People, forests and aguaje: Reflections on a landscape and culture of abundance

Serving  aguajina  – thick aguaje juice – in the Belén market in Iquitos, Peru. Photo thanks to Andrew Schwarz.  

Serving aguajina – thick aguaje juice – in the Belén market in Iquitos, Peru. Photo thanks to Andrew Schwarz.  

Every week in the bustling cities of Iquitos, Pucallpa, and Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Amazon, thousands of pounds of an exotic looking fruit arrive to town in buckets and sacks to be hefted off of precariously balanced motorcycles, unloaded from heavily-laden wooden canoes or carefully lowered off of sweaty backs.  The fruit has over a dozen names in different regional dialects and no name in English.  Locals recognize upwards of five varieties of fruit based on color and taste.  In peak harvesting season, the Peruvian jungle’s largest city of Iquitos, near the Amazon River in northern Peru, consumes over five tons a day of this fruit.  A much smaller city of around a hundred thousand people like Puerto Maldonado may consume a ton daily in the form of ripe fruit, thick juice, or homemade ice cream, but few people outside of Amazonia have ever even heard of it.  More remarkably still, a population that seemingly consumes more of this fruit per capita than most North Americans do all fruits put together is supplied by no plantations or neat orchards; the overwhelming majority of this crop is harvested directly from the wild rainforest.

Aguaje (pronounced ah-WAH-hey), also known as burití, moriche, and by many other names, is a fruit roughly the size of a kiwi and comes from a palm tree that can reach a hundred feet (30 meters) in height.  The fruit’s outer skin is dark purple to reddish maroon, hard, and made up of tiny sections giving an appearance similar to reptilian skin or the scales of a snake or a fish.  Under this shell and enveloping a large pit is the flesh, less than a centimeter thick, a bright orange-yellow the color of sweet potato or turmeric, and linked to both by a high concentration of vitamin A. As with so many tropical fruits, the taste is intriguing and complex: the sharpness of cheddar cheese mingles with a mild acidity that reveals the presence of vitamin C.  Both of these notes are mellowed and smoothed by a creamy texture and rich oils in the fruit.  Besides vitamins A and C and abundant fatty acids, aguaje also contains noticeable amounts of phytoestrogen, a fact which, as we shall see, reinforces the plant’s symbolic identity.

Aguaje is a cultural food whose protagonic, staple-like role in contemporary urban nutrition links the cities of today with the jungle from which they are carved.  The people enjoy the fruit perhaps without knowing its full importance in their diet, without knowing that they are sharing in a harvest whose abundance nurtures the wellbeing of an entire ecosystem reaching far beyond the limits of the metropolis. 

The aguaje palm of the Amazon rainforest, Mauritia flexuosa, has every right to be considered emblematic.  Though perhaps just dwarfed by the largest palm trees in the world, aguaje is nonetheless striking in stature: sometimes close to two feet (75 centimeters) in diameter and regularly seen towering alongside the forest’s canopy trees.  The trunk is smooth and segmented, usually a steely gray but often taking on the colors of mosses and lichens or displaying the handiwork of carpenter birds, Amazonian woodpeckers.  The appearance of the leaves approaches stylized talons or even a plant approximation of a many-fingered human hand: a long stalk extends upward from the top of the trunk and diverges into a shock of straight dagger leaflets, each a meter or more long.  Green living leaves reach up while brown dying leaves bend down, creating a striking symmetry reminiscent of a reflection on water.  In terms of majesty and girth, aguaje is noteworthy as perhaps the Amazon region’s largest palm.  Some also call it the most beautiful. 

Aguaje -  Mauritia flexuosa

Aguaje - Mauritia flexuosa

Were it for its individual physical attributes alone, the importance of aguaje would undoubtedly be lost in the overwhelming diversity of the forest.  With so very many species of palm trees in the Amazon, it is not the characteristics of the individual specimen that makes aguaje noteworthy, but the traits of the species as a whole.  Seen as an isolated event, this particular organism is perhaps no more or less striking than any of its neighbors, yet understood within its ecological context the aguaje palm becomes very remarkable indeed.  Cutting to the chase, M. flexuosa is one of the few species among all the thousands of Amazonian trees with the remarkable ability to dominate, indeed to monopolize, an entire landscape. 

