Giving Palms a Big Hand
Palms play a vital role in tropical and subtropical ecosystems and a wide variety of wildlife rely on palms for shelter and food. Palms are also one of the most utilized and important groups of plants worldwide. In fact, millions of people worldwide derive subsistence needs and income from palm resources.
Palms are utilized by forest dwelling people for roofs, baskets, floors, food, medicine, dyes and more. As palm products are mainly collected from wild populations of palms, conservation of these keystone species is very important. Scientists from Applied Plant Ecology are working on palm conservation and sustainable management in Latin America in collaboration with local communities, harvesters, and other conservation organizations.
In the far southeast corner of Sonora, Mexico, we are collaborating with Nature and Culture International on a project focused on the conservation, restoration, and management of the endangered palm Brahea acuelata (palmilla). In the Sierra de Alamos, a Biosphere Reserve in the region, the fan-shaped fronds of the palm are an important forest resource. Palmilla fronds are used for thatching roofs- they keep homes much cooler than laminate alternatives.
Beyond subsistence use, coastal hotels and restaurants are increasing demand for palm fronds, increasing harvest levels and straining palmilla populations. Cattle grazing is also problematic because in the dry season, palms are one of the only plants that offer appealing forage. With our collaborators we are developing sustainable harvest strategies so that palm populations can thrive while local communities are able to still generate income to meet their livelihood needs. We are also in the process of creating a nursery to propagate palm seedlings that will be used to restore degraded areas in the forest.
We are also embarking on an exciting new project in the Peruvian Amazon. In collaboration with Maijuna communities (an indigenous group) and faculty from George Mason University we are assessing the health of aguaje Mauritia flexuosa palm swamps and will develop recommendations on best management practices for these critically important palms. The fruit of this palm is in high demand- for both wildlife and people. Tapirs, parrots, macaws, and primates are just a few of the species that rely on aguaje fruit for sustenance.
The fruit is also important for the regional economy and is used to make jam, juice, and ice cream. Unfortunately, fruit from these palms is usually gathered by cutting down adult female palms, a practice recognized as ecologically and economically unsustainable. Not only will our work focus on evaluating the health of palm populations, but we will also explore propagation and restoration actions as well as to evaluate alternative forms of harvest in order to promote biodiversity conservation and meet the needs of local communities.