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close this bookCommercialization of Non-Timber Forest Products in Amazonia (NRI, 1993)
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


Human and ecological background
Historical overview


Both Amazonian Governments and aid donors have regarded the market development of extractive non-timber forest products (NTFPs) as a means of forest conservation. By increasing the value of the standing forest as a productive asset superior to alternative uses, it has been hoped to encourage forest-based communities to manage the forest resource in a sustainable fashion.

Many of these products lend themselves to nondestructive management practices. Some, like Peters et al. (1989) contend that the sustainable exploitation of non-timber forest resources represents the most immediate and profitable method for integrating the use and conservation of the Amazon forests, while Gradwohl and Greenberg (1988) maintain that extractive reserves offer a mode of forest use that is both immediately economically competitive and sustainable in the long run. There has therefore been considerable research and development emphasis on identifying and developing market possibilities, but with insufficient understanding of the consequences of this for welfare of the extractive groups and resource sustainability.

This study analyses the impact of market integration of a number of case study NTFPs, on welfare, resource sustainability, and biodiversity conservation. This provides the basis for a discussion of the problems and potential of extractivism for sustainable forest management in Amazonia. The study focuses on tree products, and therefore excludes fauna, firewood and other NTFPs.

Human and ecological background

There are many terms for the various groups of extractors in the Amazon, such as seringueros (rubber tappers), castanheiros (Brazil nut gatherers), and ribeirinhos, or caboclos, (riverside dwellers) as well as the Indian groups. The caboclos, sometimes referred to as rural indigenous people, are mixed-blood descendants of Indians and Europeans or Africans. They are distinct from more recent colonos (colonizers) who have moved into the area since the 1960s. These are not mutually exclusive categories. For example, most rubber tappers also collect Brazil nuts and other extractive products, and engage in a wide range of livelihood activities.

In general the Amazon is sparsely populated. The overall average population density in the Amazonian lowlands of nine countries was 2.1/km2 (Eden, 1990). Over half of the estimated 15 million in Brazil's Amazonia Legal are now urban, many of them former rubber tappers and failed colonos. Other groups include about three million colonos, two and a half million caboclos, half a million garimpeiros (gold prospectors), and 200 000 Amerindians (Sizer, 1991).

The rubber tappers (mainly caboclos) are largely descendants of the half a million nordestinos who moved into the Amazon from the drought-prone northeast during the rubber boom (1870-1910). Estimates of their current number vary. Schwartzmann et al. (1987) calculated that half a million people depended on rubber and other latex products as their main source of income, in comparison with 340 000 rubber tappers according to the 1985 Census. Browder (1990) estimates that up to one and a half million derived a significant proportion of their income from extractive activities.

According to data presented in Torres and Martine (1991), the numbers in extractivism are in decline: in the northern region of Brazil the proportion of the economically active population (EAP) in extractivism declined from 9.6 to 4.6% between 1970 and 1980, and also fell in absolute numbers, while total EAP increased by 76% and urban employment more than doubled. The 1980s saw a further absolute and relative fall in extractivism to less than 3% of EAP (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) ).

Some 90% of the hylea, or Amazon Basin, is covered by forest not subject to flooding (terra firme forest) (Eden, 1990). The seasonally flooded or varzea forest areas are the most fertile due to the constant process of soil fertility renewal through sedimentation. They were the first to be settled due to the obvious transport, soil fertility and fishing benefits. They are also the most often cited when economic calculations are presented to show the sustainable viability of extractivism (e.g. Peters et al. 1989). However, the varzea forests, where a few marketable
species predominate (oligarchic forests), constitute only about 2% of the Amazon Basin (Browder, 1992).

Historical overview

The history of extractivism is overshadowed by one product - rubber. Padoch and de Jong (1990) comment that the rubber boom caused the complete transformation of society, and resulted in the break-up of many of the Peruvian Amerindian groups who were literally enslaved.

Case study: The Santa Rosa community, peru (Padoch and de Jong, 1990)

The population of Santa Rosa are ribereños, or river dwellers descended from various indigenous and mestizo (mixed blood) groups. They are thus the equivalent of the Brazilian caboclos. This was a prime rubber tapping area, and in 1907 several estates in the locality were flourishing, at a time when rubber composed 20% of Peru's exports, but by 1912 many of the rubber tappers had left the area for Iquitos or beyond.