Biodiversity in the tropics is famously staggering, and nowhere on Earth is variation brought to such superlative extravagance as in the Amazon basin.  Many theories have been advanced as to why the tropics foster such extraordinary variability, and one of the more popular explanations maintains that diversity developed out of self-defense.  Parasites and diseases, the so-called “biological factors,” would promote rapid and sinuous evolution among plants and even animals so that these might stay one step ahead of the adaptations of pathogens.  A parent tree would thus take great pains to widely distribute its seeds, apparently not so much out of a desire to conquer distant territories as from the necessity to separate itself from its progeny in order to prevent the transmission of disease organisms from parent to offspring. 

As a result, the population densities of most Amazonian trees for any given parcel of jungle are extremely low.  Mahogany, another emblematic tree of tropical America, throws its winged seeds to the wind so that its young might thrive outside of the detection range of the shoot borers that notoriously stunt and deform this magnificent tree when established in single-species plantations.  Distance is an ecological tool, and creating mechanisms for the far-reaching distribution of seeds, usually through symbiotic relationships with animals, is a biological investment most trees are willing to make.  The plants are betting that the micro-organisms that are so disastrous to their health will not be able to travel as far as the trees send their seeds, be it by air or by courier.

In direct correlation to the low population densities for individual species, we also find high species counts per hectare throughout the forests of Amazonia, an unparalleled heterogeneity of trees.  Several test plots have famously confirmed that a few acres of the Peruvian Amazon may easily possess the same number of tree species as are native to all of North America.   When we take into account the impressive size of the highly nuanced tapestry called the Amazon basin, an expanse roughly equivalent to the continental United States, the extent of the biodiversity here stretches the limits of the imagination.

Armed with these few facts alone, we grasp that the Amazon is strikingly different from a temperate forest.  With typically impenetrable growth occupying every conceivable inch of horizontal and vertical space, it is not uncommon to suffer from visibility only a few rows of trees deep.  The density of the growth is astounding to the senses, but the idea that few trees in such a forest choose to grow within a kilometer of another member of the same species implies a vastness of variability that our minds seem ill-equipped to take in.  If we are accustomed to the familial sensation of standing within a clan-like conifer forest or a merry confluence of maples mingling with assorted broadleaves, the cacophony of identities and unique survival strategies within any tropical forest is dazzling and humbling.  We are not at all surprised to hear that trees new to science are still being discovered, even as other species face extinction.

Aguaje and açaí palms are a common sight in home gardens in Amazonian communities.

Aguaje and açaí palms are a common sight in home gardens in Amazonian communities.

If the rainforests of South America begin to sound like nature’s grand experiment in individuation, a kind of Noah’s ark for biodiversity as is so often repeated, we would expect for each ecological niche to have many applicants.  Diversity does not preclude redundancy, and often dozens of tree species with similar needs and adaptations will seek to take root in the same niche.  Patterns begin to appear.  Anatomical tricks, like the shape of leaves or flowers, and physiological quirks such as the seasonal sloughing away and regeneration of bark, once proven effective by one species are often shared by botanically unrelated species.  Various entire families of trees might employ a particularly promiscuous animal for pollination or seed dispersal, while in some cases an individual tree might be serviced by dozens or even hundreds of different creatures.  Clues to distribution also appear.  Guilds of tree species that favor certain soil types emerge from the thick and provide the mystery of wilderness with some semblance of structure.  A range of trees that seek out windows of open ground and sky left behind by fallen giants make suggestions about history and succession, giving context to the deceptively uniform greenery.

In such an orgiastic setting it may very well seem unlikely that one-to-one relationships would be formed: one wasp to pollinate one kind of fig, another wasp for another fig.  And yet a remarkable degree of pointed specialization does indeed exist in the Amazon, which in the midst of great diversity suggests that many animals and plants emit and respond to signals that we have yet to discover.  How fire ants detect the whereabouts of new host trees of the particular partner species with which they coalesce into mutualistic existence is above all a study of human ignorance, of how much we have yet to truly understand in the world of nature.  How a parade of such ants, each a centimeter in length, might travel a kilometer across the forest floor in pursuit of a particular smell or pheromone, despite the barrage of other aromas exuded by the vital rot and life-transforming ferment of the jungle all around them is a powerful reminder of the difficulties of ferreting out cause and effect in a biological tangle of such complexity.  That a particular kind of flying beetle seeks out the rotting heart of fallen trunks of but one species of palm as an incubating medium for their larvae is further evidence of an elegant order embedded within the chaos of our perceptions’ short-sighted conclusions.  That this beetle grub is medicinal, edible, and a delicacy to local people should by now come as no surprise.  That the palm in question is aguaje brings us back to our story.

