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close this bookCommercialization of Non-Timber Forest Products in Amazonia (NRI, 1993, 26 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentForeword
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentAbbreviations
View the documentGlossary
View the documentSummary
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentRubber and extractive reserves
View the documentOther extractive products
View the documentImpact of commercialization
View the documentThe future of extractivism
View the documentResearch and development priorities
View the documentConclusions
View the documentReferences
View the documentAppendix 1
View the documentAppendix 2

The future of extractivism


The recent literature reveals a consensus that extractivism per se is limited as a response to the conservation issue, and that expectations are unrealistic (Cleary, 1992; Browder, 1992; Anderson, 1992; Homma, 1989; Torres and Martine, 1991; Sizer, in press, and others). The apparent main reasons are as follows:

(a) The nature of the markets, with the inherent tendency to substitute extractive products with synthetic substitutes and cultivated trees (domestication).

(b) The inelastic supply of most extractive products, and the factors in the extractive economies that cause inconsistency of supply problems.

(c) Limited income-earning potential of extractive products in comparison with alternative unsustainable land uses, including gold mining, cocaine production, agriculture and small-scale ranching. The products themselves are often not sufficiently high value (per unit weight) to justify post-harvest technology research.

(d) The export markets for many extractive forest products are small and volatile, while some of the larger and more secure domestic markets, as for a juice, palm hearts and aguaje, are for perishable varzea products which can only be grown in 2% of the Amazon.

(e) Even when market development leads to an increase in value of the resource (as in the case of baba the impacts are likely to be negative unless underlying political and land rights issues are tackled.

(f) The extractors themselves do not see extractivism as a raison d'e but as a means of survival. Sizer (1991), Romanoff (in press) and O'Donnell Sills (1991) all report extractive groups expressing preferences for agriculture and other land uses, unsurprising when one recalls that extractivism is often a poorly remunerated, lonely and isolated existence.

(g) Extractivism cannot be viewed as a solution to the problem of new colonization: it is not accessible to new settlers, both on the grounds of the amount of technical knowledge and land required at the forest margin. Fearnside (1989) estimates that a typical rubber-tapping household needs between 300 and 500 hectares of forest. Also, as Green and Hone (1991) point out, colonist farmers tend to have a myopic vision which focuses on annual cropping, due to the frequency of their migrationary movements and tenure insecurity.

The case for extractivism

In spite of the above arguments, there are several important reasons to support extractivism and in particular extractive reserves.

(a) Up to one and a half million people in Brazilian Amazonia still derive a significant proportion of their income from extractive products, according to Browder (1990). Therefore there is a strong humanitarian and strategic case for supporting extractivism, giving time for underlying legal and institutional reforms, and for research to develop more viable and integrated forest management systems. The immediate alternatives either involve forest clearance by the extractors themselves, or urban migration, which usually results in clearance by other groups. Migration has unacceptably high social and economic costs and is viewed by extractors as the last resort (Parfit, 1989; Schwartzmann, 1991).

(b) The harvesting methods of most extractive products are non-destructive. With adequate prices, extractivism could be indefinitely sustainable.

(c) For caboclo, indigenous and other groups with a historical tradition of extractivism and swidden farming, their indigenous technical knowledge provides a firm basis for sustainable forest management, incorporating 'poly-extractivism' and traditional swidden management techniques. The single biggest danger to the Amazon is the loss of those with the knowledge of how to sustainably manage it.

(d) The institutional and tenurial arrangements of extractive reserves provide a socio-economic framework in which more sustainable forms of resource management can occur. Even if they are not successful, the urban drift, and associated costs, are likely to be more gradual and manageable than with the privatization of forest resources.


Sustainable forest management as practiced by most extractor groups provides a series of economic and environmental benefits which are either undervalued, due to market imperfections, or not valued at all, because they are external (Pearce et al., 1991). This study has shown that there is an apparent welfare-conservation trade-off for forest management under prevailing market forces. If left to market forces extractivism will gradually decline, and alternative land uses will take over.

Natural rubber extraction in Brazil is only possible due to the Brazilian domestic rubber subsidy. Schwartzmann (1989) points out that the rubber subsidy in Brazil is relatively small, averaging about $25 million/year, less than half of the import tax actually levied in 1985 on imported natural rubber, and a fraction of the subsidies given until recently to ranching (averaging about $300 million/year according to official statistics).

The rubber subsidy seems a small price to pay to avoid the negative external effects of alternative land uses: a case can surely be made for subsidizing the ecologically sustainable management of other inadequately remunerated extractive products. The political and practical problems of who should pay for it and how it should be used will obviously be great, but the setting up of international transfer payment mechanisms seems to be an inevitable necessity if the North wishes to continue to receive the benefits of extractivism. Another vital area is the payment of royalties for the intellectual property rights of extractive species.

The first priority for any such flows would be to bolster the activities of the CNS, which according to Brown (in press), is often unable to pay its small staff and bills in spite of being the principal proponent of extractive reserves.

Integrated forest management

Most analysts, especially Browder (1992) and Anderson (1992), see sustainable agriculture, agroforestry (especially based on indigenous swidden management techniques), and timber extraction as playing a major future role in both the context of extractive reserves and frontier production systems.

There are strong arguments for combining extractivism with community participation in the sustained yield management of timber. An example of this is provided by the forest ejidos of Yucatan, Mexico, in which timber extraction in the dry season is successfully combined with chicle extraction from Manilkara zapota in the wet season (Richards, 1991).

Timber faces few of the market problems of extractive products. Even if there was a boycott of tropical hardwoods by the North, there is still a huge internal market to satisfy: the Amazon presently supplies 54% of Brazil's roundwood according to Browder (1992), who also argues for a much greater emphasis on secondary forest management (i.e. on regenerating forest).

Avoiding the middleman

Fearnside (1989) points out that 'when the value of products accrues to intermediaries, extractivists remain poor, regardless of the amount of wealth they generate'. Most analysts agree on the need to develop co-operative producer, marketing and processing structures to increase producer margins at the expense of the middlemen. Certainly in many situations they are able to maintain their margins through control of capital and market information, especially in remote areas. At the same time their economic importance is traditionally underestimated (Padoch, 1989; Holt, 1991).

The Xapuri Brazil nut plant, and the Kayapo Indian project which produces Brazil nut oil for Body Shop hair conditioner, rely on alternative marketing structures in which existing oligopolistic marketing structures are bypassed completely. May (1991) contends that such a mechanism is a widely replicable model of international cooperation. Others argue that they run the risk of temporarily raising returns and expectations with unsustainable structures and markets, especially when the products are consumed in limited speciality markets tied to current fashions (Browder, 1992). These alternative marketing arrangements are a way of buying time while Amazonian Governments and the international community develop more durable approaches to the problems.

The potential of green consumerism

A less risky approach is to cash in on increased international awareness of the role of extractivism in forest conservation. Holt (1991) points out that there has been no attempt to link Brazil nut consumption with rainforest conservation. He points out the need for consumer education and identification of sources in brand names, e.g. Kayapo Brazil nuts, as a means of increasing demand and prices.