Have you ever heard of the famous tree of life? Well guess what – it exists in Trinidad! Some readers may have seen them before, but many more have probably never encountered these special trees in Trinidad given their restricted range. It is the Mauritia flexuosa or moriche palm as it is commonly called.
The moriche is a well-distributed palm species throughout the Amazon and Orinoco Basins and was referred to as the ‘tree of life’ by the great German geographer and explorer Alexander von Humboldt at the beginning of the 1800s. Early civilisations are thought to have brought the palm from the Amazon basin to Trinidad (Trinidad is the northern limit of its global range and naturally occurring moriche palm populations exist in only six locations in Trinidad. These include the Aripo Savanna Environmentally Sensitive Area, Nariva Swamp Environmentally Sensitive Area, Arena Forest Reserve, Valencia Forest Reserve, Erin Reserve and the Los Blanquizales Lagoon. The Aripo Savanna and Nariva Swamp populations have densities of adult trees higher than 1000 per km2, the Los Blanquizales population has less than 100 per km2, while the densities of all the other populations are less than 50 per km2. Unfortunately, the average Trinbagonian is not familiar with this majestic species. This piece is an attempt to remedy this situation.
Are moriche palms important?
Moriche palms play a significant socio-economic and ecological role in South America and are thought to have been utilised by early human civilizations some 2000 years ago. As a matter of fact some societies still depend on these palms for their survival. For example, in Peru moriche palm ecosystems or “Aguajals” as they are called locally, represent 1% (7000 km2) of the Amazonian valley forest and contribute millions of U.S. dollars per year to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Products such as frozen sweets, wines, buttons, crafts, jewellery, oils, baskets, purses, scandals, hammocks, birdcages, toys, sunscreen, deodorant and many pharmaceutical items are traded locally and internationally. Another interesting use of moriche palms that some women might have heard of, or may have even tried, is the “Moriche Palm Diet.” – a Brazilian diet plan used by thousands of women worldwide and one which has increased the commercial demand for the fruit.
The fruit of the moriche is rich in vitamins and in several parts of South America it is eaten. You may have actually seen these scaly, dark-red fruit after they have washed ashore, especially on our southern beaches. Typically, these would have originated along the banks of rivers in Venezuela and were then washed out to sea.
Moriche palm stands are capable of surviving repeated exposure to fires and are believed to be pyrophilous in nature (tolerant and even benefiting from fire). This would have made the species even more compatible with human settlements, as fire played an integral part in human evolution and existence. Moriche palms are also known as a keystone species in Aripo Savanna and Nariva Swamp providing important ecosystem services. The species does not exist in Tobago and is not cultivated for economic purposes in Trinidad; perhaps because the country’s main GDP income is derived from petrochemical production and the main populations of moriche palm exist in Environmentally Sensitive Areas.
Local indicator bird species such as the fork-tailed palm swift (Tachornis squamata), moriche oriole (Icterus cayanensis chrysocephalus), sulphury flycatcher (Tyrannopsis sulphurea) and red-bellied macaw (Orthopsittaca manilata) depend extensively on moriche palms to provide food and habitat for their survival, hence losing moriche palms in Trinidad would by extension mean losing bird species richness. The red-rumped agouti or (Dasyprocta leporina) hoards fallen fruits from moriche palms, retrieving them during food-shortage periods; these fruits provide agoutis with a rich source of nutrients, fats and polysaccharides ensuring the persistence of the agouti population during famine.
Threats to our Moriche palm populations
During my surveys throughout the island, I have recorded several threats to the palms: squatting and land clearance being the most serious. For example, the palm swamp and marsh forests containing moriche palms in the Aripo Savannas, Valencia Reserve and Los Blanquizales Lagoon are being cleared to build shanty houses and to acquire land.
Moriche palms are also being destroyed as a result of slash and burn farming, as in the Los Blanquizales Lagoon and Valencia Reserve where palms are being cut down to propagate short term crops such as dasheen, eddoes, pumpkin, corn, cucumber and pigeon peas. Poachers for the illegal pet trade cut down dead palms in the Aripo Savannas and the Arena Reserve to acquire red-bellied macaw chicks (destroying valuable nest sites and other palms in the process). I strongly believe that if these threats are not addressed soon, there would be dire consequences to moriche palm populations existing within the Valencia Reserve and Los Blanquizales Lagoon.
A small team of researchers (Dr. Mike Oatham, Dr. Aidan Farrell and myself) from the University of the West Indies, are currently conducting research into the population dynamics of moriche palms in Trinidad, hoping to address the existing scarcity of data.
With respect to conservation, frequent patrols by law enforcement agencies on a roster system may be part of the answer to successfully protecting moriche palms in Trinidad. Additionally, the designation of the Los Blanquizales Lagoon as a forest reserve to protect the moriche palms located there is overdue. It is also advisable for the government to partner with local communities to protect this palm species, where organizations existing near palm populations are enlisted to ensure that palms are not destroyed. Several villagers and squatters living in proximity to palm stands have indicated their support for the erection of proper signage, directly in front of diminishing stands, forbidding individuals from removing palms, and the Government is urged to support such a cost-effective project.
The moriche palm is vulnerable, and such a special tree deserves our attention and protection. As we have seen, it is an iconic symbol of our natural savannas and freshwater swamps. It is a home to many species, including several birds which are found almost exclusively in association with it. It may even have commercial applications if utilised in a sustainable manner. So, the next time you see the ‘tree of life’, please remember that there is more to the moriche palm than meets the eye.