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The role of botanic gardens in supporting the conservation and sustainable use of non-timber forest products

Volume 5 Number 1 - January 2008

Maite Lascurain Rangel, Citlalli López & Suzanne Sharrock


Commercial logging to satisfy the growing demand for cheap timber has been one of the main threats to the world’s forests. A landmark study in the late 1980s commissioned by the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) revealed the lack of sustainability in tropical timber production (Poore, et al 1989) and led indirectly to the formation of the Forest Stewardship Council. At the same time “extractive reserves” were being established to promote commercialisation of a wider range of forest products that could be harvested sustainably without destroying the forest resource. Thus the concept of non-timber forest products became important in considering management options for forest biodiversity, providing a mechanism to add value to forest resources.

Non-timber forest products (NTFPs) are any biological resources found in woodlands except timber. Also known as non-wood forest products (NWFPs), they include edible and medicinal plants, species that are of high demand for the handicraft industry and plants that are of ornamental interest. NTFPs include some widely traded products such as cocoa, rubber, incense and other plant derivatives. The value of NTFPs in global trade is currently estimated at US$4.7bn annually (Marshall et al, 2006). Interest in the uses of NTFPs world-wide is mainly related to the benefits it is felt they can deliver for the economy, society and the natural environment.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations was one of the first agencies to promote NTFPs through their programme on non-wood forest products (NWFP) and over the past 15 years, numerous other international agencies have incorporated the concept of NTFPs into their programming. A quick scan of FAO reports and the bibliography of NTFP literature, both of which can be found on the FAO-NWFP web site ( reveal the growth of international interest in the topic of NTFPs for tropical and subtropical forests.

While the main focus for NTFP research has been the tropical and subtropical regions of the world, there has also been a parallel, albeit smaller growth of interest in the NTFPs of boreal and cold temperate forests. For example, in 2003 the UK’s Forestry Commission funded a small survey on NTFP use in Scotland. The survey found that around one quarter (24%) of respondents had gathered wild fungi, plant and tree materials from Scottish woodlands in the last five years, with 80% of these, having collected products in the last 12 months (Forestry Commission, 2003).

Many of the plant species extracted from forests for trade are exclusively harvested from the wild and indeed may be difficult to cultivate in a nonforest situation. An increasing demand for many of these species – fuelled for example by a growing interest in ‘natural remedies’ - can put extreme pressure on populations, as individuals are harvested indiscriminately and unsustainably from the wild. As a result, many NTFP species are of increasing conservation concern.

Ensuring the conservation and sustainable use of NTFPs is a complex task, requiring actions by a wide range of stakeholders. Botanic gardens are well placed to take direct and supportive actions towards this goal and this paper describes some of the ways in which this is happening.

Roles of botanic gardens

Research, identification and conservation

Remarkably little is known about the reproductive biology of relatively widespread tree species within forest ecosystems (Newton, 2007) and the same is generally true for the ecology and biology of shrubs, herbs, and fungi found in the understorey layers. Research questions relating to NTFPs include questions such as what factors control their distribution, establishment and reproduction, what physiological and morphological aspects control their usefulness and/or potency as NTFPs, as well as how these factors control the sustainability of their harvest.

These are the amongst the questions that many botanic gardens are addressing. For example the Fushan Botanic Garden (FBG), part of the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute (TFRI) has a natural forest consisting of some 30 ha. It is a site of long-term ecological research (LTER) in Taiwan with about 20 research projects each year undertaken by scientists of various institutes and includes the first large-scale subtropical forest plot in the world. FBG also includes a section where threatened or endangered species are grown, and which is also used for education.

Inventorying and surveying forests is key to developing effective conservation and sustainable use strategies. However, many of the countries harbouring important and biologically diverse forests have limited capacity to identify and document this diversity. In this respect, BGCI has helped to develop and fund a professional training programme for Cambodian botanists. The course has provided officers of the Ministry of Environment with the necessary skills to participate in a ‘National Plant Team’ which will conduct botanical and ecological research and evaluate plant diversity and habitats.