Most ecological niches are wooed by many suitors.  Circumstance or luck is a determining factor whose importance can often out-weigh the role of the adaptations of the various candidates.  A seed falls on the right place at the right time, and is then able to maintain its foothold over less opportune latecomers.  Millions of well-adapted seedlings wither in the forest simply because their placement was prohibitive to growth.  Yet certain niches are more selective about who they invite in.  Beyond those guilds of trees which all thrive in a particular kind of soil, some environments are conducive to the livelihood of an even narrower subset of speculators.  Nature enjoys these kinds of niches; some of her most fascinating and creatively-adapted creatures inhabit pockets of territory that most organisms would find lethal. 

And so the aguaje palm has adapted not only to endure but to thrive under the circumstances of a pocket of landscape that most trees consider unacceptable.  If that pocket were rare, then aguaje would be an outsider, an oddity to rival the microfauna of sulfur hot-springs, clear-skinned animals of the oceans’ abysses or the dwarf plant-life of the planet’s most isolated mountaintops.  That the landscape in which aguaje excels is not rare, but in fact is common, introduces us to a curious paradox symbolic of this beautiful tree and of its surroundings as a whole: one of the most highly specialized among all of this jungle’s remarkably unique organisms is also one of the most common.  A species whose adaptations are exquisitely refined for survival in a solitary niche of rather strict parameters is in fact a common sight in a landscape defined by nuanced microclimates of infinitely subtle variation.  So it is that aguaje, an edge species that thrives to the point of utter dominance in its preferred microclimate, may very well be the most common tree in all of Amazonia.

The key to the paradox of aguaje’s ubiquity is logical enough.  Though aguaje is equipped to thrive in a harsh and forbidding niche where few other trees prosper, that particular ecosystem is found with great frequency throughout the Amazon basin.  This, aguaje’s preferred habitat, would probably best be described as swamp.  A few feet of standing water for at least part of the year is the prerequisite feature.  The home to the world’s most voluminous freshwater system is a landscape best understood in terms of moisture; many scenarios in the jungle create the needed conditions.  The slow desiccation and retreat of oxbow lakes and the changing courses of serpentine rivers are potential formative factors.  The margins of bodies of water, the sources of springs, and low-lying sinkholes amidst terra firma are favorite foundations for the “seasonally-inundated palm forests,” as one of the various technical names describes them.  In shorthand, this is an important edge, the environment concerned with the convergence of land and water. 

The Peruvian name for aguaje swamp is aguajal, a term which could be understood as meaning “grove of aguaje” or more accurately “aguaje plantation”[i] and highlights one of the most immediately recognizable characteristics of this sort of forest: it is the closest the Amazon comes to a stand of redwoods or a cotton plantation, the closest natural ecosystem to a monoculture.  Indeed the aguajal represents the only Amazonian ecotype overwhelmingly dominated by a single species, the only pockets within the commotion of biodiversity in which we can observe hundreds of acres of forest almost exclusively populated by a single tree species.  Given what we know about the stunning heterogeneity of jungle trees, the monocultural profile of the aguajales begs an attempt at explanation.  No matter how precise the adaptations of a single species are to its habitat, the Amazon abhors a monopoly.  How could aguaje become so common?

