This study was financially supported by the ERDF Post-doctoral Research Support Program project Nr. research application Nr.

Innovations in Non-timber Forest Products: Towards RUral development and Sustainability” (TRUSt) project promotes rural development through an examination and facilitation of innovations that allow rural communities to benefit from non-timber forest products (NTFPs), such as wild mushrooms, wild berries, saps, moss. The concepts of wild products and NTFP are used interchangeably in the proposal. NTFP designates the group of non-cultivated products that grow in the wild.  The concepts of NTFP picking, NTFP foraging and NTFP gathering are also used interchangeably.

With a few exceptions, the rural territories of Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries are facing pressing economic and social challenges, such as comparatively few job opportunities, low income, depopulation, social exclusion, and poorly developed infrastructure. The main economic activities in rural areas are related to agriculture, fisheries and forestry; these are sectors that simultaneously facilitate environmental change and are affected by it. Most of the rural communities in CEE are vulnerable and with low resilience. In this context, search for new ways to facilitate rural development emerges as a key task for scientists. TRUSt analyses and promotes wild product foraging as a route to rural development. The project is based on the premise that sustainable use and innovation in the field of wild products and non-timber forest products is an increasingly important niche for further economic and social development.

Anthropologists have long been interested in the cultural practices of communities that provide sustenance from wild product foraging. Over the last few decades, foraging has also attracted researchers’ interest as a more sustainable alternative to logging (Kangas 2001). Foraging has emerged as an opportunity for most distant rural territories and groups living there; it has been perceived as a possible solution to many of contemporary rural problems.

The social scientific literature on the Global South provides the main body of evidence for the importance of NTFP foraging. These studies reveal the social and economic significance of wild product foraging, as well as the environmental challenges it poses and difficulties to regulate NTFPs marketization (see Laird et al. 2010; Laird et al. 2009; Food and Agriculture Organization 1995). However, there is also a growing research body studying the use of wild products in the European context as well. These studies examine NTFPs and NTFP foraging as a cultural practice (Pardo-de-Santayana et al. 2007; Luczaj and Nieroda 2011, Pouta, Sievanen and Neuvonen 2006; Tomićević et al. 2011), as part of food system (Grivins et al. 2016), as a support system for vulnerable rural groups (Laird et al. 2010;  Shackleton and Pandey 2014), as a business opportunity (Schulp, Thuiller and Verburg 2014; Murray and Simcox 2003; Paassilta et al. 2009), and as part of ecosystem services. This literature reveals that communities make use of various NTFPs: berries (Grivins 2016; Paassilta et al. 2009; Pouta et al. 2006; Bardone and Pungas-Kohv 2015), mushrooms (Luczaj and Nieroda 2011; Schulp et al. 2014; Aragon et al. 2011; Bonet et al. 2014; Bonet et al. 2011 ), game (Murray and Simcox 2003), plants used for medicine (Pieroni et al. 2002; Guarrera 2003), and other wild products.

Despite the growing interest in NTFP related economic and cultural activities, the scientific evidence for evaluating the significance of NTFP picking, collecting, marketing, transportation, integration in value chains and consumption is scarce.

Almost 50% of Latvia’s territory is covered by forests, and forestry is among the largest industries in Latvia (Eurostat 2016). Most of the rural communities in the country live in close proximity to forests and are familiar with wild products. A survey conducted in 2010 reveals that 77.7% of the inhabitants of Latvia gather one or another kind of wild products (e.g. mushrooms, berries, nuts etc.), their estimated net worth reaching EUR 95 million (Donis and Straupe 2011). Meanwhile, some researchers claim that the real value of harvested wild products could be much higher than so far assumed (Grivins and Tisenkopfs 2015; Grivins et al. 2016). Furthermore, there are indications that the amount of at least some foraged products is growing; in many cases, this growth has been facilitated by emerging NTFP processing enterprises, the annual turnover of some of which exceeds one million euros (Grivins 2016). However, while forestry is closely monitored and regulated in Latvia, the NTFP picking is poorly regulated and remains almost invisible to governing institutions. Evidence from other countries suggests that connecting cultural foraging with high value-added niche markets can be an opportunity for rural communities. The development of such connections would require innovations.

TRUSt examines and facilitates innovations that enable the integration of practices related to culturally driven non-timber forest products into high value-added niche markets, thus fostering sustainable use of natural resources, sustainable rural development, and the emergence of new competitive enterprises in Latvia. The study asks three main research questions: (1) What stakeholder arrangements, practices, and knowledge allow rural communities to integrate NTFPs into niche markets? (2) How can social, organisational, and technical innovations be used to increase the added value of NTFPs? (3) What initiatives and governance models promote fair, innovative, sustainable, competitive, and transparent (further on – horizontal categories) use of NTFPs?

The academic side of the study treats culturally motivated foraging for self-consumption from the perspective of the diverse economies framework, proposed by Gibson-Graham (2006). The framework separates three categories that constitute the economy: transactions, labour and enterprise. At the same time, the commercialised NTFPs are analysed through the perspective of nested markets. According to van der Ploeg, Jingzhong and Schneider (2012), nested markets are not anonymous; these markets could be described as embedded in a set of goals and values out of which they emerge. Nestedness signifies an attempt to incorporate into the market some type of regulatory, distinctive, supportive aspect that can be replicated only in certain conditions – either following certain production practices or by being in the specific region etc. Thus nested markets are strongly dependent on common pool resources (CPR) (Schneider, Ploeg and Hebinck 2014; van der Ploeg, Jingzhong and Schneider 2012).

To achieve research goals and answer the questions raised by TRUSt, the study is organised in six work packages (WP). WP1 is constituted by Evidence inventory; it examines research evidence of NTFP picking and successful commercialisation, analyses secondary data to evaluate the social, economic and environmental role of NTFPs in Latvia. WP2 involves Adapting methodology: developing a methodology for the analysis of two sets of case studies. WP3 constitutes Community and enterprise analysis, that is, analysis of case studies of, first, enterprises successfully operating with NTFPs and, second, rural communities strongly involved in NTFP picking. WP4 is organised around Synthesis of possibilities: participatory synthesis of evidence from the two sets of cases studies to facilitate innovations and commercialization of NTFPs and strengthen a fair distribution of income along the value chain. WP5 is Policy analysis; it involves comparative analysis of NTFP picking regulations in Latvia and three other countries, as well as devising roadmaps for improvements. WP6 constitutes Dissemination, that is, the publication of findings through academic and non-academic channels.

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