Similarly, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK is involved in a project to assess and conserve plant diversity in commercially managed tropical rainforests in Sabah, Malaysia. The project team teaches courses or assists in: training in plant identification; use of herbarium specimens; targeted collecting and the production of print and web-based checklists and interactive keys; habitat assessment and vegetation mapping, using ground surveys and interpretations of satellite imagery and aerial photographs in order to identify high conservation-value forests based on plant diversity and vegetation type (

Many of the most important NTFPs are medicinal plants and botanic gardens around the world are very much involved in research on such plants. For example the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden in China has begun a research programme into the propagation and reintroduction of local Dendrobium species, used extensively in Chinese Traditional Medicine. This includes fieldwork to assess the status of populations in the wild and research into cultivation techniques. Botanic gardens are also well placed to take direct conservation action for threatened NTFP species, through collecting and conserving seeds or establishing conservation collections as part of their living collections. Such ex situ collections are then available for use in research, re-introduction and education and awareness raising activities. In this respect, BGCI has been working with the Nature and Wildlife Division of the Myanmar Forest Department to establish an ex situ collection of orchids native to Shan State, many of which are under increasing threat from over harvesting, illegal trade and forest degradation. The project staff have held information meetings with local villagers to explain the importance of conservation and propagation studies are underway for some of the commercially viable species, with the aim of improving the livelihoods of the villagers while decreasing harvesting pressure on wild populations.

Community support and sustainable harvesting

High demand for NTFPs can result in over-harvesting of these products from the wild, in some cases putting the very survival of the species in question. Where the product being overharvested is a plant, botanic gardens may well have the horticultural expertise to support cultivation as an alternative to wild harvest or can work with the local communities to develop more sustainable methods of harvesting from the wild.

Palm leaves in Belize

In central America three Chamaedorea palm species (C. elegans, C. oblongata and C. ernesti-augustii) are increasingly under threat due to the over-harvesting of their leaves to supply the florist industry. The leaves of the ‘fishtail palm’ or ‘xate’ are harvested from palms in the forests of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize where they grow naturally. Many people, called xateros, rely on the harvest of palm leaves as their source of income. Unfortunately so much leaf is being collected it has made a large impact on the health and population of the palms in the wild. Much of the supply comes from Guatemala – but the high demand has led to severe over-collection. Now the harvesters (xateros) from Guatemala are starting to cross the Belizean border to gather the leaf. Unfortunately this illegal harvest comes with a high price to the forests of Belize. Not only are Chamaedorea palms threatened by xatero activities but xateros have also been responsible for the looting of artifacts from Maya sites, poaching young scarlet macaws to sell and collecting other plants and seeds such as the ‘ponytail palm’ (Nolina spp.). They also hunt for food while working in the forest, killing agouti, deer, guan and tapir, Belize’s national animal.

Sustainably growing xate is one way to protect the populations of this plant. Belize Botanic Gardens (BBG) is working with a number of local organizations to create a fair and environmentally sound xate industry in Belize. With funding from the UK Government, through the Darwin Initiative, BBG has developed a Grower’s Guide for xate, providing information for farmers on how to produce xate sustainanably. In addition, at the garden they are cultivating three species of Chamaedorea in order to develop propagation and cultivation protocols and produce seeds and plants to pass on to Belizean farmers (

Conservation through cultivation in Cameroon

Limbe Botanic Garden in Cameroon has a ‘Conservation through Cultivation’ programme that works for the conservation of threatened useful wild species. It has long been involved with promoting ex situ cultivation of Eru, to reduce pressure on wild stock and to improve the livelihoods of rural farmers through the sale and consumption of the vegetable. Eru (Gnetum africanum and G. buchholzianum) is a climbing rainforest vine of West and Central Africa that is used as a highly priced vegetable but is threatened by the excessive pressures of wild-harvesting. Its protein content is high, so it can play an important role in preventing malnutrition, and it is also thought to have medicinal qualities. It is locally popular within Cameroon, and tonnes of it are also regularly exported to Nigeria and beyond, supporting the employment of thousands of people.

