By Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
The Amazon rainforest is the largest expanse of primary tropical forest in the world, with an area of approximately 914 million acres (370 million hectares) extending across nine South American countries. The Amazon contains 20% of the available fresh water on the planet, 30% of the world’s fauna and flora, a huge reservoir of minerals, and it provides sustenance to hundreds of communities that depend on its resources for their subsistence.
This forest once covered 14% of the Earth’s surface but now it occupies only 6%. Half has been lost to deforestation for commercial logging, agriculture, livestock production, the construction of infrastructure, mining and more.
In Brazil, home to more than 60% of the Amazon rainforest, forestry, agriculture, and livestock production are essential sources of income for local communities. Therefore, the Brazilian government is making efforts to regulate these activities and help the communities prosper while they also help conserve and recover their forests.
Francisco Kennedy de Souza, a Rainforest Alliance Kleinhans fellow and researcher at Indiana University’s Anthropological Center for Training and Research on Global Environmental Change and the Universidade Federal do Acre (UFAC) in Brazil, talks with us about his work studying three different forest use models in the western Amazon of Brazil and the importance of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) as a forest-friendly source of local income.
Question: Can you give us an overview of your research on the benefits of harvesting NTFPs in the western Amazon?
Souza: In the 1980s, Brazil began a movement to fight deforestation and created policies and strategies to support the sustainable development of the Amazon. We compared three development models implemented in the state of Acre to halt deforestation, recover forests, and provide income for the local communities: extractive reserves where logging is not permitted and economic activities are solely based on the extraction of NTFPs; agro-extractive settlements with a hybrid model of timber and NTFP extraction; and colonization settlements, where cattle production was the main source of family income but there were a growing number of families adopting sustainable agroforestry and NTFP extraction. We analyzed how each model supported local livelihoods and forest conservation, mainly by looking at the role of NFTPs such as palm trees, seeds, herbs, rubber, and more.
We compared seven sites including an extractive reserve, three agro-extractive settlements, and three colonization settlements using household, community, and plant cover in land use surveys.
Q: Why did you choose to focus on the role of NTFPs?
Souza: Agriculture, livestock, and forestry are key economic activities for the families living in this area, but they are also major causes of deforestation. According to our research, communities in colonizing settlements earn higher incomes because their main economic activity is livestock production — but their lands are about 50% deforested. The agro-extractive settlements show approximately 20% deforestation, while extractive reserves that depend only on NTFPs show only 7% deforestation, but their incomes are half that of the colonizing settlements raising cattle.
Therefore, it’s clear that extracting NTFPs is a successful economic activity that also conserves the Amazon forest, but it’s not the most profitable. We wanted to know what needed to be adjusted in order to improve its economic viability, the economic situation of families that depend on it, and what would make it more attractive to other communities.
Q: Why are NTFPs less profitable than other activities?
Souza: They require intensive labor to harvest and they grow in remote making their sale difficult and costly. Only a few communities have successfully exported their products to Europe and southern Brazil. Another factor is that starting in 1999, the Brazilian government converted the multiple use forests that were extractive reserves into areas focused on single non-forestry products, such as the sustainable Brazil nut area, the sustainable rubber area, etc., which further increased production and marketing costs, as well as vulnerability to price fluctuations.
Q: How do you encourage people to switch to NTFPs when they’re known to be much less profitable?
Souza: An interesting finding of our study is that although the extractive and agro-extractive communities that depend more on these products receive less money than the colonizing settlements, their income per day (USD 5.33-6.42) is much higher than the national average and well above the level of income used by the World Bank to define the poverty line. These communities have also shown major social progress and improvements in education, health, and infrastructure in the last ten years. We also believe that analyzing profitability is not the best strategy for measuring their earnings; we have to also add an index for quality of life improvements and promote it as an advantage of this activity, along with the conservation benefits.
Q: How can the economic viability of harvesting NTFPs and the competitiveness of the communities that rely on these products be improved?
Souza: It is essential that the government, NGOs, and other organizations again help the communities diversify their production in order to lower risks and production costs. Producers should also combine forces to increase their production volumes, improve access to markets, and be able to make bulk sales. For example, multiple community cooperatives can be integrated into one entity that represents them with big buyers so that they can obtain significant, long-term contracts. The state of Acre has already created a Forest School that’s training young members of these families on administration, planning, and new production and marketing techniques. The results from our research will be part of this training.
At the same time, these communities should earn payments for the environmental services they’re providing through their forest conservation efforts. This would also increase the value of these forest products and discourage more investment in extensive agriculture and cattle production.
Q: What can the communities that primarily raise livestock do to enhance their conservation success?
Souza: They can replicate the aspects that make extractive reserves a successful conservation model – for example, the “NTFP communities collectively manage their land and resources, which helps to ensure the common good and increase the likelihood of conservation. Additionally, their vision is not focused on maximizing earnings; instead they seek to improve their quality of life through income and they see the forest as an important part of their present and future welfare.
Colonizing settlements could also benefit from an economic strategy that combines the sustainable management of forest and non-forest products, sustainable cattle production practices, and earning environmental services payments.
Q: Are colonizing communities willing to try these alternative activities to reduce their footprint?
Souza: Yes. The settlers need new options because the cost of livestock production is rising and land degradation is severe. The most eco-friendly production models not only help prevent deforestation, but they can also be a good economic strategy.
Q: Can a certification program such as the Rainforest Alliance’s help communities use their resources more sustainably?
Souza: Certifications are important in a sustainable management strategy because they have positive impacts on income generation, community organizing, administration, and product marketing. But our research shows that certification is more effective for the economy and conservation when communities certify multiple products, not just one. So any certification program would need to consider the entire portfolio of a community’s products, not just one.
Learn more about this research on the Rainforest Alliance´s Eco-Index website.