The politics of quality and geographic indications for non-timber forest products: Applying Convention Theory beyond food contexts

Ryo Kohsaka & Yoshitaka Miyake (2021)

Journal of Rural Studies, 88, pp. 28-39.

Abstract. This study examines how quality is defined, re-defined and dynamically formulated amongst stakeholders under political and global market pressures while registering geographical indications (GIs) for non-edible non-timber forestry products (NTFPs)—namely, Iwate Charcoal and Joboji Urushi—in Japan. To that end, Convention Theory is used as a framework for the two NTFPs as traditionally applied to manufacturing or edible products. This study investigates the following related factors: 1) the transition of convention types between NTFPs and its impact on registrations and 2) the impact of the convention types and values on the sales and sustainable use of forest resources. The study applies Convention Theory, inter alia Worlds of Production (and associated categories) coined by Storper and Salais (1997), because of its central focus on the formation of product qualities and the resulting consumption and materialistic relations. Historically, both products have been under pressure because of lower-priced imports and the substitution of the traditional energy source charcoal and material source urushi with petroleum products including oil and chemical lacuquer, respectively. Thus, the two GI registrations of NTFPs in this study were an attempt, among other options, to counter the influx of imports that results from economies of scale and technological development in scientific standardization. We observed changes in the conventions and analyzed dynamism with relevant concepts of “orders of worth,” propounded by Boltanski and Thévenot (2006), behind the four categories of Possible Worlds of Production (Market, Industrial, Interpersonal, and Intellectual Resources) proposed by Storper and Salais (1997).
Our question is as follows, “Did the GI process related to quality strengthen the existing convention or did it rather cause confrontation between conventions?” The two NTFPs provide us with unique and contrasting pathways. Through the GI process, there were negotiations, not necessarily verbal discussions, but ceremony-like events, involving nonverbal communications and technical testing, at sites to assure members and reach agreements on quality. Moreover, there are certain challenges for NTFP GIs when compared with agricultural products; obviously, there is no taste element (as both are non-edible) and the associations with consumers are possibly weaker than those with foods are. Even among NTFP products, the methods of setting standards (to compete, or to differentiate themselves, as “dedicated” products from imports of “generic” products in the Industrial World) differed. Iwate Charcoal developed as an industrial commodity and set a stricter scientific standard. Alternatively, in establishing its standard, Joboji Urushi appealed to its historical embeddedness emphasizing differences in quality resulting from variations by individual producer, local environment, and season. Participation in negotiations of quality, thus, makes producers sensitive to the needs of certain customers, such as personalized products or relationships with producers. As both are forestry products, conservation efforts (identifying individual urushi trees and replanting and coppicing after harvesting for charcoal) are practiced, which loosely resonates with consumers’ sustainability discourses. Yet, rather than green and environmental discourses, subtle associations between a nostalgic sense of “homeland,” pride in artisanship and tradition are strong factors in the promotion of domestic urushi products vis-à-vis imported competition. The comparisons are more technical in the case of charcoal with a degree of carbonization. Noteworthy registrations of non-edible NTFPs are rare in Japan (and absent in the European system). However, the producers were able to learn from, and surmount, the challenges of GI product quality agreed upon, while they achieved a new sense of solidarity.

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