During the 1930s and 1940s most of the land on the large Monte Carmelo fundo (farm) was planted with barbasco (Lonchocarpus sp.), the roots of which were exported by the American owned Astoria company in Iquitos, since they contained rotenene, a natural insecticide. The surrounding forest was cleared to supply the market which peaked in about 1946. However the price began to fall with the development of DDT and other synthetic insecticides. This, together with family quarrels, caused the collapse of the fundo.

The owners left the fundo and took 60 male labourers (members of the Ashaninka tribe) to the Putumayo River to promising extraction sites for leche caspi (Couma macrocarpa), a milky-white resin used in the manufacture of chewing gum, paints and varnish, and regarded as capable of saving the region from the marasmus resulting from the fall of rubber. The women and children were left behind for three years to carry on with subsistence farm production. This disruption of family and community life was evidently similar to the rubber boom.

By the mid- 1950s the market for leche caspi had waned again, and so the owners of Monte Carmelo moved to Santa Rita near the Colombian border to start a rice production and processing centre, this time with the labourers' families. This was shortlived due to a dispute with a more powerful neighbour, but several of the men married into a Yagua Indian group employed on a nearby fundo, and stayed on to raise cattle. In 1955 some of the families moved to the Napo River (northwest of Iquitos) in order to exploit rosewood oil, which experienced a meteoric price rise in the 1950s. Accessible forests were quickly stripped of rosewood trees.

After this, most of the group returned to Santa Rita, but some stayed on in the Napo area to be absorbed in the local Quichua culture. Eventually the remaining group returned to Monte Carmelo and founded Santa Rosa, which soon swelled with migrants from other areas.

This brief history illustrates the processes of migration, deculturation and fragmentation of family and society over a fairly short period. It was the speed of cultural change which has been most dramatic, according to Padoch and de Jong (1990). For example the Ashaninkas apparently abandoned their language and customs in the process of the migrations described above.

In the case of the Witoto of the Putumayo River, the atrocities and killings aroused international attention and protest.

However, both before and after the rubber boom, many other products have followed the boom-bust cycle of extractivism. During the 18th and 19th centuries the Portuguese and Jesuits organized Amerindians in extractive expeditions to gather forest products, especially cocoa, andiroba seed, copaiba balsam, sarsaparilla, and oil from giant river turtles. As early as 1851, investigators found Amazonian collectors receiving only 0.5% of the eventual New York consumer price of Sarsaparilla (Padoch, 1988).

During the present century there have been several important mini-booms. From 1910 to 1925, the seeds of tagua or vegetable ivory (Phytelephus macrocarpa) were harvested for buttons and game pieces until artificial materials took over. From 1925 to 1935 balata (Manilkara bidentata) and leche caspi (Couma macrocarpa) became important until substituted. Then barbasco (Lonchocarpus spp.) became important until it was overshadowed by DDT and other synthetic insecticides in the 1960s (Padoch, 1988). In the 1950s alligator skins were in demand, and were followed in the 1960s by jaguar and ocelot skins.

The case study of the Santa Rosa community (see page 2), illustrates the social and cultural impacts of the constant migration of communities in response to these market forces. Padoch (1988), Colchester (1989), Gray (1990) and others have documented the social and cultural impacts on indigenous communities, including the consequences of dependency in its various forms, resulting from market integration.

Up to the 1950s extractive activities were dominant in the rural economies of the Amazon, but in most parts, especially Brazil, livestock, agriculture and mining took over. The extractive economy stagnated and declined due to worsening terms of trade, while national emphasis shifted to the coffee boom in the southern highlands, and to industrialization. Since the advent of over two million people after the opening of the Belém-Brasilia highway (1965) and the Transmazon highway in the early 1970s, the area has been the scene of major social and economic upheavals.

Table 1 presents the production figures for extractive and other NTFPs from Brazil and Table 2 presents recent export data from Brazil. Such statistics are often incomplete or found to be in conflict with one another.

Table 1 Production and value of selected Brazilian non-timber forest products

There is no good set of figures on Brazilian domestic consumption of these products. Further data are provided by Lescure and de Castro. An explanation of the products is presented in Appendix 1.

Table 2 Value (fob) of exports from the Brazilian Amazon 1984-1988