The truth about non-timber forest products


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Fifteen years ago, Peters, Gentry, and Mendelsohn published a piece in Nature that captured the imagination of conservationists around the world. Based on data from the Peruvian Amazon, they claimed you could earn more money from tropical forests by collecting wild fruits than from logging. This sparked hopes that if people could sell more fruits, nuts, medicines, woodcarvings, resins, and fibers from forests, they would be less inclined to cut them down. The fact that poor people collect most of these products made the deal sound even sweeter. Selling these products would let you save both the forest and the people living there. The donors couldn’t get enough of it.

But is it true? Will marketing these products actually be good for the resources and people involved? "Markets Drive the Specialization Strategies of Forest Peoples", an Ecology and Society article by Manuel Ruiz-Perez, Brian Belcher and others, uses data from 61 African, Asian, and Latin American cases to answer that.

Most cases fell into three groups:

Farmers manage the first group of products almost like crops. They grow them in plantations or manage them intensively in the forest. The families specialize in the product and get most of their income from it. They generally have secure tenure and access to markets, and make a pretty good living. They don’t deplete their resources. That is good news for both the people and the resources, but it is not usually the poorest families or least disturbed forests that benefit. Many Asian cases fall into this category.

Farmers involved in the second group tend to be poorer and to collect their products from natural forests that are not intensively managed. They rely heavily on a number of different forest products just to barely get by, and often over-harvest them. Forest products provide an important safety net for these people, but the future doesn’t look bright. This is more typical of Africa.

The third group of forest products represent a smaller share of farmers’ income, but they allow this income to be more diversified. These cases fall between the first and the second group in terms of the farmers’ incomes and revenue and the way they manage their resources.

The paper strongly implies there aren’t too many cases where selling products from largely unmanaged natural forests has helped save those forests or lift people out of poverty. Cultivating forest products can be a good business for better-off small farmers, while collecting products from natural forests clearly helps many people to survive. Still, things aren’t quite like the donors and conservationists imagined them.

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Further reading

You can download the article free of charge directly from:

You can also request a free electronic copy of this article in a pdf file, by writing to Titin Suhartini at:

You can send comments or queries to Btwrian Belcher at or to Manuel Ruiz-Perez at:

The full reference for the article is: Ruiz-Pérez, M., B. Belcher, R. Achdiawan, M. Alexiades, C. Aubertin, J. Caballero, B. Campbell, C. Clement, T. Cunningham, A. Fantini, H. de Foresta, C. García Fernández, K. H. Gautam, P. Hersch Martínez, W. de Jong, K. Kusters, M. G. Kutty, C. López, M. Fu, M. A. Martínez Alfaro, T. R. Nair, O. Ndoye, R. Ocampo, N. Rai, M. Ricker, K. Schreckenberg, S. Shackleton, P. Shanley, T. Sunderland, and Y. Youn. 2004. Markets drive the specialization strategies of forest peoples. Ecology and Society 9(2): 4. [online].

This article is only one of a number of publications resulting from this study. If you would like information about other books and articles based on this research please contact Titin Suhartini, Brian Belcher, or Manuel Ruiz-Perez.

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