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Jen Boynton headshot

6 Rainforest Products You've Never Heard Of

By Jen Boynton

Fair trade isn't just for coffee and cocoa! When I visited Guatemala last week, I was struck by the sheer number of products that are being produced sustainably by cooperatives certified by FSC and Rainforest Alliance. I knew the rainforest was a bastion of biodiversity, but little did I know its leaves were making their way into my flower arrangements!

Read on to find out how these products, sustainably produced and harvested by rural communities, are making their way into your gum, furniture and maybe even your flour, too.

1. Xate

Pronounced shah-tay, this leafy rainforest plant is a popular green ornamental for flower arrangements, especially religious ones. Guatemala is the sole producer of certified xate and provides about 5 percent of the U.S. market. The leaf is collected from the jungle by hand and sorted by women who make above the minimum wage.

2. Santa Maria

This rainforest hardwood looks like mahogany but costs about 40 percent less. It is used to make all kinds of furniture and for many building applications like the fences-in-progress seen below. These are built in-country so that the collectives of the Petén can capture more of the value from the trees they selectively cull.

3. Mahogany

Speaking of mahogany, yes, you've probably heard of it, but did you know this fine wood came from deep in the rainforest? The community of Carmelita cuts trees based on purchase order, so there is no unsold timber. They cut a maximum two trees per hectare to ensure the rainforest will provide for generations to come. Thanks to FSC certification, they maintain a strict chain of custody to ensure that all lumber can be tracked to the source.

Seen here, tree No.155 was noted on a map and the stump is marked correspondingly, so end users know the source of their sustainable wood.

4. Chicle

This rubbery substance is still a common ingredient in many chewing gum formulations. It's collected by chicleros, who climb the trees and whack them in a cross pattern with a machete to bleed the sticky sap into a small bag. The chicle is then boiled until it reaches the right thickness.

5. Ramon Nut

The ramon nut was a common source of protein for Mayans. The hard nut has a kumquat-like peel on it which is very popular with the local howler monkey population. The nuts themselves are collected by hand and processed by a women's collective into a flour, which can be used for everything from a coffee-like drink to cookies and bread.

6. Cojones de Caballos

This tree is named for its unusual fruit. In addition to looking like its namesake, horse's... ahem... testicles, the fruit contains a a sticky white substance with a sweet taste. The market is currently wide open for export.

Unless otherwise noted, images are credit the author.

Travel and accommodations in Guatemala were provided by Rainforest Alliance; this story is editorially independent and opinions are my own.

Jen Boynton headshot

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

Read more stories by Jen Boynton