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Unlocking the Hidden Treasures of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs)

Forests are a rich source of vital resources that sustain life on Earth for both humans and various organisms. While agriculture and its products have been recognized for many years, the complete significance of forests and Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) is not yet fully grasped by governments and the public. Typically, when forest products are mentioned, people primarily think of timber, often overlooking the value of NTFPs.

Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) encompass any product or service, excluding timber, derived from forests. These encompass fruits, nuts, vegetables, medicinal plants, gums, resins, essences, bamboo, rattans, palms, fibers, flosses, grasses, leaves, seeds, honey, lac, and more. Over a billion people globally rely on forests for their livelihoods, fulfilling various economic, social, and environmental needs. Studies reveal that more than 80% of forest dwellers depend solely on NTFPs for their daily sustenance and livelihoods. Additionally, nearly 60% of NTFP collections are consumed locally.

In India, the most common NTFPs include Tamarind, Mahua, Kendu Leaf, Mango, Jamun, Jackfruit, Sal, Bamboo, Amla, Harida, Bahada, Siris, Kusum, Karanj, Tejpatta, Siali, Dhataki, Chia seeds, Mushrooms, Genduli (Gums and resins), and various berries. Recent decades have witnessed a growing interest in utilizing NTFPs as alternatives or supplements to forest management practices. With appropriate conditions, forests can be managed to enhance NTFP diversity, thereby promoting biodiversity and economic diversity.

Tamarind Fruits hang on a tree branch, fresh and raw fruits.
Tamarind Fruits hang on a tree branch, fresh and raw fruits.

Table of Contents

NTFPs: A Lifeline for Communities

Honey Bee Hive in a tree with honeybees swarming all over it
Honey Bee Hive in a tree with honeybees swarming all over it

Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs), also known as minor forest produce, play a crucial role in the economy and livelihoods of people residing in and around forests. Approximately 50 million people living near forests in India rely on NTFPs for sustenance. NTFPs support a multitude of small to large scale industries involved in processing and/or trading NTFPs and NTFP-based products. These products significantly contribute to the revenues of both the forest department and the country.

It is estimated that 275 million poor rural individuals in India rely on NTFPs for a portion of their subsistence and livelihoods. NTFP collection predominantly occurs in the tribal areas of the country, accounting for approximately 55% of employment in the forestry sector. Each forest product possesses unique qualities that ultimately enhance the quality of NTFPs.

The spectrum of NTFPs is extensive, encompassing a variety of products obtained from forests aside from timber. These range from game animals, fur-bearers, nuts, seeds, berries, mushrooms, oils, sap, foliage, pollarding, medicinal plants, peat, mast, fuelwood, fish, insects, spices, to forage. Despite their immense value to local communities, NTFPs often get overshadowed by forest management priorities.

NTFPs are pivotal in supporting the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities. Implementing sustainable strategies for the development and judicial utilization of these resources is crucial. This includes addressing the challenges associated with NTFP management and formulating policies that ensure the sustainability of NTFP resources while considering biodiversity, ecological sustainability, environmental security, watershed preservation, revenue maximization, and deforestation.

Also read – Wild Food Plants (WFPs) – A Key Component To Ensure Food And Nutritional Security

NTFPs play a vital role in filling seasonal and other food or income gaps for households. They serve as a buffer during difficult times, improve household income and security, and contribute to nutritional, health, house construction, and other household needs. Many rural and urban households in developing countries rely on these products for a significant part of their livelihood.

Several international agencies, including FAO, WB, CIDA, IDRC, CIFOR, IUCN, and BSP, have contributed to the promotion of NTFPs, recognizing their importance in enhancing the lives of people and communities.

Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) are a critical aspect of forest ecosystems and the livelihoods of millions of people. Recognizing their importance and implementing sustainable strategies for their utilization and conservation is paramount. Balancing ecological sustainability and economic viability is key to ensuring a harmonious relationship between humanity and forests.

Importance of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs)

group of forest mushrooms
group of forest mushrooms

In the diverse landscape of India, the Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) sector stands as a vital but often overlooked domain, contributing significantly to the livelihoods of millions. This unorganized sector boasts a substantial business turnover of over Rs. 6000 crores annually, yet it remains relatively unrecognized. Astonishingly, more than 275 million people in India, constituting 27% of the total population, heavily depend on NTFPs for their sustenance and financial stability.

NTFPs: A Crucial Source of Income

  1. Significant Household Contribution: In India, NTFPs play a pivotal role, contributing 10-55% to total household income, and around 80% of forest dwellers rely on them for a substantial portion (25-50%) of their food needs.
  2. Empowering Women: Typically collected by women, NTFPs indirectly empower women financially, providing crucial earnings during lean seasons.
  3. Job Creation: The NTFP sector alone creates approximately 10 million workdays annually in India, highlighting its employment generation potential.

The Path to a Win-Win Situation

Promoting sustainable use of NTFPs presents a promising scenario for poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation, a true win-win situation. By emphasizing the value of forests for local users, we can not only ensure forest conservation but also alleviate poverty.

Government Initiatives for a Balanced Trade

The prevalent issue of middlemen gaining higher profits during trade has led the Government to implement policies favoring primary collectors. These policies aim to deter illegal trade of NTFPs, prevent forest overexploitation, and nationalize key NTFPs like bamboo and kendu leaves.

An Abundant NTFP Source

In India, NTFPs constitute a significant portion of the forest produce. However, the importance of NTFPs has been underrated, especially considering its immense contribution to the livelihoods of rural tribes. Women from various tribes are actively involved in the collection and processing of NTFPs, significantly bolstering their income.

NTFPs: A Global Reach

NTFPs, including medicinal plants, play a crucial role in traditional medicine systems worldwide. A significant percentage of the global population relies on traditional medicines derived from NTFPs, emphasizing their global importance.

Rich Biodiversity

Odisha, with its vast landmass and diverse plant species, stands as the second-largest state in India producing NTFPs. A significant portion of the rural population’s income is derived from the collection of forest products, highlighting the state’s critical role in the NTFP sector.

Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) represent a vital but often overlooked sector, supporting millions in India, especially in Odisha. Recognizing the potential of sustainable NTFP use is crucial for poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation. Government policies aimed at fair trade and community empowerment are essential to harness the full potential of this sector.

Also read – Regenerative Agriculture In An Era Of Climate Change

Exploring the Rich World of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs)

Tropical mangoes growing in the rainforest on a tree
Tropical mangoes growing in the rainforest on a tree

In the verdant lands of India, a treasure trove of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) awaits. These products, harvested from various parts of plants, form an integral part of the lives and economy of the region. Let’s delve into the diverse categories of NTFPs that grace the lush landscapes.

Grasses and Fibres: Weaving Nature’s Bounty

The verdant meadows of India bear witness to the abundance of sabai grass (Eulaliopsis binate), a perennial wonder. This grass, prevalent in districts like Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Sundargarh, and Angul, is a boon to handicraft industries. Its versatile application ranges from crafting exquisite sofas, beds, chairs, to brooms using Thysanolaena maxima, another vital grass in the region.

Twigs and Branches: A Rural Preference

Sal twigs, locally known as “danta kathi,” dominate the NTFP collection scene. Particularly in rural areas, they find favor as a toothbrush alternative. Tribes residing near forests regularly gather these twigs, selling them in bustling daily markets.

Leaves: Nature’s Gift in Many Forms

Kendu leaves find their purpose in bidi rolling and serving plates for modest households. Pruning and nurturing these slow-growing plants ensure a steady supply of these invaluable leaves. In districts like Angul, Dhenkanal, and Sambalpur, khajur leaves are repurposed as roofing and sleeping mats, showcasing nature’s versatility.

Vegetables and Flowers: Nature’s Nutritional Basket

Rural households turn to nearby forests for sustenance, gathering a medley of vegetables and flowers like pitalu and mahua leaves. Mahua flowers, a prized find, are savored fried, powdered, or in the form of cakes and also serve as essential fodder.

