Forests and non-timber forest products

Non-timber forest products (NTFPs) are any product or service other than timber that is produced in forests. They include fruits and nuts, vegetables, fish and game, medicinal plants, resins, essences and a range of barks and fibres such as bamboo, rattans, and a host of other palms and grasses.

Over the past two decades, governments, conservation and development agencies and non-government organisations have encouraged the marketing and sale of NTFPs as a way of boosting income for poor people in the tropics and encouraging forest conservation.

But different users define NTFPs differently, depending on their interests and objectives. At CIFOR, the emphasis is on understanding how people use forest resources, and on helping to improve the contribution these resources make to the livelihoods of the world’s rural poor. Accordingly, CIFOR uses an inclusive definition of NTFPs — one that even encompasses wood products, such as those used for woodcarving or fuel.

Understanding NTFPs and people

NTFPs are used and managed in complex socio-economic and ecological environments. In traditional forest communities, many NTFPs may be used for subsistence while others are the main or only source of income. Some NTFPs have significant cultural value, as totems, incense, and other ritual items. Others have important medicinal value and contribute to the community’s health and well-being.

But as forest areas shrink, human populations grow, markets change, and traditional management institutions lose their authority, the sustainable production of many NTFPs is no longer assured. For example, as international rattan prices increased in the 1980s and ‘90s, commercial companies in Asia hired local people to harvest available resources. Widespread over-exploitation resulted and in many places the resource was destroyed, affecting the local biodiversity and leaving the people without an important source of income.

CIFOR’s findings emphasise the importance of considering NTFPs in their overall context. While commercial NTFPs can be of considerable value to poor people, it is important to recognize the constraints that exist outside the mere collecting and harvesting of NTFPs. Poor people are poor because they have limited access to markets, insufficient capital and generally weak bargaining power. Some NTFPs may offer employment and income generating opportunities. But realizing this potential will require investing in other areas as well, such as micro-finance schemes, transport and training. It is also important to understand how the whole NTFP chain operates, from raw material production to the final market, to identify bottlenecks and understand their potential.

What is CIFOR doing?

CIFOR has been working to understand the importance of forest products in conservation and economic development. Its research focuses on the broader aspects of NTFPs, including their collection, use and trade, leading to a better understanding of how NTFPs can reduce poverty. CIFOR’s NTFP research directly benefits the communities it works with by increasing local understanding of markets and the role of policy. CIFOR is also developing ways to communicate research findings to lay audiences.

CIFOR’s findings are primarily targeted at governments and donor agencies that want to see an improvement in the trade, policy and management issues related to NTFPs. Its research helps policy makers and development project managers make more informed decisions. The end result is a positive impact on rural livelihoods by helping to identify potentially successful NTFPs for trade and determining the most promising avenues for policy reform.

Future research needs to look at the use of NTFPs in the home, the role of forests in nutrition and health, land tenure change, the increasing move by small communities to monetary-based economies and the cultural importance of NTFPs.