THE REAL WOOD GUIDE NON TIMBER RESOURCES
Wood is not the only product of the forest. It is however the most obvious. It is among the most developed in the level of its harvesting, in the variety of its processing, and in the width of its contribution to human well-being.
These notes are about the rain forests where the greatest variety of plants and wildlife occur.
There are various ways of subdividing forest products. It is possible, for example, to divide them into those which are extracted now and those which may have future potential for human benefit - even to derivatives and chemicals as yet unknown. They can be divided into those which are extracted on a commercial basis and distributed to more distant places, and those which satisfy the traditional needs of a local village or a small rural industry. These can be divided into food, fuel, medicines, utensils and building materials.
One principle is common to all. If these good things are to be available to future generations, then the harvesting or hunting of them has to be at levels which the forest can sustain. If there is intensive extraction of any non timber product from the forest, then it too will need to come under forms of sustainable management.
At the simplest level, the hunting pattern for a small village, which provides meat for its people today, may become unsustainable if the population of that village grows beyond a certain size. Those who seek greater recognition for non timber products have different objectives to those who wish to preserve ecological balances and wildlife associations.
Those who wish to leave virgin forest to natural evolution must find the presence of any human activity, at any level, unacceptable. Those who wish to see special forest communities protected must accept that population growth of such groups will create pressures on forest resources. At whatever level, human activity in or around a forest will change the nature of that forest.
Any move to intensify or encourage greater use of the forest has to be controllable. More and more the forest planning policies around the world have to reconcile these different requirements.
Major non timber products of wide commercial acceptance include cocoa, rubber, bamboo and rattan, coffee, coconut and oil palm.
The cocoa tree has its origins In South America, but is grown throughout the tropics. It is a valued crop, providing a living for many people and frequently planted and nurtured by a farmer and his family. Historically the cocoa tree is a shade lover. More recently there has been some success with strains not requiring shade. For some countries - in West Africa for example - cocoa is a key export product and yet growing more cocoa trees is a threat to the forest, because farmers destroy or thin out forests to create planting space. Foresters and timber men are worried about the loss of productive forest to cocoa. Both sectors are important, as is the forest from which they stem. This same dilemma can be cited for coffee, oil palm, rubber and other cash crops, which replace natural forest without the prospect of natural regeneration which accompanies selective logging.
Whilst rubber comes mostly from plantations it can be gathered from wild trees in natural forest. It is not the most efficient form of harvesting but it can be an important part of a local rural economy. Rubber is useful and the tree is a renewable resource. Its production is a legitimate activity. Space has to be found for cash crops in land use planning, especially in the case of rubber trees because when they stop providing latex, they can be felled for timber. Malaysia pioneered the introduction of rubberwood into world markets.
Bamboo and rattan find their ways into a variety of products including furniture. There are hundreds of species of bamboo. Rattan is a climbing palm, able to grow more than 100 metres in length, and needs trees for support. It can be harvested from natural forest or grown in plantations of young support trees.
Jute is an important forest-associated fibre crop in Amazonia and in the Indian subcontinent.
Oil palm plantations provide vegetable oils in bulk and are created in tropical forest regions after forest clearance. In Malaysia land use planning allows for a balance of permanent forest estate and cash crop plantations. Both have their place in the economy of the country.
A number of essential oils, volatile aromatic oils for adding flavour and smell, come from tropical regions. None are associated with the international timber trade, even though Guaiac oil and Sandalwood oil are only obtained by felling trees. Most sandalwood powder is sold in the Asia Pacific area and comes from cultivated trees.
Forest trees of certain species can yield useful resins and gums. The timber trade is not involved, although some commercial timber species are gum producers. Courbaril, a South American tree, produces a form of copal gum, as does Agathis in Malaysia and Indonesia, but to a large extent synthetics have replaced their use. Dammar resins of various kinds come from trees in the Malaysia/ Thailand/Indonesia region. The collection of these and other substances is a rural activity but often needs controls to avoid over-intensive harvesting and to ensure recovery of the donor tree. If too many people become engaged in such activities they will cease to be sustainable products.
In order to add strength to the case for protecting rain forests, a notional monetary value is sometimes attached to an area of forest as somehow representing the potential economic worth. It is only a valid approach if it is based on reality. Notional value will only become real reward if firstly extraction is possible, and secondly if it is profitable. Villagers taking advantage of natural products when penetrating into adjoining forest and foraging or hunting at no apparent cost put much less pressure on it than organised large scale extraction.
Once the merits of natural forest non food substances have been identified, it is likely that the search will be for more efficient - cheaper -ways of producing or synthesising them. The ultimate aim of protecting the forest is not supported by advocating the case for non timber products on a commercial scale, but through the provision of protected forests alongside production forests which provide an undisturbed area of vegetation containing all possibilities and potentials.
There is a tendency to overlook the vast amount of knowledge, local and international, of the rain forest plants and their uses. In spite of this knowledge wider commercial application is not usual. For example in 1936 Dr. J.M. Dalziel published 'The Useful Plants of West Africa". He cited over fifty other sources of information before listing well over two thousand plant species variously offering a huge array of use, including dyes, soap, fodder, thatching, fruit, fish poisons, caustics, fibres, clothing, food, all kinds of medical and dental needs, tannin, ink, matting, alcoholic drinks, floor polishes, and many others.
D.K. Abbiw of Legon University in Ghana describes local plants under broader headings: bathing sponges, teeth cleaners, basketry, fishing traps, brooms, binding, barkcloth, pestles, fruits, vegetables, fungi, sources of water, honey, beverages and wine, medicine, latex, gum, coagulants, beads, and so on.
The value of such products to local communities is not disputed. If rural populations are to be assured of them in the years to come, and nations continue to want cash crops as well as timber, there has to be a much greater co-ordination of the disciplines of forestry and agriculture, and much clearer ideas of the ways in which the land and resource needs of fast increasing populations can be met.
At present the conversion of logs into sawn wood and veneer give rise to considerable volumes of residues. Successful commercial ways of utilising these include particleboard, hardboard, fibreboard and pulp. In addition the chemistry of wood offers some potential. Both softwoods and hardwoods contain cellulose, lignin, hemicellulose, and chemical extractives. Through the process called hydrolysis these wood elements can be converted into wood sugars and alcohols for use in the chemical industry, but in practice it is difficult to do this in competition with cheaper petrochemicals. Rayon can be produced from wood.
There is also the process of pyrolysis which is the destructive distillation of wood. It is a process which has been known from ancient times. It produces in the first instance charcoal, but other chemical by-products arise including methanol, acetone, acetic acid and tars. Again success in commercial terms depends on the ability to compete with petrochemicals.
The UK undertook pioneering work leading to commercial success in the processing and use of bark residues for horticultural purposes. Bark extractives include tannin.
Non timber products from tree may at present be more cheaply produced from other materials, but the fact that these prospects exist further underlines the extrodinary number of ways in which the tree can serve the human race.
Next Section: 'Flora and Fauna and Forests'