Rattan, sustainability and the ethical consumer

Rattan is used extensively all over large parts of Asia to make furniture, baskets etc. There are 600 rattan species in the world, with 54 species in the Indo-China region. Rattan is a climber from the palm family and a valuable non-timber forest product available in forests throughout the Greater Mekong region.

Its stems are used for a variety of purposes, including food as well as housing and furniture. Village communities in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam rely heavily on the rattan trade, with sales accounting for up to 50% of cash income in some rural areas. Rattan can be sustainably harvested and it makes a potential tool for forest maintenance. In forests where rattan grows, its economic value can help protect forest land, by providing an alternative to loggers who forgo timber logging and harvest rattan canes instead.

Rattan can form part of ethical consumption as it is a significant contributor to local economies with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia together playing an increasingly significant role in the global rattan trade, the value of which is estimated at $4 billion. Sales of rattan account for up to 50% of cash income to villages making this industry a major contributor to poverty alleviation in rural areas.

In order to make rattan more sustainable, the WWF and IKEA Sustainable Rattan Harvesting and Production Programme began in 2006 with the aim of creating a rattan industry in the Greater Mekong Region that gives communities, governments and industry an economic reason to conserve forests. By the end of the project, the aim is to convert at least 40% of all SMEs involved in rattan into more sustainable enterprises and give them a greater sense of environmental awareness.

Earlier this month, representatives from Lao businesses and 9 Vietnamese rattan processing companies travelled to the central provinces. The trip was organised by the Khamkeuth district Agriculture and Forestry Office (DAFO) and WWF. The sustainable rattan model has been such a success that DAFO plans to replicate it in other areas, improving local livelihoods and supporting reduced cutting of the plant. Its success has also caught the interest of Vietnamese rattan companies.

Judging from interest among players in the rattan business, it is clear that sustainably managed rattan is becoming a popular choice among processors and consumers. The aim is to establish a sustainable and clean rattan industry by the end of 2011 in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Industries involved in rattan also want to apply for FSC certification.

The project by WWF also aims to increase export of sustainable rattan products by 15% . They have already achieved many project aims including making nurseries to preserve rattan species which produce 60,000 seedlings/year. They have also developed a total of 8 hectares for rattan production by inter-cropping with other products like maize, vegetables etc. The project also includes training in rattan handicraft which brings additional income for the villages it operates out of.