An often-overlooked evolutionary strategy is that survival of the fittest can be all about teamwork.  The Amazon is assuredly the Earth’s grand experiment in inter-species collaboration, in which food webs can be cross-referenced with analyses of mutualistic relationships to form a dumbfoundingly ornate diagram of the interconnectivity of life.  In ways that science has yet to fully support experimentally, we are coming to understand that those species which provide for other species become evolutionary favorites.  Competition is giving way to cooperation in the study of natural selection.  The enthusiastically collaborative role of provider may be part of what has allowed the aguaje palm to become so ubiquitous in the Amazon.  Countless creatures rely on the aguaje for survival.  The palm is a veritable breadbasket for everything from paiche fish to parrots to peccaries to people.  In order to understand the quantitative importance of aguaje fruit as a major calorie source, looking at the countless patches of hundreds of contiguous acres of orchard-like fruit palms is a good start.  But to fully comprehend aguaje as an abundant bearer, one needs only to witness the tree in production.

An aguaje palm towers over a recently planted agroforestry plot. Many native communities protect aguaje palms and encourage natural regeneration of the species.

An aguaje palm towers over a recently planted agroforestry plot. Many native communities protect aguaje palms and encourage natural regeneration of the species.

Leo is a young man from a native community in Madre de Dios in the southern Peruvian Amazon.[ii]  During the fruiting season of aguaje—which can last almost year-round due to staggered flowering dates for different trees but typically is concentrated in a three-month peak coinciding with the wettest months of the rainy season—Leo may find himself at the top of a palm trunk more than ten times a week.  With little more than a simple double rope similar in design to those used by utility workers for climbing electrical posts, Leo can reach the top in five or ten minutes depending on the height of the palm.  He received the rope from a government organization which also supplies cleats to put on over shoes, but for a strong youth palm-climbing is a chance to show off astonishing athleticism and agility; low-tech is high prestige, and Leo prefers bare feet.  Upon reaching the crown, sweat pours down his shirtless back onto beat-up jean shorts.  He leans against the tension of the rope to rest and starts pulling up dozens of meters of thin cord tied to one of his belt loops.  Hauling hand over hand, eventually he grasps the machete tied to the far end of the cord and contemplates where to begin.  This palm, like many others, is a good bearer.

Sprouting from the same crown where the leaves explode off the trunk, six rope-like racemes hang down in all directions.  Each raceme is two meters long and carries a long row of fruits at intervals of three or four inches.  The fruits of a single palm can often more than fill a dozen latas or 18-liter buckets, the usual measuring unit for sale of the fruit.  Hacking a few racemes off the tree and grinning from ear to ear, Leo takes a moment to imitate a birdcall, size up a nearby tree’s crop, and consider how long ago a blue-headed parrot might have gnawed at a few of the fruits.

On any given day, dozens of families from Leo’s community get up before dawn and head into the aguajales.  A mother or wife might carry a couple of aluminum pots with a meal she prepared at three in the morning.  The oldest sons gracefully strike their machetes at overgrown limbs to clear the vague trace of a forest trail while an uncle or godfather behind balances an axe on his shoulder.  A keen-eyed younger man grips an oily shotgun.  His eyes and ears study the surroundings for movement.  The children, anyone under twelve, run along giggling, playfully hauling empty sacks and buckets to hold the day’s harvest.  The early morning in the jungle is a peaceful time, but the leader of the expedition is always wary for coiled bushmasters or other vipers that might be lingering on the open path in the pre-dawn gloom.  These families move through the rainforest with the natural grace of familiarity and a certain wide-eyed caution born of intimacy with the danger lurking in this life-giving land. 

Arriving at the edge of the aguajal, firm ground turns into sticky mud riddled with puddles.  Deeper into the swamp the puddles become expansive lagoons that can reach chest height, aguaje palms everywhere emerging from the water, unbothered by the saturation of the soil, the drowning of their roots.  Everyone quiets down in these areas.  The children scramble up onto fallen palm trunks and the men scan their surroundings.  This is boa country.  The disappearance of countrymen into the waters, broken bones in the steely clutches of the anaconda—these are not legends of the past, but excerpts from the daily news.  Once the area has been thoroughly checked out the work begins.  Necks craned and eyes flashing, the family scans the canopy for ripe fruits, recognizable by their especially dark silhouette and deep metallic shine. 

The best bearers, those palms that might hold six or more racemes and fill over twenty buckets, are a vision of earthly grace and abundance.  Some aguaje palms exhibit peculiar growth patterns, leaving certain sections of trunk swollen and rounded-looking.  The visual metaphor is unmistakeable, even for an outsider unversed in the strange tongue of indigenous laws of sensory sympathy and correspondence: to the people of this forest the aguaje palm is as fruitful as a pregnant mother with a round belly.  After the flowers turn to fruit, the racemes become great dangling jeweled earrings.  The entire organism takes on the appearance of a wildly adorned, explosively fecund, and unarguably feminine being.  It is only fitting that the fruit is rich in estrogen.

The saying goes that many native tongues of the Amazon have no word for shortage, no word for famine, no concept of lack.  In a landscape characterized by overwhelming abundance, the sight of the aguaje bearing fruit is a jaw-dropping embodiment of the essence of the forest as mother and provider.  One simply cannot believe that a single tree could create so much food, year in and year out.  We begin to see how the Indians could believe that the forest is indestructible and eternal, that harming the balance of life-giving powers, given the vitality of those great spirits, is outside the realm of human capability.

Yet Leo and the other palm climbers are the exception rather than the rule.  Most of the men and women who harvest aguaje prefer to stay on the ground.  An axe striking a palm trunk is a tragically common sound in the aguajal.  The older the palm, the more majestic, the more likely it is to be felled for its fruit rather than climbed.  With a logic that is hard for modern minds to swallow given what we now know about the precarious delicacy of the tropical rainforests, the felling of palms is actually an affirmation of the longevity of the forest.  The people of this land believe their ecosystem is never-ending and inalterable; as such, felling trees burdened with fruit is a joyful celebration of the gifts of a forest believed to be immortal.  Doing harm to the jungle simply is not possible. 

But these days most native groups find themselves confined in blatantly finite boxes of reserve territories where once they were free to roam as they pleased.  Indigenous people are not trapped in the past and they are not fools.  They observe the natural world and know that much has changed.  They know that their sources of life are in jeopardy and undergoing startling transformations.  Nowadays, felling an aguaje is more about carelessness and ease than it is about celebrating the resilience of the Earth’s life force. 

Aguaje falls into the category of dioecious plants that includes papayas and other well-known crops in which not all trees are productive.  Male palms flower for the benefit of the more numerous females but produce no fruit of their own.  Beyond the logical impoverishment of genetic stock resultant from the felling of the most highly productive specimens, heavily intervened aguajales eventually become sterile men’s clubs.  The fruit-bearing females disappear though the aguajal lives on in tattered form.

Furthermore, as human populations burgeon in the urban centers of the Amazon and demand for the fruit rises, the last decade has shown that the jungle is not as immortal as was once believed.  The cold facts of a cash economy, itself a recent import in many of the more isolated regions of Amazonia, has inspired recklessness in the harvest.  Sustainable practices have fallen by the wayside in light of high demand for an important nutritional source and culturally iconic food. 

The market dynamics of aguaje are unusual from the perspective of the global age.  Though consumption is overwhelmingly high, the historic availability of the fruit has meant that this avidly sought after commodity remains incredibly cheap.  Even at the height of the dry season when fruit becomes scarce, prices for a bucket never exceed fifteen soles (under five dollars).  The fact that aguaje is one of the very few products primarily traded using this measure of volume, rather than weight, is itself indicative of the mass scale of harvest and purchase.  Indeed this is a mass market good, and a local good.  Aguaje is seldom sold outside the jungle, although a few specialty fruit markets in the Peruvian capital of Lima and some of the country’s other major cities do sell the fruit in quantities that are laughably low held alongside the statistics for the Amazonian metropolises. 

As the destructive practices of the modern harvest take their toll on the once limitless extensions of seasonally inundated palm forest, and as demand rises due to expanding urban centers with enormous immigrant populations arriving from the Andean highlands, aguaje-based markets and ecosystems are beginning to experience a noticeable strain.  In yet another example of unintended environmental consequences in the era of global ecological crisis, the popularity of aguaje among human beings has reached proportions such that animals who rely on the fruit are suffering as a result. 

