Success in commercializing an ecosystem good or service creates its own problems. If a poor household or a rural community finds a winning formula for production, marketing, and delivery of a nature-based product, the temptation will be to push the formula to its limits to increase sales and income. This can easily lead to overexploitation of the type that typically degrades ecosystems. Reconciling the desire to maximize income with the need to sustain ecosystems so that they remain productive assets is one of the inherent challenges of using environmental income for poverty reduction (Neumann and Hirsch 2000:102).
Succeeding Too Well
An example of the dangers of succeeding too well with marketing a natural product can be found in Bolivia, where one indigenous community worked hard to commercialize the sale of string bags made of natural sisal fiber they collected and processed from the wild. They developed a low-cost marketing model to get their bags to customers in Europe, who paid a handsome price. As this enterprise began to succeed, local women involved in bag-making saw their purchasing power increase markedly. This, in turn, encouraged them to rely more on making sisal bags for income, abandoning other lower-profit activities such as subsistence agriculture. As economic reliance on sisal bags spiraled upward, pressure on native sisal plants grew, depleting local sisal sources around the community, and eventually forcing locals to lower their harvest to a more sustainable level (Shanley et al. 2002:279).
Many other examples of the potential for unsustainability can be found. African bushmeat hunting, for example, has reduced the population of primates like chimpanzees, whose low reproductive rates make them especially vulnerable to overharvest. The use of cyanide by poor fishers in Indonesia and the Philippines to catch prized fish for sale to high-end restaurants has decimated many coral reefs (Barber and Pratt 1997:10-21). In Southern Africa, the expanding market for handmade baskets has put pressure on some 30 indigenous plant species used for fiber and another 22 used for dyes. In western Zimbabwe, one weaving club that began with 20 members in 1986 had expanded to 500 by 1988. This is all the more remarkable given that handmade basket-making had only begun as a commercial enterprise in the 1970s as an economic development project in Botswana (Neumann and Hirsch 2000:102-103, 107).
In these examples, activities which, when pursued on a limited basis, might not harm the resource are pushed to unsustainability by sheer expansion of the scope of the activity. But there are other contributors to unsustainable commerce too. In some cases poor harvesting techniques or agricultural practices exacerbate the situation. Some harvesters of African mbare palm leaves