By John Glen Sarol
Just by the number, sheer size, and usefulness of timber from trees, it is easy to overlook what else a forest can offer.
For Dr. Ramon Razal, a professor at the College of Forestry and Natural Resources (CFNR) of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), the forest is home to abundant natural products other than timber, which are collectively called non-timber forest products (NTFPs).
“They include fruits and nuts, vegetables, fish and game, medicinal plants, resins, essences, and a range of barks and fibers such as bamboo, rattans, and a host of other palms and grasses,” enumerated Dr. Razal, who is also one of the members of the board of trustees of the NTFP Exchange Programme Asia and former dean of CFNR.
In the Philippines, various types of NTFPs can be found in different provinces. “For instance, Iloilo, Pangasinan, Abra, and Bukidnon are rich in bamboo. Agusan provinces, Palawan, and Mindoro provinces produce a lot of rattan while Palawan, Davao del Norte, Isabela, Samar, and Quezon are abundant in almaciga resin,” Dr. Razal continued.
Unlike agricultural crops, most naturally growing NTFPs like bamboo and rattan do not need thorough cultivation. They can also be gathered using simple, common tools.
NTFPs can be sources of fiber and structural materials, medicine and cosmetics, chemical or extractive products, fruits, nuts, leaves, and animal products. Their abundance makes them reliable sources of livelihood for forest communities.
“They also save the forest from being exploited for the trees. Plus, protecting the forests for NTFPs also helps ensure forest diversity,” Dr. Razal explained.
“For the environment, we can use NTFPs such as plant leaves rather than plastic bags for packaging. For our health and wellness, we can consume medicinal plants and fruits from the forests rather than fast foods,” he added.
According to him, the use of NTFPs is also closely intertwined with the culture of indigenous people. “Many of the elements of musical instruments, houses, and accessories they use are made of NTFPs. Paying attention to NTFPs helps in protecting indigenous culture that otherwise would be lost if these resources are ignored.”
Research from the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan also found that bamboos have the ability to store carbon better than plantation trees, which helps in mitigating climate change.
Agents of Change
“Foresters should not only be concerned with technical knowledge. They must also have the ability to help communities utilize the natural resources around them to start a business, among others,” Dr. Razal said.
This mindset is something he aspires to share with forestry students in his project, “Foresters as agents of change: developing capacity of forestry graduates in assisting upland communities to commercialize non-timber forest products.”
Through the project, UPLB BS Forestry (BSF) students were given opportunities to learn and practice business strategies in boot camps. Later on, they were deployed in Laguna and Quezon to share their learnings. “By doing this, we are also helping our future foresters to explore other career paths like starting or running their own business,” Dr. Razal pointed out.
The project also established the FORESTore, a one-stop shop that sells goods and materials made from NTFPs developed by BSF students and their partner communities in Laguna, Cavite, and Quezon.
Dr. Razal’s team plans to promote this initiative to other state universities and colleges. The Commission on Higher Education funds the said project.
Dr. Razal hopes that the Philippines will be able to develop a pool of experts who will conduct, share, and support NTFP development.
“People who depend on NTFPs are often far from knowledge centers. Information, technologies and techniques also often fail to reach farmer-gatherers, households, and rural-based entrepreneurs,” he revealed.
“Also, less than 10% of the total research activities in forestry research institutes are on NTFPs,” he added.
A step taken by SUCs offering BSF was to add NTFPs as a required subject. With this, Dr. Razal expects more research, training, extension activities, and publications on NTFPs, a crucial effort that would help raise awareness for these valuable yet largely ignored forest resources.
Even with the challenges, Dr. Razal has always stayed optimistic. “In the future, interest in NTFPs will further grow,” he stated.
As his team strives to conduct more projects about NTFPs, he stays committed towards making more communities believe that the forest’s bounty goes beyond the timber from trees.