Elaine Marshall

ubber gloves, embroidered belts and mushroom soup - what do they have in common? All are made from so-called 'non-timber forest products' (NTFPs) - latex from the rubber tree, fibre from a bromeliad and, well, mushrooms - and all are harvested, processed and sold by forest people in Mexico and Bolivia.

And that's just the start. More examples of NTFPs - biological goods other than timber collected from forests for human use - are fruits, nuts, seeds, oils, spices, resins, gums and fibres, and include such internationally known goods as Brazil nuts, shea butter, allspice, bamboo and honey.

Just think of tropical forests as a bank for the 1.2 billion rural poor who depend on them. The timber is like a savings account, and the NTFPs are like the interest paid on it. It is obviously better to spend the interest than the savings. And NTFPs are very important to poor rural people - providing such vital supplies as food, medicines, building materials and money.



Take one community in the Bolivian Amazon. The men cut grooves in trees, allowing the latex - the sap - to run out, and then collect it in cleaned soda cans. The women then make it into waterproof ponchos and rubber sacks to hold food and valuables when crossing rivers, among a variety of other goods.

In southwestern Mexico, the pita - a relative of the pineapple - is harvested for its long spiny leaves. Women and children scrape the juice from the leaves, pull the fibre out, clean it and roll it into thread, which is then used to embroider leather belts, boots and saddles sold in Mexico and the United States. Pita fibre can fetch up to $100 per kilogram.

Indigenous communities in the hills above Oaxaca, Mexico, collect matsutake mushrooms for cash to buy their children's school supplies. The mushrooms are flown fresh to Japan, where they are a delicacy. Harvesters can earn up to $30 per kilogram, but yields differ by the year: if the rains don't come, the mushrooms don't appear.

This article arises from a research project funded by the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID) for the benefit of developing countries. The views expressed are not necessarily those of DFID. (R7925 Forestry Research Programme)

Photos: E. Marshall

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