Certification: into the wild.

Guest blog by
10 December 2010

Collection and trade of wild products is increasing but concerns surround its current and future sustainability. The FairWild standard for wild collection seeks to address such issues by promoting sustainable practices and rewarding collectors with increased returns through a certification process. Standards and certification are increasingly being applied to new environments; but as discussed before on Due South, their suitability needs to be considered in light of the contexts in which they are applied. Traditionally certification has been applied to privately owned areas with enforceable property rights, but it is relatively untested in wild collection settings, which have their own unique challenges.

Could FairWild provide the sustainable answer?

Introducing FairWild

The trade in wild collected products, such as wild garlic in Bosnia or the highly prized medicinal ‘kutki’ in Nepal, is increasing as a result of greater than ever demand. This demand is driven not only by Western consumers but also the huge (and growing) domestic markets in countries like China and India.
It is feared that increased demand will have both environmentally and socially detrimental effects. For example:

  • Many products are classified vulnerable by CITES and over-collection could lead to extinction or damage to ecosystems.
  • As wild plants tend to be collected by poor or marginalised groups, increased demand can lead to exploitation of workers by other industry players or a loss of their livelihood source.

The FairWild standard has been developed to specifically address these concerns by combining fair trade principles with the International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISSC-MAP). Collectors who comply can be rewarded with a minimum price and a FairWild premium, which like Fairtrade is designed to be invested in development projects. FairWild is still in its early days but is currently active in 10 countries and looks set to expand.

Whose patch is it anyway?

Typically property or extraction rights do not formally exist for a wild-collection area in developing countries, so with increased demand problems can potentially arise. Existing collectors are incentivised to collect increased volumes of wild products as they can receive greater returns. This increased demand can also incentivise new collectors to enter an area of wild resources, creating greater pressure on that resource. With collectors acting in their own self-interest, eventually the resource is depleted to the extent that no-one can benefit. The spectre of Hardin’s tragedy of the commons rears its head.

When thinking about collective action problems, certification, as a solution, does not immediately spring to mind. Since Hardin famously proposed the tragedy of the commons idea a lot of work has been done within new institutional economics. General conclusions on conditions necessary for solving collective action problems centre on participation, information and shaming.

Certification alone cannot necessarily promote such conditions; however the implementation of the standard could provide some opportunities, in particular by encouraging high levels of participation and consultation between both certified and non-certified collectors. How FairWild, and any scheme designed to promote sustainability of wild collection, deals with the collective action problem of ‘uncontrolled harvesting by outsiders’ will be crucial to its long-term success.

Challenges of wild collection

Wild products themselves provide a unique challenge for certification because many are not traded on formal markets and large domestic markets in developing countries are, as yet, largely uncertified (or unresponsive to certification). Consequently, a market-based instrument such as certification may be limited in scope.

Wild products also play a significant role in many livelihood strategies as a source of cash income and for food (and medicinal) security. This should be front of mind, particularly when the ecological component is put forward as a way of shaping and strengthening formal policy. Restricting access to such resources in the name of sustainability needs to be considered in light of the negative developmental impact it may have.

The social dimension of wild resource collection adds further challenges. As many collectors are very poor there is a genuine fear of exploitation of the workforce, hence FairWild’s inclusion of fair trade principles. At the same time though, because collectors are often poor, the costs of certification need to be appropriate for them.

It should also be remembered that such costs are not only monetary. The practical costs for adhering to a standard are not insignificant. Improved record keeping, having to follow new processes and procedures, and better understanding of the sustainability of resource collection all require time, effort and skills. Ensuring that the does not exclude the poorest will be essential.

Looking forward

Establishing a sustainable market for wild collection through certification will be a challenge. FairWild must ensure that it does not exclude some collectors because of burdensome costs and at the same time be mindful of the needs of local communities in regards to access to wild resources. Secure chains of supply and a commitment by all stakeholders, particularly buyers, to incentivising more sustainable collection practices is essential.

In some cases though, certification might not be the best option. Either way the standard could help guide efforts for developing sustainable wild collection, and as a broader initiative FairWild is important. The extent to which markets and certification contribute to the achievement of sustainable development goals will be fascinating to follow.

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