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close this bookCERES No. 106 - July - August 1985 (FAO Ceres, 1985, 50 p.)
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The Versatile Palms: The Case For Multipurpose Development

by Dennis V. Johnson

The mention of palm tree crops brings to mind row upon row of African oil palms on Malaysian plantations, oases of date palms in the deserts of the Near East, or extensive stands of coconut pahns in the Philippines. In each case, one is apt to think only of a single commodity: palm oil, dates, coconut oil. Such impressions do an injustice to the importance of palms because there are more than 50 species yielding useful products and because all palms have multiple uses. Beyond the confines of the modern plantation, coconut and date palms are renowned for the hundreds of ways in which they can be used.

Natural stands of palms are of remarkable utility to local peoples, especially for the poor. Palms provide edible fruits, oilseeds, sap for beverages or sweeteners, palm hearts, stem starch, leaves for thatching and basketry, leaf midribs for fencing, wax for candles, trunk wood for construction, fuelwood, feed for livestock, and traditional medicines. About 20 wild palm species are exploited for commercial quantities of rattan canes, starch, seed oil, fibre, fruits, and wax. The value of these products is high. For example, annual commerce in products from native palms in Brazil amounts to over US$100 million, and trade in raw rattans in Southeast Asia is said to be worth more than $50 million per year. Gathering and processing wild palm products provide opportunities for local subsistence farmers to earn a cash income.

The tropical zone is the homeland of most of the world's approximately 2 700 species of palms. Through a combination of products from cultivated palms and wild trees, palms rank as the third most important plant family in the wor]d. Only the grass and legume families surpass it.

Humans have been using palms of one kind or another since prehistoric times, but because palms do not occur throughout the tropical zones in the same numbers or diversity of species, use varies from continent to continent. Asia possesses the greatest number of palm species and also what appears to be the longest and most complicated pattern of utilization. The New World tropics rank second in species diversity, and though its native palms are used in many ways, the traditions are not nearly as long as in Asia. Africa, with comparatively few native species, ranks third, but the large populations of native oil and palmyra palms compensate for the lesser diversity.

Subsistence-level gathering of palm products has almost no adverse effects on native palms unless rural human population densities are very high. Where these same products are commercialized, the effects vary according to the particular product. Palms must be cut down to obtain palm hearts, rattan canes, stem starch, and stem wood. Overexploitation for palm hearts in southeastern Brazil and for rattans in Southeast Asia has reduced local populations of these palms. Tapping of palms for sap does not harm the tree providing it is not excessive. Likewise, the harvest of leaves for thatching, hasketry, or cuticle wax is not detrimental if done with moderation. Collecting fruits for subsistence or commercial purposes presents no threat.

Special status. Palms represent some of the oldest known domesticated tree crops. Both the coconut and date palms have been a part of cultivated fields and gardens since the dawn of agriculture, and over millennia have undergone genetic modification to such an extent that neither palm has ever been found in a truly wild state. Examination of palms within tropical production systems can provide a broad picture of their traditional roles, roles which must be understood and appreciated in designing more productive systems which are culturally and ecologically sensitive.

Where shifting cultivation is practised in the tropics, palms (and a few other useful tree species) are afforded special status. Forest clearing to plant annual crops often spares palms-partly because of their economic value and partly because palms are difficult to fell with an axe and cannot be girdled since their trunks have no bark. Palms also are tolerant of the burning of brush and trees necessary to clear a field for planting. There is evidence that as a result of being protected, palms enjoy an advantage over invading woody plants and increase their density and area. The babacu palm forests of Brazil appear to have been spread by the action of shifting cultivators.

A few species of perennials are occasionally planted along with annual crops on shifting cultivation plots to provide a farmer with future supplies of fruit and other products. In the Amazon Basin the peach palm is one such tree. After having abandoned a field for annual crops because of competition from weeds and declining soil fertility, the farmer returns from time to time to harvest the trees. The planting of palms under these circumstances represents an important step toward ultimate plant domestication. In fact, this appears to have been what happened in the case of the peach palm.

Palms in the wild or informally cultivated by small farmers are more fully utilized for their products than those grown on modern plantations. For example, if a palm is felled for its trunk wood, the leaves will be used for some purpose and the palm heart extracted and eaten or fed to livestock.

Palms have several botanical characteristics not shared by other tree crops. The palm family is classified as belonging to the monocots, plants which produce a single seed leaf. Therefore, solitary palms have only a single growing point. A few species, such as the doum palm, produce aerial branches: some palms, such as the date, produce basal suckers: others, such as the acay, grow in clumps composed of independent plants. Solitary palms, like the coconut and African oil palms, are particularly vulnerable to damage to the growing point because it may result in the death of the entire tree. This growing tip, embedded deeply within the top of the trunk, is the tender edible bud which is processed into hearts of palm.

