Why aren’t there more Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) on the market?

No matter how for or against timber harvesting somebody is, one thing that that nearly everyone asks me wherever I travel is why aren’t there more NTFPs available at a commercial scale?

NTFPs tend to appeal to the more stringent environmentalists because they almost always appear to be lower impact when compared to a timber harvest, usually consist of food or drink or are often tied to indigenous/ traditional cultures.  However, the production and harvest of certain types of NTFPs can lead to the creation of forest monocultures. These are not always readily noticeable to the general public. In a maple sugar bush, non-maple trees are removed over time to create open growing conditions for maple- yet it still looks like a closed canopy, later successional forest to the untrained eye. A forest floor full of ginseng or black cohosh (if the poachers don’t take them first!) may have a diverse overstory of trees, but passersby gaze at the colorful tree crowns rather than notice the absence of hiding places for small birds and mammals on the forest floor.

To the strictly production-oriented forester, NTFPs mostly bring social benefits, but usually not much additional cash.  Believe it or not, allowing a neighbor to collect mushrooms can translate into one more set of eyes that is willing to report unauthorized activities or to tolerate the visual impacts of a timber harvest.

But there are the cases when NTFPs generate a profit, so what makes certain NTFPs succeed in the marketplace while others do not?

It is a question to which there are many answers, but some that come to mind are that they are usually products with well-established markets and few substitutions (e.g., maple syrup, cork), are difficult to steal without getting caught right away (e.g., sap, cork, bamboo) or otherwise have strong governance/ enforcement mechanisms that ensure a steady supply under secure property rights or a price premium (e.g., illegal drugs, truffles). Without dealing with the issues of property rights, enforcement, access to markets and steady prices first, many NTFPs are harvested at excessive rates that put their supply in danger (e.g., American ginseng) or at unknown rates with low or poorly understood impacts (e.g., fungi).  Many NTFPs, such as fungi and plant parts, can be difficult to find and thus have high harvesting costs at commercial scales.

How does one address these issues in NTFP management?

  1. Remain low intensity: Wildcrafting is a term used to describe NTFP collection techniques based on the reproductive biology of the NTFP and the site. Producers must ensure that collection practices allow for continued reproduction on the site, such as through leaving the seeds, bulbs or stems of the NTFP behind.  Monitoring of the site is required to reduce the threat of poaching and to determine the timing of harvest.  The state may issue permits or licenses to enforce quotas and ensure legal ownership.  If the NTFP is not legally protected, NTFP gatherers may develop a network of secluded sites that are difficult for others to find.  Price premiums or market access may be difficult for NTFP producers to secure, however.  While direct trade to the end user may result in the best price, it may increase the cost to the producer if any processing or grading of the NTFP is required.  A network of middlemen and processors may develop in response to this, which offers pluses and minuses to the producer.  On the one hand, grading and processing may be done by people who can control costs better than the producer, but they may be willing to pay a lower price.  This may incentivize the producer to gather more or become more efficient at gathering.  All in all, there are simply too many variables that become difficult to control the more unpredictable the growth and mobility of the NTFP are.
  1. Go for high intensity: This one pretty much explains itself as it is the most familiar; use intensive cultivation techniques such as agriculture. Wine grapes are forest plants that humans have figured out how to manage under agricultural conditions for thousands of years.  Through daily care and maintenance, the human presence and organization of the crop addresses most property rights issues.  This allows the producer to focus on the growth, quality and sale of the crop, but with the increased risk of disease, drought and other environmental factors that come with monocultures.
  1. Hybrid techniques: Izabal Agro Forest has opted to control production of its NTFP under management, cacao, through agroforestry.  Agroforestry attempts to mimic the natural conditions that lead to higher quality cacao while allowing for intensive management of two or more crops.  Through dependency on multiple products and use of the agroforest system to reduce dependency on external inputs, it attempts to mitigate financial risk.  The use of cacao, understory plants, and high-value, slower growing hardwoods allows Izabal to maintain a presence on the farms year-round, thus ensuring the protection of property rights.  Since Izabal has two main products, cacao and timber, it can focus on managing for quality over the course of the rotation.  It is not fully dependent on the site’s characteristics to ensure a consistent, supply of NTFPs and can focus on selecting superb specimens and using techniques to increase quality.  It must still manage soil and water quality as a farmer would, yet treat the agroforest as natural system in order to provide optimal conditions for cacao flavor to develop.  Unlike rubber tappers, Izabal does not have to wander the forests in search of plants during fruiting season and then hurry to find willing buyers.  Izabal can focus on growing its crop and finding customers knowing that its crop is secure.

The bottom line is that there are trade-offs depending on the type of NTFP collected and what systems are used to manage them.  Many NTFPs are simply too costly to harvest at a commercial scale without the use of alternative management systems.  Izabal Agro Forest addresses these challenges in multiple ways.

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