Saving What Remains


July 22, 2012

Large-scale development of secondary forest products could be one path toward boosting local and national income without destroying forests. Some forest products can be domesticated and cultivated on highly degraded and formerly forested lands. Many of these products are better suited to the tropical environment and can produce greater economic returns than imported temperate species.

As discussed earlier, small farmers can be incorporated into the national economy and large-scale agricultural production through small agroforestry plots that feed into the wider market.


There are a wide range of rainforest products that can be harvested at lower cost to the environment than widely harvested crops brought in from elsewhere. The keys are to developing these products at scale, bringing them to market, and then marketing them, while always working to ensure that damage to the environment is minimized.

Cultivated Foods

Many of the foods we eat today have their origins in the rainforest, including the avocado, banana, Brazil nuts, cassava/manioc, cashews, chocolate/cocoa, cinnamon, cloves, coconut, coffee, cola, corn/maize, eggplant, fig, ginger, grapefruit, guava, herbal tea ingredients, jalapeno, lemon, mango, orange, papaya, peanut, pepper, pineapple, potato, rice, squash, sugar cane, tomato, and vanilla. But there are still many more that have yet to be developed to their fullest potential: of the 3,000 rainforest fruits, only 200 are regularly used.

Of the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 species of plants that have edible parts, only about 7,000 have been cultivated or collected. Of these, only 20 species provide 90 percent of the food needs, while rice, wheat, and maize make up more than 50 percent of caloric intake. Tropical agriculture with conventional crops has often proven to be a failure because tropical forest lands are rife with pests, disease, poor soils, drought, and inconsistent rainfall. Tropical agriculture based on these few crops rarely eases poverty for local people — most benefits accrue to large landowners and corporation.

What is needed is experimentation with other plants, especially those that would be better situated to cultivation in the tropics. For example, the Buruti palm of the Amazon produces a vitamin-rich fruit with a bread-like pith, while two plants from West Africa produce compounds thousands of times sweeter than sucrose and could be used as natural sweeteners.

There are already examples of breakthrough plants. Witness the surge in popularity for açai berries derived from an Amazon palm tree. While expansion has had some negative social and environmental impacts, açai can be cultivated in a way that is minimally damaging. Meanwhile sago palm in Southeast Asia is used widely as a starch in sweets and grows better when cultivated in a mixed forest habitat rather than a single-species plantation.

Animal-based foods

Similarly, rainforest animals have great potential as semi-domesticated food animals for the tropics. These are better suited to the tropical climate and tropical ecosystems than domestic animals brought from more temperate climates that can be destructive of the rainforest lands and species. Using native animals means lower environmental impact, greater diversity of animal-based foods, and greater efficiency of production than cattle ranching.

Tropical species with potential as sources of meat include Amazon river turtles (Podocnemus sp), which have long been harvested (usually unsustainably) from their native habitat for their tasty meat. These turtles can be easily cultivated in cement ponds located along the floodplains of tropical rivers and raised on aquatic vegetation and fruit. The turtle produces 22,000 pounds of meat per acre (24,659 kg per hectare) more than 400 times the yield of cattle raised in pastures and in a far less costly manner to the environment.

The green iguana of Central and South America has been over-hunted for its chicken-like meat and is endangered in some of its range. The iguana is already being raised commercially in farms in Central America. Iguanas can be ten times as productive in terms of yield as cattle on the same land, reducing the need to clear additional forest areas for pasture. The capybara (the world's largest rodent), chachalacas (like tropical chickens), and paca (cat-sized rodents) are other New World mammals that could provide sources of tropical meat without major disruption to the ecosystem. These are just a sampling (from the New World alone) of tropical species that could productively replace temperate domestic animals in the tropics.


In 2010, wheat grew on 838,700 square miles (217 million hectares) of land around the world. With an average of 2 million stalks per hectare, the total number of individuals exceeds 434 trillion individuals. Clearly wheat is not an endangered species, but because of selective breeding toward genetic uniformity, wheat has lost most of its populations and hence its genetic variability. What is the recourse if a disease breaks out in this gargantuan monoculture? Most likely scientists will scour the few wild places left on Earth for the remaining wild strains of wheat in hopes of finding genetic traits that will offer resistance to the pest.

In addition to food, rainforests serve as reservoirs of genetic diversity. These wild species have traits that have been inadvertently removed by selective breeding, a process which selects traits based primarily on their utility to man. Thus domesticated plants and animals are more susceptible to pests and disease. To protect domestic species from these hazards, they can be bred with wild species that still retain traits protecting them from agricultural pests.

The most famous example of the value of wild gene pools comes from Asia in the 1970s when the rice crop was struck with grassy stunt virus, threatening the rice crop across the continent. The International Rice Institute surveyed some 6,273 varieties of rice for attributes against grassy stunt. Of this array, only one, inhabiting a small Indian valley slated to be cleared and developed, proved to have the desired qualities. It was crossed with the predominant form of rice, creating a resistant hybrid, and was subsequently bred across Asia. Had it not been for this tiny reservoir of diversity, Asia would have faced a deadly human catastrophe. Today the ICCO (the International Cocoa Organization) is seeking out new strains of cocoa in the Orinoco and Amazon rainforests. The ICCO is searching for varieties that will improve the yield and resistance of commercially grown cocoa, which has a very narrow genetic base. For example, the entire cocoa agriculture of Ghana, a major world cocoa producer, is derived from a single pod brought in the 1870s by a visiting blacksmith. Commercial oil palm and rubber face similar risks from narrow genetic bases.

Secondary forest products collected by forest people in the Loita Hills of Kenya. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Review questions:

  • Why is genetic diversity important for agriculture?

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