Saving What Remains


July 22, 2012

There are numerous forest products that can be collected in a renewable fashion on a small scale by local people. Although poor farmers must still overcome their ignorance of sustainable forest products and difficulties of distribution, the harvesting of forest products without destroying the forest can be more profitable in the long term than converting forest land for low intensity cattle pasture or marginal subsistence agriculture.

While studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s may have been overly optimistic about the potential for secondary wood products and non-timber forest products (NTFPs or NWFPs), more recent research suggests that forest products indeed serve as an important supplemental source of income for forest communities. For example, a recent CIFOR study estimated that forest product generate up to 20 percent of rural income and often provides the only means to access the cash economy. NTFPs can also be an important source of food and nutritional security.


Medicines, drugs, and herbal supplements from the rainforest are still largely underdeveloped and only a few may be known to the local people for harvesting. These are derived from bark, leaves, roots, and other plant parts and can be sold in local markets to other local people. In some cases, these products can be sold for export provided there is an overseas market (export-oriented harvesting has a greater risk of driving overexploitation).

Local communities generally do not reap much from drugs derived from rainforest plants by major foreign pharmaceutical companies because of the time and cost associated with drug development. Furthermore, once active ingredients are isolated from a plant, the drug can be synthesized in the lab. However, in some cases the active compounds are so complex or so expensive to synthesize that it is easier to collect from natural forest or cultivate on farms, something which could directly involve small farmers.

More on medicinal plants

Brazil nuts in Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler


Although only 10 percent of natural food colorants comes from rainforest products, rainforest colorings could potentially satisfy a larger proportion of the market. Local people could collect these colorants and sell them in local and urban markets. However, before this practice is feasible, a proper distribution system for these products must develop.


Some rainforest food products can be collected in a sustainable manner for profit. Most of these include fruits, nuts, and flavorings. Tropical American nuts, like cashews and Brazil nuts, account for hundreds of millions of dollars in sales to the U.S. alone. Many of these foods, particularly Brazil nuts, can be collected only from a fully functioning forest, and cannot be raised in plantations. The Brazil nut tree is a canopy species that grows in forests with full canopies.


The crusade of the rubber tappers of Brazil in the 1980s and the assassination of Chico Mendes became an inspiration for the sustainable use of the rainforest and various grass-roots conservation projects around the world. Rubber tappers earn their principal income, which can be more than four times higher than they would earn as factory workers in the city, from the sustainable harvesting of rubber, Brazil nuts, palm hearts, and other forest products. They understand that their livelihood depends on the functioning forest ecosystem, and are committed to the preservation of the forests as productive systems.

Natural rubber harvesters lead a markedly different existence from workers on industrial rubber plantations.


Wood can be sustainably harvested from the rainforest by locals. In some places, systems have been developed to facilitate the utilization of waste wood discarded by the timber industry. The operations can provides jobs for locals without driving deforestation or degradation of rainforests. One example is Tropical Salvage, a Portland, Oregon-based producer of wood products that salvages wood discarded from building sites, unearthed from mudslides and volcanic sites, and dredged from rivers and reservoirs in Indonesia and turns it into premium wood products. Another example is a project run by FUNDECOR in Costa Rica, whereby villagers collect scraps and discarded tree limbs left by commercial loggers. They saw the wood into boards on location, and sell the products to furniture companies.

Fruit market in Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler


Rattan, a common rainforest liana, is a valuable non-timber forest product, harvested from the forests of Southeast Asia, that generates US$3 billion annually in a global market. It is probably best known for its use in furniture.

The collection of fragrances for perfumes and flavorings, ornamental seeds and pods, and fibers for weaving and ropes can all offer economic benefits to the rural poor. However the concept of sustainable harvesting of forest products is important because overexploitation has been a problem in the past. For example the fragrant pau rosa tree of the Amazon has been diminished by overharvesting for the perfume and flavoring industries. Those who collected the fragrance in the past felled the whole tree. Research shows however that the fragrance can be extracted from the leaves and twigs of the tree, and now the collectors of pau rosa have been advised.

There are several obstacles restricting the collection of NWFPs from reaching their fullest potential. One problem is the lack of clear laws regarding user rights and access to forest lands. Because in many countries forest lands are considered common property, it is difficult to monitor collection and determine who has access rights to what resources. Another problem is how to manage NWFP collection in a sustainable way without over-harvesting. To date, most extractive products are generally collected without regard to their sustainability. A third challenge is the lack of adequate distribution systems for bringing goods to market and a general lack of consumer awareness of existing sustainably harvested forest products. Finally, the traditional barter system between local harvesters and merchants—especially prevalent in the Amazon as a throwback to the rubber boom—can be troublesome. Under this system—where manufactured goods and some food items are advanced to harvesters against the future delivery of forest products—many remain perpetually indebted to their creditors.

