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Palm trees in Peru could help save the environment

A new study from the University of Leeds has exposed the widespread harm that is caused by palm fruit harvesting in Peru. The experts found that changing the way fruit is gathered from the palm tree Mauritia flexuosa could have enormous environmental and economic benefits.

The Mauritia flexuosa palm tree is dioecious, (with both female and male trees), and the females bear the fruit. The palm tree’s fruit, aguaje, is an important part of the Peruvian economy. With a large extent of the female trees being cut down, many forests contain mostly male trees and do not produce much fruit.

In collaboration with experts at the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute, the researchers investigated where and why the palm trees were felled. Detailed maps produced by the team reveal the extent of the environmental and economic damage caused by cutting the palm trees down.

“Cutting down female palm trees to harvest the fruit has halved the total production of fruit of this palm that is available to local communities,” said study lead author Gabriel Hidalgo. 

“This is a clear example of the impact of humans on natural resource levels, in an ecosystem that, on first look, appears undamaged.”

“However, changing the way the fruit is harvested can increase both the number of fruit-bearing palms trees, and the value of these Amazonian peatland ecosystems to people.”

Mauritia flexuosa is the most common species of tree in the lowland tropical peatlands in northeastern Peru. These peatland ecosystems store more carbon than any other part of the vast Amazon region. 

The researchers analyzed data from 93 sites across palm swamp forests. They found that there are a few places where people climb the palm trees to collect fruit – rather than cutting the trees down. As a result, these areas have a higher number of fruit-bearing female trees.

The researchers estimate that by switching to tree climbing, the overall harvest could increase by 51 percent and generate $62 million a year for the local economy.

“This study shows that financially, over the long term, the potential value of the palm fruit ‘aguaje’ for this region of Peru is similar in value to activities such as logging and oil extraction. Sustainable palm fruit harvesting could therefore provide a real economic alternative for local people,” said study co-author Dennis del Castillo.

Professor Tim Baker noted that reducing deforestation of tropical forests is a global priority to mitigate climate change. “Achieving success depends on increasing the value of standing forest to people who live in these landscapes. This study demonstrates a pathway to do this in one of the most carbon-rich landscapes on the planet.”

The study, which was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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