The Promise of Non-Timber Forest Products: Roadmaps to Success?


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Ever since environmentalists celebrated rubber tappers as saviors of the Amazon rainforest in the1980s, making money from non-timber forest products (NTFPs) has been hailed as a win-win proposition: forest communities could earn income while protecting the forest. But two recent studies suggest that capturing those “wins” is harder than we thought.

Research led by CIFOR analyzed the experiences of 55 cases of NTFP commercialization from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In “Balancing Development and Conservation?”, an article published in Ecology and Society, Koen Kusters and his colleagues conclude that the more NTFPs are exploited for livelihoods, the less they contribute to forest conservation. At the species level, commercial extraction of wild products tends to lead to their depletion. In contrast, NTFP production has a positive conservation impact at the landscape scale by providing a more environmentally-friendly alternative to agriculture and other landuses.

Another study examined the experiences of 18 cases of NTFP commercialization in Bolivia and Mexico. In Commercialization of Non-Timber Forest Products, Elaine Marshall and her colleagues report that NTFPs are important to the livelihoods of the rural poor. NTFPs provide between seven and 95 percent of annual household cash income, and offer a safety net when other sources of income fail. The authors analyze NTFP value chains, and the ways in which poor producers, processors, and traders can increase their share of profits. Undermining the negative stereotype of middlemen, the study finds that intermediaries play a critical role in helping communities gain access to markets and financial support.

Marshall and her co-authors emphasize that even defining “success” for NTFP commercialization is a challenge. Such projects tend to have multiple objectives – including both conservation and development – and complex value chains involving many actors at several levels. The case studies illustrate the trade-offs among those objectives, actors, and levels; what is more successful from one perspective may be less successful from another. Accordingly, the authors stress the importance of jointly identifying criteria for success with key stakeholders.

Drawing from the two studies, Brian Belcher and Kathrin Schreckenberg assess the risks of promoting NTFP commercialization. In the article, “Commercialization of Non-timber Forest Products: A Reality Check”, published in Development Policy Review, they caution that NTFP commercialization can have negative impacts on the poor, as poor households are ill-equipped to compete with local elites to capture new opportunities for increased income. To increase the odds of success, they suggest that reforming the national policy environment for NTFPs may be at least as important as direct support to local communities: regulations developed for the harvest and trade of timber products are often inappropriately applied to NTFPs. Policy-level interventions can also address constraints on small enterprise development such as access to credit.

The promise of NTFP commercialization as a vehicle for avoiding conservation and development trade-offs has proven elusive, and there is no single road to success. But these studies provide roadmaps to help us define our destination, and to navigate the obstacles, detours, and occasional shortcuts we are likely to encounter along the way.

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Further reading

If you would like to receive a free copy of the paper by Koen Kusters et al or Brian Belcher et al, please email

The paper by Kusters could also be downloaded from .

The report by Elaine Marshall et al and other outputs of the study are freely downloadable at: