From the FAO’s Non-Wood Forest Products newsletter:
Plant Extractivism in Amazonia: Where are we headed?
Alfredo Homma is an agricultural economist and researcher at Embrapa Amazonia Oriental, Belem, Para, Brazil
“There is a misconception that all non-wood forest products are sustainable. This is a big mistake because not all economic extraction ensures biological sustainability and not all biological sustainability ensures economic sustainability.”
Last year marked 25 years since the murder of the trade union leader Chico Mendes (1944-1988), a global icon associated with the creation of extractive reserves to preserve rainforests in the Amazon. Despite great progress in the region, there remains widespread perception at a policy level that plant extractivism is the development model for the Amazon. Extractivism has a limit due to the fixed supply determined by nature. Extractivism is appropriate when the market is small or large stocks exist in the wild. When the market starts to grow, the extractive sector is unable to support the growth in demand. Other variables also affect the stability of extractivism: increase in wage levels, emergence of economic alternatives, development of synthetic substitutes, etc.
It was because of the limitation of production to meet consumption that mankind began, ten thousand years ago, the process of domestication of plants, known as agriculture. Today, there are over three thousand cultivated plants and hundreds of animals in the world which have been domesticated. We simply could not be feeding over 7 billion people by simply collecting products from nature.
The English were the first to realize that the world could not depend on the rubber collected in the wild, sending, in 1876, 70 thousand rubber tree seeds from the Amazon to Southeast Asia. When they began to commercialize rubber from Southeast Asia, the Amazon entered into a downward economic, social and political spiral because investments were made only in the collection of extractive rubber. There was great excitement around the years of extractive exploitation, and the insistence on this model makes collectors, producers and consumers lose out on a great opportunity to generate income, employment and better quality and quantity of products at lower prices.
It is an illusion to think that we will be able to survive exclusively by collecting forest products. We must give attention to the areas that have been cleared in the Amazon (17%), close to75 million hectares (2012), almost 1.5 times the size of Spain or more than twice the size of Germany. To keep our forests intact, we must look at the areas already deforested and learn from experiences with the dozens of extractive plants that have supply problems (fruit, aromatic, medicinal, insecticides, wood, etc.). Governments should therefore lead the way to also develop policies that support the domestication of plants in Amazonia. If plant extractivism domestication technologies are made more readily available, for example, local people can explore domestication to vary their livelihood options.
There is a misconception that all non-wood forest products are sustainable. This is a big mistake because not all economic extraction ensures biological sustainability and not all biological sustainability ensures economic sustainability.
Plant extractivism was very important in the past, continues to be in the present, but we need to think ahead, to democratize the products of Amazonian biodiversity. Each forest product inherently requires distinct practices, rules and hence legislation, which also varies from country to country. The NTFP sector in particular cannot do without policies aimed at the sound and realistic cultivation of these species.