BY PETER MAKWANYA
For some, the term non-timber forest products might sound new but what the term represents is generations old and very much in the public domain. Non-timber forest products have been the mainstay of rural livelihoods ever since.
Due to the threats of human activities in the form of overharvesting, illegal logging, bush clearing, expansion of human settlements and frequent forest fires, among others, rural communities’ source of livelihoods is threatened.
These also accelerate high-carbon initiatives as opposed to low-carbon and non-polluting initiatives.
A wide range of non-timber forest products include forest fruits (formerly wild fruits), mushrooms, grass, edible insects, nuts, berries, forest seeds, oils and medicinal plants, among others.
These are any products other than timber or wooden materials that are produced naturally in the forests. In this regard, non-timber forest products simply need to be harvested or gathered from the forests when they are ripe.
That is the advantage communities normally use and they sometimes take it without investing much into their sustanance.
Just harvesting without any prior input is as easy as in destroying what you do not rebuild.
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Non-timber forest products are sources of nutrients and immune boosting products which are recommended these days.
In many developing countries, non-timber forest products add value, not only to human livelihoods but also to the national economies, including the forests themselves. The value addition comprises making forests places of abundance, choice, beauty, productivity and growth, serenity and hospitality.
In this regard, communities harvest non-timber forest products as food supplements, and for medicinal purposes especially for treating a wide range of ailments in humans and livestock.
Long ago, non-timber forest products used to be harvested and sold in small quantities but due to deteriorating economic conditions and agricultural production threatened by the negative impacts of climate change, many developing countries now have large footprints on the markets.
Currently, non-timber forest products are under threat from over-exploitation and unsustainable harvesting practices and methods.
They are now actively at the centre of many countries’ economic activities.
They used to be associated with poverty-stricken communities, but today they are drivers of economic transformation, sustainability and have established a firm positive footprint on the local markets.
The turning of forests into places of choice for human survival and as means of escaping poverty has seen these products being looted in most cases.
Human beings compete with wild animals in harvesting free forest products.
As a result of this stampede, forests have never been the same again.
They are overexploited and exposed, hence they are now more vulnerable than ever before as they are the only resources which can be exploited without any capital investment.
Forests are being invaded from all angles including by starving communities, climate change impacts, droughts, decreasing rainfall patterns, expanding and unlimited human activities eating into the forests while rendering them empty shells.
The death of forests means the demise of human livelihoods and lack of resilience.
While communities make use of non-forest timber products to adapt to the impacts of climate change and achieve resilience, it is everyone’s desire that a sustainable culture of conservation be practised.
In this view, sanity needs to reign supreme, when harvesting non-timber forest products as these have become a major source of employment for some and everyone who depends on them.
From the indigenous knowledge system frameworks, some forests were viewed as sacred which helped to preserve them and build resilience in the past but somehow nowadays they are being desecrated and annihilated.
Over and indiscriminate harvesting are impending conservation efforts towards these forests in many retrogressive ways.
With the advent of technology and transformation in our midst, these non-timber forest varieties can add value to the lives of our people.
Value can be realised through processing non-timber forest materials into a wide range of finished products like oils, soups, foodstuffs, medicines, preservatives, perfumes and snacks, among others.
In this view, partnerships are required between the private sector, NGOs, government departments and communities to help in the conservation of these vital forests.
This can be done as part of companies’ corporate social responsibilities or through provision of incentives to motivate the communities.
Finally, education, training and awareness is critical in this regard, to impart comprehensive knowledge and information regarding the indispensable nature of forests.
Above all, we should show respect for non-timber forest products, especially forest fruits for their nutritive and medicinal properties.
It only requires a change of the prevailing toxic mindsets.
- Peter Makwanya is a climate change communicator. He writes in his personal capacity.