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Plugging NTFPs in the Congo Basin

Trees are not the only valuable asset in forests (UN Photo/Martine Perret)
Trees are not the only valuable asset in forests
UN Photo/Martine Perret

The potential of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) to reduce poverty continues to divide opinion. Recently the Rainforest Foundation, a UK-based charity campaigning for the protection of the rainforests and the livelihoods of indigenous people who depend on them, added fuel to the debate by publishing a survey of over 30 years of research from the Congo Basin*.

It concluded that while NTFPs themselves are rarely the answer to poverty alleviation, their importance nevertheless merits a fundamental shift in forest management policy. Until now, policymakers in the six countries surveyed** have prioritised timber over all other forest products. However, according to the report, NTFPs provide important nutritional, financial and cultural benefits to forest communities who are often threatened by timber extraction.

Food, money and medicine

Sources of income from the forest vary across the basin, but bushmeat (wild animals hunted for food) and fish are often the most important. In southern Cameroon in some villages, sales of bushmeat accounted for 51 per cent of annual income, compared with 32 per cent from agricultural sales. In the Central African Republic, hunters can earn between US$400-700 per year, more than the official minimum wage. Trade in forest insects is also big business; every year an estimated 9600 tonnes of edible caterpillars are sold in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) capital, Kinshasa, alone.

Sales of 'bushmeat' provides valuable income (WRENmedia)
Sales of 'bushmeat' provides valuable income

Bushmeat, fish and insects also provide between 30-80 per cent of the protein needs of forest populations in the countries surveyed. Other major sources of income from NTFPs include rattan cane, charcoal, mushrooms, palm wine, edible vines, kola nuts and various fruits.

Forest products also form the basis of healthcare in the region. The high cost of pharmaceutical medicines and limited numbers of university-trained doctors have led to an increase in the use of traditional medicines. In the Southern Province of Cameroon, around 300 species of NTFPs are used medicinally, and in some parts of the Congo Basin over 90 per cent of the population rely on plant-based remedies.

Felling the arguments for timber

Although the forests can prove bountiful, many non-timber products are under threat. Gnetum vines, for example, provide nutritious leaves much in demand in urban markets, but deforestation is removing the trees that support the vines. Nudaurelia oyemensis - a widely consumed caterpillar species - is threatened by the loss of its preferred host plant, the sapelli tree, which is highly-valued for its timber. Rattan canes are frequently over-harvested because of their perceived status as a free or "open access" resource. Finally, strong urban demand for bushmeat has had a severe impact on animal numbers, exacerbated by increasing human populations and diminishing areas of forest.

The need to protect the long-term supply of these products has been recognised by The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), among others, which has projects for the domestication of some fruit species, such as safou (Dacryodes edulis) and bush mango (Irvingia gabonensis). There are also trials to incorporate rattan in agroforestry, and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has supported cultivation of gnetum vines.

Towards sustainable forest management

Caterpillars are a delicacy and a good source of protein for many forest communities (Greenpeace/Verbelen)
Caterpillars are a delicacy and a good source of protein for many forest communities

Domestication - including genetic improvement - and cultivation of species outside the forests themselves are seen by many as the only way to ensure a continued supply of many products. While acknowledging this, the Rainforest Foundation is concerned that cultivation may reduce the incentive for forest preservation, and may not stop over-harvesting, since people will continue to be attracted by a free resource. In addition, the Foundation points out that many forest products are collected by women and the elderly or by vulnerable groups, such as Pygmies. If forest plants and insects are farmed rather than gathered, the benefits they currently offer to these groups may be lost.

Cultivation should therefore be combined with sustainable resource management in situ, says the Foundation report. Beyond this, it recommends a comprehensive set of policies aimed at supporting the NTFP sector, and promoting policies are needed to establish harvesting levels for threatened species and to allocate harvesting licences. Further policies would be required to develop certification schemes for NTFPs and to clarify land tenure and resource rights of forest communities. Such policies would offer a more holistic approach to the region's forests than the current focus on timber, reflecting nutritional, financial, environmental and cultural values. Revised management plans for the region would be likely to include extraction of NTFPs, beekeeping, cultivation of medicinal plants, agroforestry, insect rearing and bioprospecting.

*The use of non-timber forest products in the Congo Basin: Constraints and opportunities by Alison L Hoare
**Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Central African Republic

Date published: September 2007


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