by Jim Penn and Greg Neise
The Mauritia flexuosa palm (called “aguaje” in Peru) can grow to over 100 feet tall in the rainforest as it competes for available light its swampy environment. It’s trunk is very hard and slippery, making it almost impossible to climb and requiring people to fell the tree to harvest the large bunches of aguaje fruit. Aguaje, along with other economically important fruit trees, is being destroyed at alarming rates throughout the Peruvian Amazon (Gentry and Vásquez, 1989). This is a clear example of an unsustainable extraction activity (see Agroforestry section below for details).
The most important native fruit in this region for both urban and rural people, some 15 metric tons of aguaje is brought to Iquitos daily for use in the local fruit, ice cream, and cold drink industry. Hundreds of urban people, mostly women, were employed in the marketing of aguaje products in the 1980s (see Padoch, 1988), and the number has increased during the 1990s. This is a thriving local industry, where demand for aguaje exceeds supply and is independant of international markets or investment.
But aguaje is not only important for humans. It is an important fruit in the diets of the lowland tapir and white-lipped peccary that roam the rainforest (Bodmer, 1990). It is also eaten by primates, rodents, and other mammals. These animals rely on aguaje when other fruits are scarce, making aguaje a keystone species in the forest (see Peres 1994). Each time an aguaje tree is destroyed there is less aguaje fruit available to these animals, lowering the rainforest’s carrying capacity for these species. Long-term effects are not yet known, but pressure from hunting and the loss of food supply negatively affect animal populations. Aguaje shortages also hurt employment and the economy in the region. Large portions of the vast primary forest in northeastern Peru have by now lost much of their economic and ecological value. There may be towering, majestic trees in front of us, but we might be viewing a relatively “empty” forest, stripped of many important species playing key ecological roles (see Redford, 1992). In the Peruvian Amazon, biodiversity loss is being caused not so much by deforestation, as by over-hunting and the unsustainable extraction of non-timber products such as aguaje.
RCF has initiated an agressive education and extension program with the local people by planting aguaje in settlement zones. Aguaje trees grow relatively shorter in these open areas so it does not have to be cut down to retrieve the fruit. The goal is to plant enough aguaje in people’s garden plots and fallows in the buffer zone so they won’t have to enter the reserve and destroy the very tall, naturally occuring trees. Animal populations should benefit as their habitat (the aguaje swamps) recovers, and the reserve’s capacity to carry these species increases. Because aguaje is a keystone species, the recovery of these swamps these should help a multitude of organisms in the forest.