Fruits: A Sweet Bounty from the Forests

Mangoes, abundant in Idnia’s forests, stand as a well-known fruit-based NTFP. Ripe mangoes delight palates, while unripened ones find their way into pickles. The tamarind, the second vital fruit-based NTFP, enjoys immense popularity in South India.

Oil Seeds: Nature’s Oily Riches

In India, trees bear a wealth of oil seeds like sal, kusum, karanj, and mahua. The extracted oils serve diverse purposes, from soap-making to lamp fuel and even insecticide. De-oiled seeds prove invaluable as nitrogen-rich manure.

Gums and Resins: Nature’s Glue

Dhaura and karaya gums prominently feature among the chief gums harvested from Odisha’s forests. Their versatile applications make them highly sought after.

Tassar and Lac: Nature’s Textile and Resin

Tassar, a forest-produced wonder, holds a place of significance, utilized in cocoon rearing. Lac, a resinous secretion from insects, finds its source in trees like Kusum and Palash, showcasing nature’s intricate processes.

Medicinal Plants: Nature’s Healing Touch

While minor in part, medicinal plants like chirota, sadabihari, and bann tulsi play a vital role in Odisha’s NTFP landscape.

Liquor: A Traditional NTFP

Mahua flowers and rice beer herbs, known as “akana,” come together to create traditional liquor, a lesser-known NTFP in Odisha.

The bounty of non-timber forest products is a testament to nature’s generosity. From grasses to fruits, each product reflects the harmonious relationship between communities and their natural surroundings, showcasing the sustainable coexistence of mankind and Mother Nature.

A Journey through the World of NTFPs

Jackfruits on tree branches
Jackfruits on tree branches

Discovering the Seasonal Tapestry of NTFPs

Nature’s treasures, Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs), are a year-round delight, each season painting the forest with its unique hues of offerings. The entire family embarks on a quest to collect these treasures, immersing themselves in the embrace of the forest. The women and children of the family, in particular, dive deep into the woods in search of these gifts. However, the story doesn’t end here.

Processing the Nature’s Gifts

Not all NTFPs are ready for consumption or use in their natural form. Products like kendu leaves, lac, resin, and more require meticulous processing before they can be sold or utilized. The method of processing varies based on the product and its intended purpose.

The Heart of the Matter

The journey of NTFPs from forest to market is not without its challenges. The OFDC and TDCC purchase NTFPs and surplus agricultural products from tribal gatherers, striving to ensure fair returns. However, their noble objectives often face hurdles due to the lack of institutional and financial support. The consequence is significant: primary gatherers are forced to sell their hard-earned products to private traders or in local villages, sometimes even below the district committee’s set prices.

Community Efforts and Future Prospects

Efforts are being made on a community level, such as by the Gram Panchayat, to streamline NTFP collection. However, these endeavors struggle due to organizational and financial shortcomings. The key lies in market development and promotion. Entities like OFDC, TDCC, ORMAS, and TRIFED play pivotal roles. But true progress hinges on the involvement of a growing number of traders in the process, expanding the trade horizon.

Also read – Farmer-to-Farmer Extension System

A Glimpse into NTFP Variety

TRIFED’s cooperatives have made strides, purchasing around 50 diverse NTFPs including gum karaya, niger seed, sal seed, myrobalans, mahua, tora, and tamarind. The collector has also mobilized state-level parastatals, silkfed, and oilfed, broadening the spectrum to include kosa cocoons and oil seeds.

Preserving Our Natural Healers

India boasts about 620 medicinal plant species in trade, a significant share of which, a hundred species, finds a home in Odisha. Interestingly, 10 of the top 20 medicinal species traded in the country find their habitat. But with global trends impacting policies, there’s a need to balance trade and conservation. Twenty-nine species were banned for export under the Foreign Trade and Regulation Act, 1992, aiming to curb overexploitation and preserve delicate ecosystems.

The journey of NTFPs from the forest to the market is a complex yet vital cycle. Balancing commercial viability with environmental sustainability is the need of the hour. With robust institutional and financial support, combined with conscientious efforts from communities and organizations, we can preserve and harness the gifts of nature responsibly for generations to come.