Limbe developed a domestication technique for inclusion in local agroforestry systems, using trial plots and gene banks. It then went on to train relevant community members using theoretical and practical techniques and maintains strong links with the farmers who are involved in the cultivation of the crop, which helps with further research into its domestication.

Commercialization and sales

In many areas harvesting and sale of NTFPs provides the only source of income for local communities, and they are completely dependent on them for survival. A recent study by the UN Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) identified how commercial development of NTFPs could enable rural communities to escape poverty without irreversibly damaging the environment. A key recommendation of the 2006 report was that aid should be targeted at developing the business skills of rural communities to help them avoid exploitation by entrepreneurs and other middle men in the trade of NTFPs (Marshall et al 2006).

Botanic gardens have an important role to play in supporting the commercialisation and sale of NTFPs by promoting such products in their gift shops and developing relationships with local producers to ensure that production techniques are sustainable. One such example is The Missouri Botanical Garden, which has joined forces with The Blessing Basket Project in an effort to conserve a biologically important forest in Madagascar. The Blessing Baskets that are sold at Missouri are produced in the small village of Mahabo in Madagascar and their manufacture provides a source of sustainable employment for the villagers with the Blessing Basket Project paying the weavers at Mahabo nearly five times the fair trade price. This relationship forms part of a strong international linkage between the Missouri Botanical Garden and Madagascar, in which scientists from Missouri discover new plants and describe them; provide training and support for local partner institutions, including the herbarium; and use botanical data to help the Malagasy government identify national conservation priorities and carry out conservation projects. Garden scientists also work with local communities to develop sustainable agricultural techniques so villagers can survive without destroying the forest. As a result of these initiatives, a direct improvement in the conservation of the Mahabo forest is already being seen. (

Education and interpretation

Many botanic gardens are involved in educating and informing the public about the diversity and value of NTFPs. From the award-winning rainforest biome of the Eden Project (see p 25) to the small-scale displays and interpretative panels found in most gardens, botanic gardens are ideally placed to raise awareness of the importance of NTFPs.

The Living Rainforest provides another example from the UK. Here, visitors have the opportunity to be immersed in a real rainforest experience and the centre provides a unique educational visit for people to learn how the future of tropical rainforests and other ecosystems is closely connected to human lives and lifestyles. Through the displays and special educational tours, the public learn about the multiple facets of a tropical rainforest and gain an understanding of the extreme diversity of this ecosystem. With a particular focus on the linkages between the forest and humankind, The Living Rainforest communicates the importance of tropical biodiversity to an audience far removed from the reality (

Looking ahead

The livelihood values of NTFPs are enormous with around 350 of the world’s poorest people depending almost entirely on forests for their basic needs. A recent article has emphasized the great potential of the use of NTFPs in helping to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (Chaudhury, 2007). Botanic gardens, with their traditional interest in economic botanic, can help in a wide range of ways to promote, research and conserve key species of particular value, working with local communities and informing the wider public of the multitude of forest products that are often overlooked.


  • Chaudhury, M., 2007. Can NWFPs help in achieving the Millennium Development Goals? Non-wood news 15: 9-12. FAO, Rome, Italy.
  • Forestry Commission, 2003. Nontimber forest products (biological products). Available on
  • Marshall, E., Schreckenberg, K. and Newton, A.C. (eds.) 2006. Commercialisation of non-timber forest products: factors influencing success. Lessons learnt from Mexico and Bolivia and policy implications for decision-makers. UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge.
  • Newton, A.C., 2007. Forest ecology and conservation: A handbook of techniques. Oxford University Press, UK.
  • Poore, D., Burgess, P., Palmer, J., Rietbergen, S., and Synott, T., 1989. No timber without trees. Sustainability in the tropical forest. A study for ITTO. Earthscan Publications Ltd, London.

Maite Lascurain Rangel
Unidad de Recursos Forestales Instituto de Ecología A.C. Xalapa, Veracruz, México.

Citlalli López
Centro de Investigaciones Tropicales Universidad Veracruzana Xalapa, Veracruz, México.

Suzanne Sharrock
BGCI Descanso House, 199 Kew Road, Richmond, TW9 3BW UK.