Despite these concerns some countries have established a system of extractive reserves to set aside areas explicitly for the harvesting of forest products. Some of these have been established with the hope that users will adopt sustainable harvesting techniques under the tutelage and guidance of various NGOs and government organizations.

It is important to realize that while the collection of NWFPs can be lucrative, such practices can only support a limited number of people on a sustainable basis. To raise the standard of living for a broader array of people, extractive reserves would probably have to be regarded as supplementary sources of income to enhance their earnings from other activities.

Cacao fruit in Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Review questions:

  • How can people living near the rainforest earn a living without logging?
  • What are some examples of non-wood forest products that can be sustainably harvested from the rainforest?
  • How can the harvesting of non-wood forest products damage the rainforest ecosystem?

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Continued / Next: Eco-Tourism

  • The Rainforest Action Network (1995) estimates U.S. imports of tropical American nuts at more than $300 million per year.
  • The story of Chico Mendes is told in Revkin, A.,The Burning Season, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990, a variation of which has been made into a film having the same name.
  • P.M. Fearnside reviews extractive reserves in "Extractive Reserves in Brazilian Amazon," BioScience, 39 (6): 387-93, 1993.
  • The Rainforest Action Network (1996) is assisting in a project to develop the sustainable collection of rattan-like vines in Brazil by the rural poor.
  • The practice is extracting venom by snakes on farms in the Congo is reported by T'sas, V., "Snake Venom, Congo's next Export?" Reuters 10/20/97.
  • The "brief history of rubber" box is excerpted from Wade Davis' One River (New York: Touchstone, 1996). Davis provides a broad and insightful look into the rubber business.
  • The overharvesting of the Wotango tree is discussed in Strieker, Gary, "Mission impossible: conserving Cameroon's natural resources," CNN Online, February 25, 1997.
  • Caufield, C., (In the Rainforest, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) lists foods with origins in the rainforest, while Wilson, E.O., (The Diversity of Life, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1992) notes that only a fraction of the world's edible plants are consumed. He suggests that rainforests could be the source of new fruits, vegetables, and nuts that are better suited to tropical agriculture. Wilson notes that currently only about 200 rainforest fruits are regularly used.
  • Wilson (The Diversity of Life, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1992) goes on to point out that almost no tropical animals are exploited on a commercial basis (i.e. raised in farms). He cites several species with potential including the Amazon river turtle (Podocnemis sp). Smith, N.J.H. ("Destructive exploitation of the South American river turtle," Yearbook of the Pacific Coast Geographers 36: 85-102, 1974; and "Aquatic turtles of Amazônia An endangered resource," Biological Conservation 16(3): 165-176, 1979) and Mittermeier, R.A., ("South American River Turtles: Saving Their Future," Oryx, 14 (3): 222-230, 1978) have conducted studies on the viability of Podocnemis farming on Amazonian floodplains and has reached some promising conclusions.
  • Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998) suggests that the reason these tropical species have never been domesticated is they are poor candidates for domestication, though he does not discount the idea that they could be utilized in some manner.
  • N. Myers ("Population and Biodiversity," Ambio Vol 24 No. 1, Feb. 1995) and E.O. Wilson (The Diversity of Life, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1992) discuss the declining diversity of major food crops and the associated dangers of reduced genetic stock. Wilson recalls the near miss with Asian rice and grassy stunt virus in the 1970s, while Tarnowski, A. ("Scientists to Tap Amazon for Disease-Free Cocoa Strains," Reuters, 12/10/97) notes how vulnerable the Ghanan cocoa crop is given its narrow genetic base. Holdgate, M. ("The Ecological Significance of Biological Diversity," Ambio Vol. 25 No. 6, Sept. 1996) runs down the savings from genetic resources. Also see Robinson, J.G. and Reford, K.H., eds. (The Value of Conserving Genetic Resources; Neotropical Wildlife Use and Conservation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
  • The importance of forests in maintaining food security is reviewed in Pimentel, D., McNair, M., Buck, I., Pimentel, M., and Kamil, J., "The value of forests to world food security," Human Ecology, 1996.