Protecting the aguaje forests of the Amazon

Research by European researchers and the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute is supporting a more sustainable future for a vital fruit crop.

A row of huge palm trees with a blue sky and reflected in a body of water

With nearly half a million inhabitants, the city of Iquitos sits at the heart of the most carbon-dense ecosystem of the Amazon: tropical peatlands of north-eastern Peru. These densely forested swamps store billions of tons of carbon and are rich with flora and fauna.

The most common tree in the forests surrounding Iquitos is the Mauritia Flexuosa palm, known locally as the aguaje. The fruit of this palm is highly prized in the city, eaten raw and used for flavouring drinks and ice cream.

As the aguaje grows naturally in the region, harvesting the fruit could be a sustainable Amazonian industry, compared to extracting timber or clearing land for agriculture.

But, there is a problem: aguaje is mainly harvested by chopping down the female trees that carry the fruit, leaving behind only male trees — a well-established practice used among the local indigenous population.

Although the forest can still look superficially healthy, without a mix of both male and female trees, the Mauritia Flexuosa palm will eventually cease to produce fruit in sufficient quantities for a trade to be viable.

Changing harvesting practice offers a solution

Dennis del Castillo, Director of the Forest Management and Environmental Service Program at the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP), explains:

“The aguaje has always seemed so abundant, that it felt natural to local people to simply chop down the palms to get the fruit. And when it was just a few trees, it wasn’t a problem. But as the demand for the fruit has grown, cutting down trees has become unsustainable.

Usually, indigenous practices are best for the forest and we’d aim to support them — but this is one case where, as the context has changed, our methods have to adapt too.”

Demand for the fruit in Iquitos is high. Over 20 tons of aguaje are consumed in the city every day and this is likely to increase, particularly if the fledgling export market for the fruit can be expanded.

The alternative way to harvest the fruit is to climb the palms instead to harvest the fruit by hand. Climbing is already being taken up by some communities and promoted by some local organisations, including IIAP.

But it requires different skills and equipment to safely climb a tree to harvest the fruit, so in order to engage people in switching to this method, compelling evidence of the benefits of climbing was needed.

Lots of reddish brown fruit hanging from a branch in a rainforest
Harvesting aguaje by hand requires specific skills, but evidence has shown it could help secure the future of the crops

A collaborative project between IIAP and European researchers helped to fill this gap, funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the UK’s Newton Fund.

Professor Tim Baker from the University of Leeds and Dennis del Castillo were jointly awarded funding to carry out a widescale survey of the aguaje palm in the regions around Iquitos to understand what the impact of harvesting had been on the forests.

The project built on previous smaller scale mapping work by IIAP and also brought on board other organisations working in the region, including the University of St Andrews and Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

Watch our video:

Showing the impact of human activity

Professor Baker explains:

“It’s usually impossible to quantify the impact of human activity on a natural environment, as there is no way of knowing what things would have been like without human intervention. But in the case of the aguaje, the fact that only female trees are cut down made this comparison possible.”

Untouched areas of forest have equal numbers of male and female trees. The more an area is harvested, the fewer female trees remain. The researchers travelled hundreds of kilometres across the region and counted male and female trees in nearly 100 different areas of peat swamp to see where and how harvesting was impacting the forests.

The team’s analysis showed that the areas of forests that were easiest to access from Iquitos had the lowest proportion of female trees, illustrating the impact of harvesting by cutting.

Overall, they calculated that the loss of female trees from the region has halved the amount of fruit that would have been produced, if no female trees had been cut down.

They also discovered that areas where trees are now climbed were starting to recover, with higher levels of female palms than equivalent areas where trees were being cut down.

It’s hoped that, by proving the impact that tree felling has on aguaje populations, the research will help engage communities to change their harvesting methods.

The research now gives IIAP and other organisations in the region clear evidence to convince local people of the benefits of a more sustainable means of harvesting the aguaje fruit, both on economic and environmental grounds.

It has also been published in the high profile scientific journal Nature Sustainability, which ensures its visibility both internationally and in Peru.

Fulfilling Peru’s COP26 pledges

For Dennis del Castillo, this is critical to ensure the research has the necessary impact. He was born in the Amazon, but knows the region isn’t always at the forefront of Peruvian politics.

He says:

“Most decision makers live in Lima, but the capital is a different world to Iquitos. Trying to convince them of what needs to be done is very difficult, as organisations in the Amazon are easy to dismiss alone.

Working in an international collaboration to undertake and publish such a large piece of research is more likely to make them sit up and notice.”

The IIAP and University of Leeds research could help Peru to fulfil the pledges it made at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) — to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030 and promote sustainable trade in agricultural commodities while protecting forests and critical ecosystems.

The researchers have presented their findings to key government bodies, including the Peruvian Protected Areas Authority and Forest Service as well as NGOs. They hope it can be integrated into new Peruvian policy on peatland management that will become part of the country’s ‘nationally determined contribution’ to the COP process.

Professor Baker says:

“A sustainable international trade in aguaje needs all those involved to work together — government, business, local communities and researchers such as IIAP. This is a rare situation where the solution before us is relatively simple — it would be a travesty if this opportunity wasn’t seized.”

Read the full paper: Sustainable palm fruit harvesting as a pathway to conserve Amazon peatland forests

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The University of Leeds was founded in 1904, and its origins go back to the nineteenth century with the founding of the Leeds School of Medicine in 1831.

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