Because of their growth habit, palms cannot be pruned to maintain a low stature. As a result, spraying for disease or insect control, and fruit or leaf harvest, become more difficult as the tree reaches its full stature. A mature coconut palm reaches over 20 metres. At one time in Malaysia, there was an attempt to train pigtailed monkeys to pick ripe nuts from tall coconut palms. A more workable alternative has been to cultivate dwarf coconut varieties which begin to fruit when under one metre in height.

Ancient practice. Under cultivation, palms can be grown at a closer spacing than most other tree crops because they have a compact crown and do not branch and spread. The fact that more light is able to penetrate the tree canopy permits intercropping of annual and other perennial crops, or pasturing livestock on natural or planted grasses beneath the trees. Palms are particularly well-suited to the multiple cropping systems so common among small farmers; they provide a measure of environmental stability and at the same time are a ready source of numerous useful products the farmer needs.

Although most palms bear male and female flowers on the same tree, several species are dioecious, bearing male and female flowers on different trees. The date and palmyra palms exhibit this characteristic, which is both a disadvantage and an advantage. To assure maximum fruit yield when cultivating dioecious palms, it is necessary to provide an adequate number of male palms in a field. Alternatively, one can plant only female trees and pollinate them artificially with pollen collected from superior make trees. This is an ancient practice of date growers and one which is standard procedure on modern date plantations.

Terminal flowering, a rare growth habit among woody perennials wherein a tree flowers but once in its life and then dies, is another notable characteristic of certain palms. The sugar palm of Southeast Asia is an example. It is tapped for its sugary sap and often felled before the onset of flowering to extract the starch which has accumulated in the trunk for that purpose. The need to replant this solitary palm about every 10 years is a disadvantage. The sago palm too is terminal flowering and contains appreciable amounts of starch in the trunk, but since it produces basal suckers the dead trunk is replaced naturally within a few years.

The impressive increases in grain crop yields that resulted in the green revolution and the outstanding success of the African oil palm, which has become a major plantation crop within recent decades, were two key factors which prompted agricultural and rural development planners to assess the economic potential of palms in the tropices. Palms, along with certain other tree crops, were recognized as ideally suited to the intensive cropping systems of small farmers and as contributing to environmental stability. The latter is of particular concern, since so many small farmers occupy marginal lands prone to erosion. Contributing also to the interest in palms was the fact that a number of species were already being grown by small farmers and showed good potential for yield improvement.

Rather than a single programme to study underdeveloped palms, the modern trend has been to create small programmes for individual species. This has the advantage of being more feasible at the national level and permits a research design which takes into account local social, economic, and ecological conditions. However, it does result in costly duplication of basic research in such areas as propagation, insect pests, and disease control. Influencing palm research focussed on individual species were the precedents of separate coconut development programmes in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, a date research centre in the western United States (now closed), and the more recent African oil palm research programme in Malaysia.

Data incomplete. To gain an idea of the scope of modern palm development, examples can be cited from the Americas, Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. In each of these examples, one or more products have been commercialized to some degree. Although development programmes have focussed on improving the quantity and quality of the major commodities, they have not overlooked the secondary products of the respective palms. As will be evident in the following discussion, the data on production and the area occupied by these underdeveloped species are incomplete.

The babacu palm covers nearly 200000 km2 in the northern half of Brazil and occurs in almost pure stands. Its fruits have long been a source of edible oil, starch, and fuel; the leaves make excellent thatch and the trunk fumishes wood and palm heart. In the 1910s, the babacu industry began with extraction of oil at local factories and the export of kernels. Over the years there have been sporadic attempts to modernize the industry to include mechanical shelling of the extremely hard nut and to extract oil and starch from the fruit and produce charcoal from the hard shell by an integrated process. Since 1980, new factories have been built and the Brazilian Government has created a special programme for the babacu. In addition to industrial processing, research is under way to design management techniques applicable to the natural stands; these include annual cropping and integrated livestock grazing. Studies are also being done to identify superior planting material for the plantation cultivation of this palm. It is estimated that more than two million people derive part of their income from collecting and cracking babacu nuts and making charcoal from the shells. Since the natural supply of the nuts is not fully utilized, the modernization of the industry will provide additional opportunities for small farmers. Brazilian production of babacu kernels exceeds 250 000 tons each year.

Occurring in great numbers in the lower Amazon is the acai palm. A clumping palm sometimes planted as an ornamental, it furnishes excellent palm hearts and fruit for a popular local beverage and has some potential as a cellulose source. A sizable work force is needed to cut the palms in the forest, extract the hearts, and transport them to local factories for processing and canning. This palm heart industry - the largest in the world - is centred in the lower Amazon. Brazilian production is about 115 000 tons per year, going to domestic and export markets. Fruit production is 55 000 tons per year. Since as many as 25 palms may constitute a single clump, each one at a different stage of development, cutting the largest stems for palm hearts is not detrimental. The acai is an ideal species for permanent exploitation. Government agencies in Belem are doing studies to determine optimal utilization practices for this palm and to assure a continuing supply of its products. There is good potential for small farmers to begin to cultivate this palm.

