The Ikalahan, an indigenous people in the mountains of northern Luzon in the Philippines, have not only regained control of their ancestral forest, they are creatively harvesting it in a way that seems to guarantee its continued survival.
The Kalahan Educational Foundation, a local organization founded in 1973, helped Ikalahan communities to obtain the first-ever community forest stewardship agreement with the Philippine government. The agreement granted the Ikalahan legal rights to their ancestral forest. There as elsewhere, land rights give local people a basis and incentive for good forest management. Against the prevailing practice of clearing forest for farm land, the Ikalahan decided to make a living from the forest itself.
"As we studied the resources we discovered many wild fruits within the forests, several of which make good jellies or preserves," explains Delbert Rice of the foundation. From these, the group selected two to make into jellies, jams, and butter. Now they have 15 recipes for preserves of wild and cultivated fruits.
With the help of the Asian Institute of Management, they identified markets in Manila and customer preferences for packaging. Their product line now includes jellies made from dikay, a small grape-like fruit, as well as ginger, tamarind, and passion fruit preserves.
The food business has given the forest – not just its wood – a tangible value in the eyes of the Ikalahan. Most families have voluntarily reduced the size of their farm land, allowing some 2,500 acres to revert permanently to forest. It has also provided local jobs for skilled labor.
People are recognizing that non-wood forest products – long ignored by foresters and researchers – not only provide locally important food, medicine, and cultural identity, but they also offer opportunities for both forest conservation and profitable employment.
A key to the success of the Ikalahan project is adding value locally; that is, increasing a product’s market value through processing and/or packaging close to the forest. This way, more of its value is retained by the communities near the forest source, providing the incentive and means to manage the resource more sustainably.
Last January, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization sponsored an international meeting in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, to consider the opportunities and limitations of this kind of local project. The 100 participants from 44 countries, divided between environmentalists and development professionals, found common ground in the recognition of local involvement – as in the Ikalahan enterprise – as the key to sustainable forestry. Programs must consider local needs and capacities before they can attempt to address either forest conservation or economic growth.
The meeting’s 27 presentations from Asia, Africa, and Latin America included one by Pitamber Sharma, regional planner with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu. Sharma described experiences from medicinal plant enterprises in Nepal where traditional ayurvedic medicine projects draw on indigenous knowledge of forest plants and strengthen local cooperatives.
Fueling Cottage Industry
In the Gorkha District of central Nepal for example, 200 families organized cottage industries for drying and storing harvested plants; these supply a small community-established traditional medicine factory. Another project aimed to develop a stable consumer market for these medicines.
After a non-governmental organization helped the villagers apply for and secure legal land rights, the local people set about conserving the stock of plants that they had previously over-harvested. They started to grow high-value plants in forest gardens on their newly titled land, and learned better methods for harvesting wild plants.
Despite obstacles both physical (few roads) and social (lack of local familiarity with product standards, some corrupt middlemen and officials, and an underground medicinal trade controlled by a few powerful people), with patience and persistence the traditional medicine factory began to show a profit in just two years.
A UN Food and Agriculture Organization report on similar projects around the world is available from Dr. C. Chandrasekharan, chief, Non-wood Forest Products Division, FAO, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy. David Taylor is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC.