Aguaje palms and the local economy

Jim Penn and Greg Neise
Man removing aguaje fruit from racemes

Man removing aguaje fruit from racemes

One example of a modern, developed industry which depends on a non-timber forest product is the ice cream and cold drink business in the city of Iquitos. The most important non-timber forest product (NTFP) for this industry is the fruit from the aguaje palm (Mauritia flexuosa). When aguaje fruits are ripening on the trees, aguaje harvesters from all over the Peruvian Amazon race to cut down female palms that they know will be bearing fruit. Most of these are now located far from settled areas and are difficult to reach. Several groups of people will compete for the same stands of the tall aguaje palms, and the first to arrive will often cut the palms before the aguaje is completely ripe, in order to prevent others from doing so. This poor quality fruit eventually arrives in the Iquitos market where it sells for $1.50 to $3 for a 40 kilo sack. The seller usually pays 40 to 60 cents a sack to ship it to market. This situation benefits neither the rainforest nor the rainforest people’s economy.

Efforts to produce devices to climb the palms have been ineffective. However, when adequately spaced in a field (e.g.,in an agroforestry system) aguaje palms grow relatively quickly (maturing in 12 to 18 years) and remain short. The huge fruit bunches hang 2 to 5 meters high and can easily be cut off without having to fell the palm. The palm can then produce year after year, providing a sustainable source of income. The owner can harvest the fruit bunch by bunch, at optimum ripeness, and select the best varieties in order to make the most money. Since 1991, RCF has funded agroforestry projects that plant aguaje palms.

Canoe filled with aguaje fruit

Canoe filled with aguaje fruit

In these projects, the people try to plant the highest quality aguaje on their land, such as a variety known as “SHAMBO.” True shambo has a red, oily pulp and is often hard to find. Iquitos ice cream and drink makers pay high prices for shambo or high quality aguaje. Depending on the aguaje’s characteristics, shambo and high quality aguaje sells for 10 to over 20 dollars a sack! By planting aguaje palms in their gardens, the people can reduce and eliminate the need to destroy aguaje palms in the forest, and leave these important trees for animals to feed on. Indeed, aguaje will need to come from locations near Iquitos (less than 2 days travel by boat), as time invested in harvesting wild aguaje, the costs of transport, spoilage and damage will make it an increasingly labor-intense and risky activity.

The human competition for aguaje within the forest causes it to be harvested when unripe, fetching a low price. Each year the remaining palms are farther to reach. More labor, less income. We have named this self-defeating phenomena “the race for aguaje”. Numerous researchers have pointed out the high value of aguaje fruits to the Iquitos markets, but more attention must be given to the role of aguaje in regional conservation plans due to the ecosystem value of this species.

Street peddler selling aguaje in Iquitos

Street peddler selling aguaje in Iquitos

Conservation and management of palm species is crucial for the Peruvian Amazon. While discussions have historically focused on the need to further develop and export palm products from this region, the use of palm species must be managed before any increased demand for them is promoted. If this is not acheived, we will again see the local economic “booms” as extractors rush to harvest non-timber products until supplies are exhausted (such as rosewood in the 1960′s). It is rarely mentioned that these activities can also negatively effect fauna populations. These commercially important species are also important food sources for terrestrial and aquatic fauna. The current, intense harvesting of camu-camu fruits(Myrciaria sp.) for export programs is a new example of this.

RCF supports programs in the Reserva Comunal Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo that aim to restrict extractors to the buffer zone areas, minimizing harvest pressure on flora and fauna within the reserve. This will in turn allow more food to be available for fauna, and raise the reserve’s carrying capacity for important species. The termination of small-scale timber concessions in the then proposed Reserva Comunal Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo in 1988 by the Peruvian authorities reduced hunting pressure on the upper Tahuayo by one-half. Community efforts since then have helped minimize hunting in the reserve and in buffer zones. Meanwhile, RCF has funded a number of agroforestry projects that are designed to reduce extractive pressures on forests.

While Peru’s largest region of Loreto remains heavily forested, this standing forest does not assure that biodiversity is being protected. Indeed, natural resources are harvested all over the region. The presence of vast forests causes bureaucrats, the public and visitors to believe that it is an endless supply of resources. What one often sees is in fact a degraded forest, devoid of many species which have key ecological roles.

Aguaje fruit

Aguaje fruit

While a typical household income for the Tahuayo basin is around $350, it appears to be higher at times on the upper Tahuayo due to the presence of agroforestry systems (such as avocados) which provide substantial incomes for about 50 families, and the extraction of fish and game meat which benefits some 150 and 30 families respectively. However, all three of these activities are subject to fluctuations. There have been significant income drops, due to a variety of environmental, economic, and social factors. The repeated loss of annual and tree crops due to high and unpredictable water levels has greatly reduced both subsistence and commercial harvests of principal crops such as manioc, watermelons, and avocados during recent years. Residents find themselves looking for long-term security and short-term aid at the same time. The government’s credit programs of the late 1980′s ended with the demise of the Agrarian Bank in 1992. While most participants in this program used the loans ($200-$500) to buy clothing, tools and address cash needs, the credit-based agriculture (grain & cattle) proved to be unsustainable and unproductive for the people. With no more credit available, many people abandoned their lands and left the area.

An adult Aguaje grows along the bank of the Tahuayo River.

An adult Aguaje grows along the bank of the Tahuayo River.

Short-term agriculture (annual crops) is a risky, but profitable practice that is usually most sustainable on the floodplains. There is always the dilemma of short-term gains and the need for sustainable land use. It is easy for development agencies to hand out chain saws in order to rapidly clear forests and plant corn, but this has not proven to be a sustainable strategy. While short-term cash is needed by the local people for clothing, medicine, transport, school supplies, etc., the cash is often spent on liquor and frivolities. Cash is too often controlled by men, causing families to suffer. It also fails to solve local disputes.

Health and harmony within and between families and their communities is necessary to improve standards of living. It is also necessary to conserve natural resources. This is why securing land possession, community organization, and the conservation of the buffer zone have been key elements of the RCTT project since 1990. Research and experience have shown that the area’s most prosperous residents have found agroforestry systems to be the best route to secure economic gains and futures. The addition of aguaje palms to these systems will further enhance their value.

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