The Right Tools

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Two boys admire aguaje fruit, an important resource in the Peruvian Amazon.

Sometimes all you need is the right tools.

In August 2010, I spent three weeks trudging through swamps in the Peruvian Amazon to assess the aguaje palm population on the lands of an indigenous group known as the Maijuna. Aguaje is an avocado-sized fruit with smooth scales covering a thin layer of bright orange flesh. It is high in Vitamin A and very popular in the large Amazon city of Iquitos. As a result, rural communities from all over the region, including the Maijuna, harvest aguaje to supply the city’s demand. But the tree’s height (up to 90 feet or 27 meters!) means that the fruit is often harvested by cutting the palms down.

Aguaje fruit awaits buyers in the market place. It is spread out so shoppers can assess the quality.

The extreme heights are also difficult to measure, and attempting to do so in the boot-suctioning mud of the swamps wasn’t always easy for us in the field. But the animals don’t mind: a plethora of wildlife, including monkeys, parrots, tapirs, and peccaries, are known to frequent the aguaje palm swamps to feast on the fruits.

While I was in the swamps, Michael Gilmore of George Mason University conducted interviews with Maijuna villagers. The objective of our combined work was to better understand the management needs of aguaje. A few years ago, the Maijuna decided to reclaim sovereignty over their natural resources by keeping outsiders, especially loggers, from coming onto their lands and better managing their own use of the land’s resources. This included finding a better way to harvest aguaje without killing the palms, and some of the community members learned to use climbing harnesses to reach fruit at the top.

A group of community members shows off their new climbing harnesses. Every household with a member attending the workshops received a harness.

But not everyone could climb. What Michael found out in the interviews was that, for many families, no one knew how to climb, so some continued to harvest the old-fashioned way, with an ax, even though they knew of the consequences. Even people who knew how to climb would sometimes use axes. What struck me, however, was how many families said they just stopped harvesting fruit because they didn’t know how to climb and wanted to conserve the palm trees. That is awesome! It shows a commitment to sustainable management and that the people place a high value on the future of the resource. But it also means those families are missing out on a potential source of income. When the average family income is just over $500 a year, the few dollars made from selling some sacks of aguaje can make a big difference. This partially explains why some people continue to cut.

Key to workshop success was ample time for attendees to practice climbing. Practice allows people to become comfortable at the extreme heights needed to reach the fruit.

After our assessment in 2010, it was clear that the Maijuna needed more training. And more equipment. The 37 households in the 2 villages were sharing a handful of harnesses, and they weren’t always available when needed. So in 2011, we held climbing workshops and invited everyone from the villages. We shared our study results, but most people were already aware of the negative impacts of cutting palms. We focused on hopeful things: there are a lot of seedlings and saplings growing in the damaged swamps that will provide fruit in the future. And we gave the people a lot of time with the expert climbers. Everyone got to practice and get comfortable with the climbing harnesses. We also wanted every household to have the right tools, so every household received a harness.

We didn’t expect the workshops to solve everything. The stands of aguaje palm need to recover from the years of destructive harvesting. But things did improve—a lot. In 2012, we went back to evaluate. Even though many more families harvested and the community harvested 50 percent more sacks of fruit, the number of cut palms went down. And now, instead of over half of the palms harvested being cut down, only about 14 percent were. To me the encouraging sign is how many more families were harvesting fruit, now that they knew how to climb. Their willingness to restrain from harvesting before, even though they would have liked to, shows commitment to resource management. All they needed all along were the knowledge and the tools for better management practices.

That’s San Diego Zoo Global’s role in this project: trying to figure out the best tools for the community’s goals and help them obtain those tools. Next with aguaje, we’ll be working with the community to figure out the best ways to improve the stock of aguaje palms on their lands. We want to make sure there’s enough aguaje for both wildlife and people.

Christa Horn is a research coordinator in the Applied Plant Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, A Grand Experiment for Palm Trees.