Many people believe that tropical forest conservation strategies for Latin America should focus on extracting non-timber products. However, very little economic research has addressed the activity. This paper presents the results of a study of vegetable ivory, or tagua (Phytelephas aequatorialis), production in western Ecuador. It is one of the largest extractive industries in the hemisphere. We found that, until recently, households collecting tagua received payments that barely covered the value of their harvest labor. By contrast, a few firms that slice tagua into disks that are exported to overseas button manufacturers have captured sizable profits. This concentration of economic returns at the top of the domestic marketing chain has been typical of non-timber extraction throughout Latin America. Processing and exporting are becoming more competitive. As a result, producer-level prices are increasing. Nevertheless, our research findings lead us to doubt that collecting non-timber products will save vast tracts of tropical forest.


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