Economic uses of forests

It is estimated that forest products contribute about 1% of world gross domestic product (GDP) through wood production and non-wood products.

Logging in the Dry Forest of Southern Laos
© Nick Cox / WWF Greater Mekong

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Values in numbers

  • 30% of the world's forests are primarily used for production of wood and non-wood products.
  • The total global trade in forest products was valued at around $379 billion in 2005.
  • The livelihoods of 1.6 billion people depend on forests.

Putting a price on forests

Forests have obvious economic significance through the provision of timber and wood. In addition, non-timber products like rubber, cotton, medicinal products, and food represent significant economic value.

Even more important is fuel wood and fodder, especially in developing nations, where people depend on wood almost entirely for their household energy.

Given the immense economic benefit of forests, the demand for commercial timber and other products is ever increasing. Already, there are signs of a growing shortage of tropical hardwoods. This is due to over-harvesting of timber, but also increasing demands from a growing human population, agriculture, mining and water storage.
Rainforest, Pando, Bolivia. / ©: WWF / Eduardo RUIZ
Rainforest, Pando, Bolivia.
© WWF / Eduardo RUIZ


Items made out of wood touch our lives in more ways than we can imagine. Thousands of consumer products are directly made from wood. 

Is it good or bad?

But if demand for timber is fast dwindling forests, why continue using it? Why not look for alternatives? In environmental terms, there are both positives and negatives in using wood-based material.

Positively, it is environment friendly... 

The good thing is, timber is a natural product and can be used with minimum processing. It occurs almost worldwide, and is essentially a renewable and recyclable resource. Because of its natural origins, most types of wood are fairly durable. Timber has a high strength to weight ratio that allows for efficient transportation.

...but exploited beyond sustainable limits

On the negative side, the high demand for timber products encourages illegal and unregulated logging.

Transporting of timber also adds to greenhouse gas emissions.

Timber processing can also have undesirable effects on the environment. Dust emissions result from the sawing and sanding of wood-based products and toxic chemicals are sometimes used to treat the wood. Nonetheless, the processing of other everyday materials such as plastics and aluminium are far more damaging.

Timber is used in the manufacture of.......

  • textiles
  • tyres
  • lenses
  • toothbrushes
  • napkins
  • newsprint
  • packaging material
  • food thickeners
  • tissues
  • building materials
  • flooring
  • cabinets
  • panelling
  • boats
  • gunstocks

Non Timber Forest Products

As important as timber are the non-wood products that are procured from forests. Known as NTFP or NWFP (non-timber or non-wood forest products) These include all biological products extracted from forests apart from timber.

Economic implications

About 150 types of NTFP are significant in international trade. They are also increasingly being acknowledged for their role in sustainable development and conservation of biological diversity.

The value of non-wood forest product removals was estimated at US$18.5 billion in 2005, with food products accounting for the biggest share.

Up to 80% of the population in developing countries depend on NTFP for subsistence, both economically and for nutrition. NTFP are especially important to women in developing countries from Latin America, Asia, Africa and Far East.

Problems faced by NTFP

Though conservation agencies are addressing the issue of sustainable production of NTFP, there are a number of challenges to be met, some of which include the disappearing forest cover, inequitable market access of marginalised populations and the monopolisation of high - value NTFP by logging and poaching mafia.

There are still gaps in our understanding of NTFPs and their importance. Existing knowledge is not well documented, and policy development is still largely disconnected from experiences from the field.
The challenge for the coming years is to develop proper tools and methods for sustainable extraction of NTFP and regulation of its trade.

What are NTFP?

Edible NTFP
  • fruit
  • nuts
  • mushrooms
  • spices
  • condiments
  • animals
  • edible plants
  • honey
  • oils
  • fish
Non Edible NTFP
  • rubber
  • resins
  • gums
  • medicinal products
  • oils for cosmetics
  • grasses
  • bamboo
  • ornamental plants
  • insect products
Aloe vera Aloe barbadensis Gel-like sap high in pectin - used in cosmetics & pharmaceuticals ... / ©: WWF / Martin HARVEY
Aloe vera Aloe barbadensis Gel-like sap high in pectin - used in cosmetics & pharmaceuticals Africa.
© WWF / Martin HARVEY

Managing forests responsibly

It has been proven that responsible forest management involves harvesting that minimises the disturbance to the wider forest ecology.

It is in the interest of the world's timber trade (not to mention the environment!) that forests are managed responsibly, and trade in forest products supports more responsible and sustainable forest management. Regulation of the trade in threatened species and forest certification are two ways to promote better forest management.

Forest certification is a two-stage process. First, forests are independently certified to a recognised standard, such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Next is the certification of operations in the timber supply chain, referred to as the 'chain of custody' certification.

Often, it is a simple equation. If the annual cut in a forest exceeds the annual growth, it spells trouble. However, good management policies and practices, tested against the best international standards, coupled with a chain of custody to the user, wise design and minimum waste can be combined to safeguard the resource for the future.
 / ©: FSC
Forest Stewardship Council

Did you know?

    • Wood energy is the dominant source of energy for over two billion people.
    • Softwood and hardwood actually refer to the structure of the tree rather than how hard the wood is. Some hardwoods, like poplar, are softer than softwoods like pine.
  • logo / ©: WWF
  • Hardwoods
    • Mahogany Furniture such as cabinets; boat construction; wood facings and veneers. 
    • Walnut Gunstocks, solid and veneered furniture, novelties, cabinetry and wall panelling.
    • Oak Furniture, trimming, boat framing, desks and flooring.
    • Maple Flooring, fine furniture and wood-ware such as bowling alleys.
    • Cherry Cabinet making, boat trim, novelties.
    • Rosewood Musical instruments, piano cases, tool handles, art projects, veneers and furniture.
    • Teak Fine furniture, panelling, shipbuilding, doors, window frames, flooring and general construction.
  • Softwoods
    • Pine House construction, panelling, trim, furniture, moulding and boxes.
    • Hemlock Construction lumber, planks, doors, boards, panelling, sub-flooring and crates.
    • Fir Furniture, doors, frames, windows, plywood, veneer, general mill-work and interior trim.
    • Redwood Outdoor furniture, fencing, house siding, interior finishing, veneers and panelling.
    • Spruce Masts and spars for ships, aircraft, crates, boxes, general mill-work and ladders.
    • Cedar Chest making, closet lining, shingles, posts, dock planks, novelties and Venetian blinds.

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