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Foraging the untapped value of Europe’s forests

EU-funded researchers have identified the untapped commercial potential of products like wild berries, mushrooms, nuts and plants growing in Europe’s forests for the benefit of rural communities – a way to generate growth and jobs.

Forests provide a huge range of goods and services, but their true economic potential to Europe remains underestimated. Non-wood forest products (NWFPs) such as forest fruits, mushrooms, cork, nuts, medicinal herbs and essential oils present an untapped opportunity for many rural communities. There are more than 150 non-wood forest products of importance in international trade, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report.

The EU-funded STARTREE project, due for completion in 2016, aims to tap into this potential by providing a clear overview of all such resources at Europe’s disposal, and is demonstrating how rural communities can better manage and commercialise these resources.

Untapped potential

“Research into non-wood forest products has in the past been fragmented, and only implemented at the regional or country level,” explains project coordinator Robert Mavsar from the European Forest Institute in Finland. “STARTREE will provide a European perspective, and make explicit the potential of NWFP. We’ve so far shown that for certain regions, the market value of certain produce – cork trees, chestnut groves, mushrooms, or berries etc. – may easily outgrow wood production.”

The project is focusing on 14 European regions stretching from Portugal to Finland. By identifying business opportunities and developing new small to medium-sized enterprises (SME) around non-wood forest products, STARTREE will help increase competitiveness and innovation within these rural communities.

The Alentejo region in Portugal is one case study where forests play a very important role. Some 45% of the region is covered by forest. The main tree species are cork oak (45%), holm oak (27%), eucalyptus (16%) and stone pine (6%).

This means that more than half of the forest area includes forests dedicated to the production of two important NWFPs: cork and stone pine. The STARTREE project has also identified considerable potential from the production of mushrooms and an opportunity to explore the potential of aromatic and medicinal plants, such as rosemary.

Another case study is the Osrednjeslovenska region in Slovenia, where forests cover approximately 63% of the land area. The country’s capital, Ljubljana, is positioned in the centre of the region, which means that forests play an important recreational role for an urban population.

Picking mushrooms, chestnuts and blueberries are popular activities, while these products are also sold in in local food markets. Given the relatively high purchasing power of urban citizens and good transport connections, these NWFPs could be further exploited, and markets found for more exclusive products such as truffles.

The importance of diversification

Based on the knowledge gained from these 14 case studies, STARTREE will develop management and marketing strategies for specific non-wood products, helping to boost their economic potential. In doing so, the project will help ensure that these resources are managed in a sustainable way, while the communities are economically diversified, and not dependent on, say, one ‘cash crop’.

“Through diversification, land owners, processors, traders and their employees will create more viable income possibilities from their properties,” explains Mavsar. “This will result in more lively communities, better services and amenities, a reduction in depopulation trends.”

Diversification into non-wood products also means that the forestry sector and related business activities are better prepared to deal with economic crises that may hit the commercial value of a particular product. 

Mavsar believes that innovative institutional solutions and improved commercialising of non-wood products could also help to resolve forest-use conflicts that can arise between rural and urban communities.

“While society places great value on undisturbed nature, natural biodiversity and things like wild fruits, rural communities are often unaware of urban demands and therefore neglect these interests,” he explains. “Identifying and servicing markets for these urban demands has the potential to reduce conflict around the use of forest land.”

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