As aguajales are numerous and vast in many regions of the Amazon, and as each palm’s output is a poetic asterisk in a land of breathtaking natural abundance, it is easy to see how the mechanisms that would ordinarily limit the profile of a single tree species might be overlooked in favor of a prolific provider.  Around the edge of Sandoval Lake, the most visited of the Tambopata National Reserve’s oxbow lakes in Madre de Dios, Peru, aguajal forms the natural edge where water and dry land meet.  On a typical day tourists are treated to the sight of more than a half dozen species of monkeys and an equal diversity of parrots, all of whom feast on aguaje.  Rarer sights including peccaries (wild pigs) and the huge tapir also take advantage of this lavish food supply, not to mention the odd fruit bat or omnivorous fish.  While each of these animals possesses many survival strategies and eats a wide range of plant and animal foods, nature is a stranger to the surplus, and aguajales are ravenously stripped by the paws, beaks, or hands that arrive first.  It is a daunting task to measure the impact of human intervention on animal populations, but common sense and some preliminary studies demonstrate that the many mouths that share the forest must indeed suffer the effects of aguaje over-consumption and deforestation.

The popularity of aguaje among humans in fact makes us inter-species competitors once more, vying for resources cherished also by these many animals.  In this context, and given the widespread destruction of natural aguaje stands, aguaje reforestation is important.  Unfortunately, the current economics of aguaje mean that few people would be able to plant enough of the palms to make a decent living that way.  Aguaje production relies on the abundance of natural aguaje stands.  But given the current trend in cutting off the wild supply, several government organizations throughout Amazonia have taken up the cause of promoting aguaje plantations as a cash crop for the local market.  The Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (El instituto de investigación de la amazonía peruana) or IIAP has spent years selectively propagating aguaje to create faster bearing semi-dwarf varieties of Mauritia flexuosa for agroforestry. 

Despite these efforts, planting aguaje remains a foreign concept for most jungle dwellers.  It is a fruit symbolic of the wild: aguaje is gathered, not planted.  As with timber, aguaje production is dominated by a frustratingly paradoxical extractivist attitude that treats reforestation as an awkward meddling with the ecosystem—while whole-heartedly embracing the felling itself.  Also as with timber, the extractivists are by definition concerned with the exploitation of natural resources, treating reforestation and agroforestry as the prerogative of farmers.  The farmers in turn eschew aguaje, timber, and other forest products due to their association with non-agricultural extractivists.  Mistrust of unfamiliar practices has also left the climbing of palms for harvesting the exception and felling the rule. 

The complex cultural dynamics around aguaje production are reinforced by an ecological quirk of the palm that in fact creates an extra impetus to follow the directive to fell.  As we have noted, the rotting heart of fallen aguaje palms is the cherished substrate for a particularly large, oily beetle larva.  A few months after a tree is cut for its fruit, women like Leo’s mother return to the site to split open the trunk and pick out the writhing bodies of the suri, as the grubs are called locally.  Aguaje is a cultural food consumed on a mass scale.  Suri, on the other hand, is a sort of jungle caviar or foie gras.  There are not so very many larvae in any given log, and the careful splitting and extraction of the grubs is a time-consuming affair.  As a result, suri takes on all the attributes of a rare delicacy.  Not to mention that the grubs fetch 20 soles (six dollars) a kilo, almost twice the price of the most expensive meat or fish.  Small flasks of pure suri oil are sold at even better prices, used as a very effective remedy for bronchitis, asthma, and other illnesses related to breathing.  Unfortunately for the many animals who like to eat the fruit, suri gives an understandable economic excuse for the depredation of the aguajal.

In the twenty-first century, the West has begun to pay closer attention to how food is grown and where it is coming from.  As the oil-based world economy shows more and more signs of a nearing expiration date, the preservation of water and soil resources has become a matter of international concern.  The tremendous consumption of petrol involved in the shipping of foodstuffs in a country like the United States has led to forecasts of the revitalization of local economies and local food movements.  One of the wonderful attributes of the aguaje palm’s fruit is that it seems to have forever thrived in just such a local economy.  Unlike so many of the Amazon’s “newly discovered” wonder plants—camu camu for vitamin C, guayusa as a caffeine- and antioxidant-rich tonic, cat’s claw and pau d’arco for immune support and cancer prevention, and on and on—the aguaje is seldom exported and has never been earmarked as an international sensation.  Aside from a handful of Brazilian companies seeking to extract aguaje oil for cosmetics products, aguaje is only “processed” in traditional household ways.  The prospect of aguaje consumption is patently carbon neutral. 

