Mauritia flexuosa, commonly known as the Moriche palm, aguaje, burití (and a variety of other names) is a large palm which is native to tropical South America and Trinidad. It grows in permanently or temporarily flooded forests, and often forms monodominant stands. In parts of South America these stands cover thousands of hectares at densities which can exceed 300 trees per hectare. Moriche palms are important as a source of “food, fiber, oil, medicinals, materials for construction and fishing equipment, and fallen stems serve as a substrate for raising of edible larvae of the palm beetle (suri, Rhynchophorus palmarum)”1
Palm fruits are important food sources both for humans and wildlife. The outer surface of the Moriche fruit is reddish-brown and scaly. Beneath this is a thin layer of yellowish pulp which covers a large seed. This pulp is used in Peru to make ice cream, popsicles and cold drinks. Consumption in Iquitos ranges from 22-150 tonnes/month. The harvest and sale of the fruit is an important source of income for rural people in the Peruvian Amazon.1
The idea of a non-timber product from the rainforest with a well-established market…it seems too good to be true. And in a sense, it is. While it would seem to be the perfect tool for forest conservation, demand for aguaje has led to the degradation or destruction of extensive areas of Moriche swamps. You see, the normal way to harvest the fruit is to cut down the tree. Aguaje production around Iquitos, Peru, is estimated to lead to the destruction of at least 24,000 trees annually.1 It takes 7-8 years for an individual to reach maturity, so the rate of replacement of cut trees is pretty slow. Add to that the fact that the most productive trees are cut (it takes the same effort to cut down a tree with a large fruit crop as it does a tree with few fruit) and the end result is pretty obvious. Not only do aguaje collectors have to travel to more and more remote sites in order to harvest fruit, the trees left behind to re-seed the area are the ones that produce the least attractive crops. In addition, moriche swamps are important food resources for wildlife.1
The depletion of moriche stands is apparent to local people, especially those who earn income by harvesting the fruit. In the interest of sustainable harvest, a climbing system was developed that made it possible to harvest fruit without destroying the tree. Maya Manzi of Clark University and Oliver Coomes of McGill looked at the effect of the introduction of the climbing system to the village of Roca Fuerte in Peru. Since 1999 Fuerte Roca has been located on the north bank of the Marañón River in the Peruvian Amazon. Prior to that it was located on the south bank. Relocation across the river allowed them to exploit new stands of Moriche palms. In 1999 the stands had been nearby, but four years later it took almost three hours to reach productive stands. Seeing this change, and being aware that a similar thing had happened when the village was located on the south bank, the villagers were willing to work with an NGO to try to find a way to sustainably harvest the palm fruit. Purchase of the climbing system led to the designation of an extractive reserve where fruit could only be harvested by climbing, not by cutting.
Manzi and Coomes looked at the socioenomic characteristics of the villagers and tried to determine which factors made them more likely to adopt the new means of harvest. Unsurprisingly, younger people were more likely to adopt the new technology, as were those who were more successful hunters. Families with “fewer non-land assets” and less hunting experience were less likely to adopt the newer technology.
One constraint on the adoption of the new technology was the fact that the village had only been able to afford to purchase four sets of climbing gear. Since climbing requires a fair amount of manual dexterity and strength, it’s probably harder for older people to learn. (Now, granted, I’ve seen old men climb coconut trees, but they have probably been doing it all their lives.) I would tend to assume that younger people would also be more likely to adopt new technology, but I have no idea whether my assumptions translate to rural Peru.
I found it interesting that hunting success correlated with a greater willingness to adopt the climbing techniques. The authors explained this as follows:
Our second model reveals that participation in harvesting by climbing instead of felling tends to be higher among younger households and those with higher forest knowledge, as reflected by success in hunting large bodied animals (mainly ungulates). Hunters are well aware that large ungulates depend on the availability of aguaje palm fruit and that they play an important role in the regeneration of aguaje palm forests through seed dispersal. As such, hunters have a strong incentive to protect aguaje stands.
Other factors like having “fewer non-land assets” are interesting, but less well explained. The paper also discusses factors related to the willingness of people to cultivate the palms – interesting stuff, perhaps for another time.
Photo credits: The first photograph, copyright Eurico Zimbres, is from Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License. The second photograph was related into the public domain by its creator Frank Krämer.
Manzi, M., O.T. Coomes (2008). Managing Amazonian palms for community use: A case of aguaje palm (Mauritia flexuosa) in Peru Forest Ecology and Management DOI: 10.1016/j.foreco.2008.09.038