Processing of Non-Timber Forest Products

Mahua Madhuca longifolia Tree in the Forest
Mahua Madhuca longifolia Tree in the Forest

Bidi Leaves: Nature’s Profitable Gift

Bidi leaves, also known as kendu leaves, are derived from the Kendu tree (Diospyros melanoxylon). These leaves stand as a significant Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) in Odisha, offering substantial profitability. The superiority of large leaves with subtle veins is highly prized. The Kendu tree, a medium-sized marvel, thrives in well-lit environments, showing resilience to waterlogged conditions but vulnerability to frost. The manual collection emphasizes soft, less pubescent leaves, ensuring superior quality.

Harvesting and Processing: A Delicate Balance

The collection of leaves primarily occurs during the morning, carefully bundled and left to dry for 2-3 days, with a crucial emphasis on avoiding under or over-drying. Proper moisture levels are maintained, ensuring the leaves are pliable for bidi rolling. Subsequently, these leaves are shaped, filled with a tobacco mixture, tied, and then dried, ready for packaging and distribution. The process requires precision to preserve the leaf’s integrity, ensuring the final product is of the finest quality.

Lac: Nature’s Resin for Utility

Lac, a resin-like substance secreted by lac insects, finds versatile use in varnishing and sealing wax. Two strains of lac insects, Kusumi and rangini, contribute to its production. The meticulous inoculation process involves attaching brood lac sticks to branches, ensuring a healthy harvest within a week of larval emergence. The harvested lac undergoes purification, resulting in shellac, a valuable raw material for various industries.

Sal Seed: A Traditional Resource

Traditionally, the tribes residing in sal zones utilized sal oil for cooking. However, evolving extraction methods and readily available substitutes led to a decrease in demand for sal fat. Sal fat gained prominence as a cocoa butter substitute, enhancing demand. Despite nationalization efforts, the benefits largely favored private monopolists, creating a need for equitable distribution of benefits in the sal seed trade.

Mahua Flower: A Treasured Resource

Mahua flowers hold cultural significance, primarily used in crafting country liquor for local consumption. The challenge lies in the collection process, where a lack of adequate storage facilities prompts immediate selling, potentially impacting profits. Addressing storage concerns and exploring value addition opportunities can elevate the significance of this resource, contributing positively to both local communities and the ecosystem.

The processing of major Non-Timber Forest Produces like Bidi leaves, Lac, Sal seeds, and Mahua flowers in Odisha underscores the delicate balance between nature’s gifts and human utilization. Efficient harvesting and conscientious processing methods are vital to sustainably harness the potential of these resources.

Challenges in NTFP Collection, Storage, and Marketing

Mahua Madhuca longifolia Tree in the Forest
Mahua Madhuca longifolia Tree in the Forest

Navigating the collection, storage, and marketing of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) poses significant challenges that necessitate strategic solutions for the overall development of this sector. This article delves into the major hurdles faced and proposes effective strategies to overcome them.

Volatile Markets and Sustainable Strategies

The volatility of markets stands as a prominent challenge in the NTFP sector. However, direct government control is deemed unsustainable. We explore alternative strategies to stabilize market conditions for long-term sustainability.

Responsible Harvesting and Scarcity Mitigation

Overuse and unscientific collection methods contribute to product scarcity and depletion of plant species. Addressing these issues through responsible harvesting practices is crucial to ensure a sustainable supply of NTFPs.

Balancing Demand and Supply

The increasing demand for NTFPs presents a conundrum as the forest’s capacity to provide remains constant. We discuss the complexities of matching demand with supply and propose approaches to strike a balance.

Empowering Primary Collectors

Insufficient storage facilities and limited knowledge about value addition constrain primary collectors. We explore solutions to empower them, ensuring fair prices and encouraging value addition.

Government Policies and Fair Trade

We analyze the NTFP collection policies by the Odisha government, emphasizing the need for fair pricing and facilitating a conducive trade environment. Fair policies are fundamental to uplift the livelihoods of those dependent on NTFPs.