It is probably due to the local nature of the aguaje market that the palm has also never been singled out by international organizations or transnational corporations for active reforestation.  Whereas exotic Asian teak is planted throughout Latin America for its high value timber, there has been little intervention in Amazonian communities that would encourage the planting of the native aguaje. 

Even so, the stresses experienced by most of the Amazon’s organisms, people included, are leading many to the unavoidable conclusion that aguaje reforestation is a crucial next step.  Just as the people of the temperate world would be shocked by the extinction of the apple or the peach, the heavy-handed harvesting of the jungle’s favorite fruit has convinced a small minority of farmers to safeguard aguaje’s future in their own fields.  Some are optimistic about the economics of the fruit as well.  Rodolfo, a subsistence farmer from a respected family living on the Piedras River, calculates that with roughly two hundred palms in a single hectare he could make a respectable living of 15,000 soles (5000 dollars) once his trees hit peak production.  Unfortunately, the palms can take a dozen years to produce any fruit at all, a fact that has led many farmers to the short-sighted conclusion that aguaje just isn’t worth the trouble. 

As with every attempt to shift towards forward-thinking, tenable practices, aguaje reforestation is not without its detractors.  Often the lack of conspicuous examples is obstacle enough to the adoption of new practices, and few people have taken the initial risk and made the investment in planting aguaje by the hundreds.  What we know from the few examples that do exist is that the palm grows well in “orchard” conditions, remarkably so considering its natural habitat.  Experiences at Camino Verde’s reforestation center in the community of Baltimori, Madre de Dios, Peru, have verified aguaje’s versatility and functionality in multi-crop agroforestry systems as well as in monocultural plantations.  Unique to Amazonian trees, conditions in the wild support the palm’s inclusion in single-species stands.  Also, the focus placed on aguaje by organizations such as IIAP seem to ensure a bright future for this vital fruit.  In time, stress on wild populations may be reduced or eliminated due to reforestation efforts, while the unilateral growth of local economies will undoubtedly lead to substantial profitability for aguaje as tree-based local agro-business.

Back in the forest, Leo is arriving home with the day’s harvest.  He and his uncles lower hundred-pound sacks of fruit off their backs after hefting their heavy cargo for an hour along the narrow jungle paths.  Leo’s mother is preparing some of the fruit as a snack while a peccary is roasted over an open fire.  To render aguaje edible, the hard fruit is “ripened” by soaking in warm water for an hour or two.  The flesh softens and the scaly shell is more easily separated into segments for removal.  One is reminded of how the fruit would naturally fall into the warm, stagnant waters of the swamp; people imitate nature even in the most mundane of daily tasks.  Soon the family is chatting cheerily, spitting away pieces of shell and gnawing on the revealed orange-yellow flesh.

A scene as common and quotidian as this is a source of optimism about the future of the Amazon.  As long as people interact with their forest as an unquestioned part of the daily rounds, as long as the natural abundance of the aguajal is celebrated as a source of nutrition and an affirmation of cultural identity, as long as even a small percentage of harvesters recognize the value of climbing rather than felling the palms then there is hope that this scene is a sustainable one, one that has been repeated endlessly in the past, is being constantly reenacted in the present, and will be seamlessly carried on into the future.  The first far-seeing farmers to invest in the long-term have begun the important work of planting aguaje for the enjoyment of coming generations.  The first agronomists and forestry engineers have selected seeds from the finest varieties and, along with the farmers, have added another entry to that ageless tradition of crop domestication in which plants and people intersect, a tradition as old as culture itself and running parallel to all the great lineages of human imagination and ingenuity.

And yet in the aguajales the sounds of axe-blows emerge from the morning gloom and the animals retreat ever-deeper into the distant, waning forests in search of sustenance beyond the footpaths of humankind.  Nature’s resilience in the face of our advancing chainsaws and fires is showing signs of exhaustion, urging us in its own silent language to become active participants in the resurrection of abundance, to create forests of fruit in our own backyards and touch the great rainforests of Earth with a lighter hand.      

[i] A coffee plantation is a cafetal, an orange plantation is a naranjal, and so on.

[ii] All names have been changed to protect privacy.

Robin Van Loon