Historically, governments of countries with rainforests have not valued their forests sufficiently as resources, especially over the long term. If forests have value to them, it is as a short-term resource to be exploited, or as a source of land for agriculture or to relief of social pressures. They sell logging concessions and licenses very cheaply, give tax concessions to logging companies, and allow land speculators to make vast profits on forest land. Often “stumpage fees” (fees charged for logging concessions) are below the costs of management, let alone the cost of reforestation. Although in 1987 the Philippine government could have collected US$250 million from the timber harvested that year, it obtained less than one-sixth that amount because of low royalties and taxes, widespread smuggling of timber, and tax evasion. At the same time, timber companies walked away with huge profits. In Indonesia, over a period of five years in the early 1980’s, the government collected royalties and taxes on only 86 million of the 125 million hectares actually harvested (Repetto, 1990).

Such policies cost the public a great deal in lost revenue (not to mention lost resources), but also provide a tempting scenario for fortune hunters, both local and foreign. Governments usually discount future value in favor of systems yielding faster returns, such as agriculture. This is especially true in societies where the human population is growing rapidly. This phenomenon pressures governments and forestry industries to “mine” forests as a quick-return resource. Thus, little effort is made for protective management or conservation. Balmford, et al., (2002) have calculated the total economic values (including goods and services) of several different tropical ecosystems under conditions of either exploitation (land conversion) or non-conversion (conservation), and found that the economic benefits of non-conversion were considerably higher than those obtained when land was converted for other uses. Among the cases considered were rainforests in Malaysia and Cameroon, and mangrove forest in Thailand. They concluded that “…conversion of remaining habitat for agriculture, aquaculture, or forestry often does not make sense from the perspective of global sustainability.” Thus, current rapid land conversion for agriculture and other uses make no long-term economic sense. By this conversion, we decrease the biological base which provides us with services which are vital for our existence, or, as the above authors put it, we are causing the “erosion of natural services.” They calculate that we lose US$250 billion per year worth of such services by land conversion.

Alternative – i.e., non-timber – uses of the forest are worth huge amounts of money every year. The rattan trade of Southeast Asia alone is worth about US$3 billion annually (Dobson, 1995; Ryan, 1992). But non-timber resources, if harvested at low, sustainable levels, can be rapidly replenished and their collection can disrupt the forest minimally. We can make a comparison of the economic value of timber versus non-timber products of tropical forests in the Amazon, for example. In some one-hectare plots of forest land near Iquitos, 842 trees of a diameter greater than 10 cm were located; these trees represented 275 species and 50 families. Of these 842 trees, 350 (72 species) provide marketable goods. Eleven species (including palms) produce edible fruits, sixty species are valuable as timber; one produces rubber, and many of the smaller plants and palms produce pharmaceuticals. After harvest, the net yields for non-timber products were, over a 20-year period, 90% of the value of the timber, a one-time crop (Dobson, 1995). And the forest remained. It has been found that 26% of species in the Peruvian Amazon near Iquitos yielded products of commercial value. Over time (here, 20 years) the renewable, non-timber products were worth almost thirteen times as much as the timber (Review in Alper, 1993). Timber is basically a one-time crop, or at least has a very long period between harvests, while non-timber products could be gathered frequently and indefinitely. However, Godoy, et al., (2000), working in Honduras, found that local people received only a relatively small amount of value (cash and/or consumption) for rainforest products, between US$49 and US$1089 (a mean of US$347) per hectare per year annually.