Postcard from the Field: A Proliferation of Palms
By Cassie Sevigny
The Connections between Water and Rural Production project (CAP) investigates whether and which farmers adapt their production systems when they experience water variability, what adaptations they make, and whether these adaptations reduce income losses when droughts occur. Improved understanding of these feedbacks will inform efforts by government agencies and civil society to help farmers respond to water scarcity. I accompanied economist Katrina Mullan to Brazil while working on my Masters in Economics.
One of the things that surprised and amazed me in Brazil was the sheer variety of palm trees and their uses. One example, the babassu, is very important to locals: the fibers, oils, and other parts are used for flour, medicine, and skin products, and indigenous people use the fronds for their houses. Many other palms share these uses, as frondy leaves, fibrous trunks and fruits, and oily seeds are common features.
Palms grow so prolifically in the state of Rondonia, they crop up all over pastures which have previously been deforested. While they provide shade for cattle, some farmers consider them weeds because they are so difficult to clear so that pasture can be expanded. But the plants that grow in a place can tell you about the characteristics of the land.
Kassia Freire, a local farmer, showed us a buriti tree growing in a pasture. Like most palms, the fruit develops in elongated hanging clusters underneath the spray of leaves. The so-called “tree of life” only lives near water. The nickname bears two meanings. “Tree of life” or “tree that emits water” is the translation of the Tupi-Guarani name mbiriti, a reference to the tree’s preferred wet environmental conditions (1). But indicating or serving as a water source isn’t the buriti’s only contribution to sustaining life. The versatility of its components makes it useful as vitamin A-rich food, colorant, skin product ingredients, medicine, and building materials. And humans aren’t the only ones who love the sweet fruit! Kassia pointed out fallen fruits nibbled by macaws, who had scraped away the reddish scaly skin to reveal the ripe yellow inside. She pointed out stringy palm nuts of the babassu, too, which look like tiny thin coconuts with a point on the end. Cows like the pulp of the babassu, and we could see the remnants of plenty that had been eaten in that pasture!
Learning about the many uses for all parts of palms reminded me of the inspiring human ingenuity for survival. That farmers now consider the persistent palms “weeds” is also indicative of humans’ often arbitrary and fickle relationship with nature. Palms are like the dandelion of Brazilian cattle farming - once prized for hardiness and utility, now scorned for growing where grass is desired.