International’s Human Nature blog looks to make sense of it in an occasional explainer series we’re calling “What on Earth?” 

In this installment, we break down “non-timber forest products,” which benefit humans, and ultimately, the forest itself.

What is a ‘non-timber forest product’?

It’s any product other than timber that is naturally produced in forests and can be harvested for human use without cutting down trees. Think food items, such as nuts, berries, mushrooms and seeds, or non-food items such as oils, perfumes and medicinal plants. These are all examples of what we call “NTFPs” for short.

Makes me think of, for example, shade-grown coffee. Is that an ‘NTFP’?

Actually, no: Coffee and other tropical products like cacao or bananas are not NTFPs because they require intensive agricultural management. NTFPs grow naturally in forests, and simply need to be harvested or gathered from their environment.

Got it. What, then, is a good example of an NTFP?

A good example is açaí, a fruit from a species of palm tree that grows abundantly in the Amazon basin and has been harvested and eaten by local communities and indigenous peoples for centuries. (It’s now popular in the United States as a “superfood.”) NTFPs like this provide an important source of nutrients and calories to the people who live in and around tropical forests worldwide.

Are NTFPs only found in tropical forests?

Not at all — but tropical forests generally have more potential products because of their higher biodiversity. From mushroom gathering in Oregon and Japan to berry picking in Scotland and Vancouver, NTFPs play a hidden role in the global economy.


What on Earth is …


How is their role ‘hidden’?

The vast majority of NTFPs are used by the people who harvest them as food, construction materials, fuel or medicine. If NTFPs are sold, they are usually done so in small amounts to other locals, and this prevents their use from being recorded or catalogued in official economic reports — even though they have significant non-cash benefits. As a result, their importance to people, especially the rural poor, has been vastly underestimated, with recent studies suggesting that one-third of NTFPs are consumed in local economies without entering the market.

Wow. So what does all of this have to do with conservation?

Good question. Basically, NTFPs provide value for standing forests. Products that can be sustainably harvested from a forest create alternative sources of income to clear cutting for agriculture or logging for timber. And because NTFPs are regenerative and require minimal management, they promote the long-term survival of forests and the communities who depend on them.

How exactly?

Let’s bring in an expert to explain.

“The people who live in tropical forests have a strong connection to the plants there, and their livelihoods depend on the products those plants produce, but overharvesting can make these communities vulnerable by altering their environment and traditional means of survival,” says Percy Summers, sustainable landscape director at Conservation International Peru.

“On the other hand, NTFPs represent an opportunity as the products have gained value in international cosmetic and food industries, especially those that come from tropical forests like açaí and Brazil nuts. They have potential commercial value that can help these forest-dependent people to improve their livelihoods.”

How would that work?

Conservation International has a long history of trying to add value to NTFPs and the areas that support them. “We have learned to see them as part of the solution, as there is no silver bullet in forest conservation,” Summers says.

He and his colleagues are looking at more efficient ways to attract private investment to promote new business models that integrate NTFPs, such as experimenting with vanilla, a native orchid, to increase the density of vanilla in areas managed by community partners.

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How do community partners conserve forests?

Through its conservation agreements model, Conservation International engages with local people in high-priority conservation areas to protect land in exchange for various financial or technical benefits.

Conservation International also develops projects through REDD+, a United Nations framework for mitigating climate change through enhanced forest management in developing countries.

Summers explains that in Peru, some REDD+ projects invest funds in diversification of economic opportunities for local communities.

“REDD+ and other conservation agreements are tools that create incentives for local populations to conserve ecosystems, and NTFPs are an added value to these agreements.  For example, REDD+ agreements in the Alto Mayo have served to fund management plans for native fruits that are harvested sustainably and sold to a private company for a higher price. Agreements funded through REDD+ have also helped increase local population management of other NTFPs including pitahaya fruits, honey from Meliponia bees and vanilla orchids.”

That sounds like a win-win. What’s the catch?

Well, there are several. Overharvesting of some NTFPs, such as palm hearts, has led to them being endangered in the wild. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some species can be over-managed, resulting in plantation-type areas where other non-producing trees are cut down. This is called “green deforestation” because there appears to be a forest, but it’s much less biodiverse than a natural one. A recent study by the British Ecological Society on this phenomenon with açaí has shown that the managed plantations are actually less productive because of reduced pollinator activity. Finally, because of the remote location of many NTFPs, there are long supply chains and the people who gather or harvest the products can be severely underpaid or otherwise exploited.

So, what’s the solution?

First of all, more awareness is needed about the importance of NTFPs to rural communities and the global economy. This will promote measured approaches to NTFP harvesting, fair prices for harvesters and a healthy respect for the scarcity and local importance of these resources.

Second, financial investment is needed to support sustainable economies built on NTFPs. For example, through a new impact investing fund, Conservation International Ventures, Conservation International is deploying low-interest loans to support the growth of sustainable small enterprises — such as coffee farming and eco-tourism — that conserve nature.

Malcolm Gore was a research intern for Conservation International’s Conservation Finance Division.

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