Dual programme. A third promising species of tropical America is the peach palm. Unknown in the wild, this palm has been cultivated for hundreds of years in the humid lowland of Central and South America. The cooked pulp of the fruit is eaten and is a good source of carbohydrate, protein, and vitamin A. Flour can be made from the dried pulp and oil extracted from the pulp and seed. The palm is being successfully cultivated in Costa Rica for palm hearts. A dual programme is underway in Costa Rica and the Brazilian Amazon to develop the peach palm into a
source of high-quality protein. Since small farmers have traditionally cultivated the palm, they are in a position to benefit directly from having available improved planting material.

In Africa, despite the limited diversity, there is some interest in the potential of native species of Hyphaene. The doum palm of North Africa is an ancient tree crop cultivated for its edible fruit and a host of other products. It is said to be planted along river banks in northern Kenya. In South Africa, resource planners are trying to determine how the ivory nut palm can be managed to sustain the palm wine industry of Maputaland. Currently almost a million litres of palm wine are produced there each year, most of it from the ivory nut palm. This palm takes its common name from the fact that the hard seed can be carved into buttons, trinkets, and other objects.

The palmyra of South Asia is an example of a palm with a very long history of multiple use. The chief product is the sap, which is made into sugar or fermented into the popular palm toddy. Toddy is also distilled to produce spirits. This palm is abundant in India, where it is often planted. The fruit, palm heart, and fleshy first juvenile leaf are all eaten. A stiff fibre extracted from the leaf stalk is a commercial product entering world trade. Outdated statistics place annual fibre exports at 4000 tons. FAO sponsored a workshop on the palmyra palm in 1983 and published a summary of its potential for improvement. The palmyra is another tree crop typically grown by small farmers.

The climbing rattans of Southeast Asia, species of Calamus and Daemonorops, have wide utility for construction and basket making, apart from their commercial use in furniture manufacture. These palms also bear edible fruit and palm hearts and play a role in traditional medicine. Most rattans are still cut in the wild. However, they are already being cultivated on a small scale throughout the region. In the mid-1970s, rattan trade amounted to about 46 000 tons, with Indonesia providing some 90 per cent of the total. In the past few years, there has been a rattan workshop, publication of a book on the subject, publication of a book on the subject, and a Rattan Information Centre meets are acting as a stimulus to the rattan industry and hold promise for small farmers to grown rattans commercially.

A final underdeveloped species is the sago palm, a swamp tree of Southeast Asia and a traditional and commercial source of sago starch. In addition to an edible and industrial starch, this palm also furnishes leaves for thatching and making baskets, leaf stalks, and the outer layer of the trunk for construction and palm hearts. Natural sago stands have been estimated to cover two million hectares, and an additional 200 000 hectares are under cultivation. The high level of interest in this palm is evidenced by three international symposia and an FAO workshop on the sago since 1976. Development of sago swamps without significant modification of the environment is in line with contemporary approaches to resource management. Like the other palms discussed here, sago development can directly benefit small farmers.

Revolutionary process. The multiple product approach being pursued for underdeveloped palms has had a feedback effect in terms of the major commercial palm tree crops. At the FAO Palm and Dates Research Centre in Baghdad, research is being carried out on a number of secondary products from the date fruit as well as on utilization of other parts of the palm. The Philippine Coconut Research and Development Foundation and the Coconut Research Institute in Sri Lanka are both actively investigating broader use of coconuts and the trees, when replacement becomes necessary. On the industrial side, the integrated processing of coconuts, rather than making copra for oil extraction, will revolutionize the coconut industry and directly benefit producers, most of whom are small farmers. A major effort is under way in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands to produce coconut wood from palms which must be replaced. Aiding in all aspects of coconut development is the Coconut Information Centre in Sri Lanka.

Thus far, there has been almost no interest on the part of African oil palm plantation operators to utilize the other products of the palm. Fruit branches, pruned leaves and oilseed processing residues are used as green manure in the fields, but the practice of burning palms that have been removed has precluded other uses. Burning is done to control diseases and insect pests. Some recent research findings indicate that the practice may not be necessary, which could broaden possibilities. In West Africa, where these oil palms occur naturally, they are tapped for palm wine and the leaves and trunks utilized.

Currently, there is insufficient recognition of the multipurpose potential of either cultivated or wild palms. Development of palms can increase the commercial output and industrial uses of the major commodities and at the same time assure sustainable subsistence use of palm products by small farmers. Because palms are highly adaptable multipurpose trees, their rational valorization can fulfil a combination of commercial and subsistence needs.