Benefits of Strategic Policies

By addressing the challenges in the NTFP sector through strategic policies, we aim to enhance livelihoods and sustainably manage this vital resource. The multifaceted benefits include economic empowerment, environmental conservation, and improved market dynamics.

Navigating the challenges in NTFP collection, storage, and marketing requires a strategic and sustainable approach. By embracing responsible practices, fair policies, and empowering stakeholders, we can ensure a balanced and prosperous NTFP sector.

Potential of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs)

medicinal plants
medicinal plants

In our diverse world, the harvest of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) remains a widespread practice, deeply entrenched in various socioeconomic, geographical, and cultural contexts. Let’s delve into this vibrant world and uncover the multitude of purposes and impacts associated with NTFPs.

A Rich Tapestry of Uses

From household subsistence to spiritual fulfillment, NTFPs serve an array of purposes. The tapestry of utilization includes maintaining cultural traditions, bolstering physical and emotional well-being, heating homes, feeding animals, crafting indigenous medicine, fostering scientific learning, and generating income. The act of gathering these treasures is synonymous with wild-crafting, gathering, collecting, and foraging.

A Source of Diverse Industries and Medicinal Riches

Beyond their cultural significance, NTFPs serve as the raw materials for numerous industries. From large-scale floral greens suppliers to pharmaceutical companies and microenterprises engaged in activities like basket-making and woodcarving, these products are versatile. An astonishing 28,000 plant species, many residing in forest ecosystems, hold medicinal value. Exploring forest environments positively impacts both physical and mental health, underlining the deep spiritual connection many share with forests.

Economic Importance

Estimating the economic contribution of NTFPs proves challenging due to the diverse range of products and industries they represent. Notably, the maple syrup industry in the US alone yielded a significant value in 2002. Beyond such high-profile products, a multitude of NTFPs, from wild edible mushrooms to floral greens, contribute to multimillion-dollar industries. Despite the economic importance, the true value of NTFPs often remains underestimated, hidden in official statistics.

Impacts on People

The collection and sale of NTFPs involve both men and women, each with distinct knowledge about various products. Women, particularly, play a crucial role, collecting forest foods to supplement household nutrition. In rural settings, women constitute a substantial portion of labor for part-time, unpaid collection of woodfuel, significantly impacting poorer regions and developing countries.

NTFPs’ Multifaceted Significance

Research on NTFPs unfolds from three perspectives, emphasizing their role as commodities, bearers of traditional knowledge, and vital components of sustainable forest management. These perspectives underscore the potential of NTFPs in poverty alleviation, local development, and forest conservation. However, a pressing need exists for research on valuation, sustainability, and ethical practices in NTFP collection.

Sustainable Future: Addressing Challenges and Cultivating Practices

As demand for NTFPs and related products surges, sustainable practices in their extraction become imperative. Age-old collection practices are often disregarded, leading to unsustainable extraction. Balancing economic gains with ecological preservation is key to the sustainable management of NTFPs, preserving both our natural heritage and the livelihoods of the communities reliant on these resources.

Non-Timber Forest Products, deeply rooted in cultural, economic, and ecological values, embody the delicate balance between humanity and nature. Understanding and managing these resources sustainably is not merely a choice; it’s an obligation towards conserving our biological and cultural diversity.

Also read – Effective Strategies for Promoting Sustainable Agriculture

Ravi S. Behera
Ravi S. Behera
Mr. Ravi Shankar Behera, PGDAEM, National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad is an independent freelance Consultant and Author based in Bhubaneswar. He is an Honorary Advisor to grassroots Voluntary Organizations on Food Security, Forest and Environment, Natural Resource Management, Climate Change and Social Development issues. Ravi has lived and worked in various states of India and was associated with international donors and NGOs over the last twenty three years including ActionAid, DanChurchAid, Embassy of Sweden/Sida, Aide et Action, Sightsavers, UNICEF, Agragamee, DAPTA and Practical Action. He has a keen interest in indigenous communities and food policy issues.
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