A Chilean wine palm, one of the world’s southernmost palm species and endemic to Chile, spills sweet sap as it is cut. It falls to the ground, where up to 800 litres of the sugary liquid are then extracted and boiled to concentrate the sugar, making seventy kilograms of 'Miel de Palma', or palm honey.
The indigenous peoples of Chile once extracted the sap while leaving the palms intact. But shortly after European conquistadores colonised the wild austral land, this destructive method of cutting the trees began. Although there have been improvements in management, the felling of palms for this purpose still continues. But the humble honeybee could just end this practice... depending on its tastes.
Originally, the Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis) was found throughout Chile´s central valleys. In the 19th Century it was estimated that there were 500,000 in just one region. Now there are only 120,000 in the whole country and its status is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Central Chile is one of the world’s twenty five biodiversity hotspots, that is, the biologically richest but also most threatened areas on the planet. Central Chile´s flora, over half of which is endemic (not found elsewhere in the world), is under threat. As people seek to make a living from the land, native vegetation is cleared for farming, vineyards and plantations of faster-growing exotic tree species. So the critical question remains - how to balance conservation while still ensuring economic survival?
Javier Salvatierra, a Masters student at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile has been investigating how apiculture could offer a way to integrate the conservation and use of native plant species. If he can prove that a type of honey has a pollen content of forty five percent or more from a given species, it will be recognised as monofloral honey. This classification of purity also adds commercial value to the product, providing a financial incentive to locals to conserve the native flora for its nectar.
La Reserva Ecológica Oasis de La Campana is a private reserve and Javier’s field study area, hosting numerous native species of flora, including the Chilean wine palm. Some allotments have been sold for holiday homes within the reserve and while the palms still remain, Javier is keen to secure their future. Over the summer of 2007 – 2008, Javier donned a beekeepers suit to collect weekly honey samples from a number of beehives dotted throughout the 2500-hectare reserve. From these honey samples, he must then identify from which flora species the nectar has come from. This is done by determining the proportion of pollen types present in the honey samples.
Back at the university, Javier shows me around the lab where he meticulously identifies each of the minuscule pollen grains that are stored on a stack of microscope slides. While Javier has yet to find a sample containing more than forty five percent of wine palm pollen, twenty-three of the twenty-six samples contained monofloral honey from other native species, particularly Quillay. Currently, Chile exports honey in 360 kilogram barrels with no differentiation of type or area of origin. With these results, honey from this region could be identified as monofloral and marketed much in the same way as popular New Zealand monofloral honeys.
The question of producing Chilean wine palm bee honey still remains unanswered. But Javier is confident that further research could reveal a superior method for obtaining the product. If honey is collected more frequently to precisely coincide with the palm´s flowering period, a higher proportion of palm pollen could be found. Also, scientists are still determining the average number of pollen grains for a set volume of nectar for each plant species. If, in comparison with other plants, the palm has more nectar per pollen grain, the likelihood of finding monofloral palm honey will increase.
Javier, whose last name ‘Salvatierra’ suitably means ‘save the earth’ is more than aware of the social and political realities of conservation: “The ideal would be for them to protect the area fully, but it just isn’t profitable. At least by introducing bees it is offering an alternative form of income that is not as harmful on the environment.”
When I first arrived in Chile, not knowing what it was, I was curious to try this 'Miel de Palma'. Thankfully I refrained from an impulsive purchase that would have supported a destructive practice. Now, each time I pass a can of 'Miel de Palma', I am comforted by the thought that it could soon be replaced by a multitude of rich, unique monofloral honeys that help to sustain the astounding natural heritage and beauty of this country. And hopefully one of them will bear a picture of the majestic palm, standing upright until nature decides its time to fall. Consumers, in Chile and their export destinations, could then support conservation in a way that leaves a sweet taste in their mouthes.
"The indigenous peoples of Chile once extracted the sap while leaving the palms intact."
Did the knowledge to do that get lost?
Here is Javier´s response:
"Desde la colonización de los españoles ha habido poco interés por hacer un manejo sustentable. Cortar la palma tiene mayor rentabilidad en el corto plazo y lamentablemente la mentalidad de los empresarios es corto placista."
- " Since the Spanish colonisation, there has been little interest in sustainable management (of the palm). Cutting the palm is more profitable in the short term and unfortunately the business mentality is focussed on the short term."
So, while the knowledge still exists, it is obviously not financially viable to use the traditional methods to obtain large enough quantities of sap.
Thank you for your interest.
Wow this is a fascinating article that touches on the heart of the issues concerning the development (or in this case revival) of sustainable agricultural practices in places such as South America. Under the increasing pressures of neoliberal polices, that appear to be sweeping through Chile, producers and consumers are given few options to the efficient mass harvesting strategies that have significant short and long term implications for both the agricultural economy and the environment. The irony is of course that despite the fact that the technological and methodological know-how may be accessible, sustainable practices may not be adopted until major philosophical shifts occur in political and especially economic policy.
My question is:
What are the possible ways forward for individual producers or consumers who want to invest in sustainable agricultural practices when they face such barriers by the deeply ingrained and relentlessly enforced networks of neoliberal policies that produce/sustain the philosophies that shape agricultural methods and many other aspects of our lives?
This is an excellent article. Thank you for your time and concern.
An area which might provide useful insight or information is the production and sale of Maple Syrup in Eastern N. America - sap of the sugar maple is collected (non-destructively) and reduced to a distinctively flavored, highly valued syrup. The product has historical, social, and economic significance in parts of Canada, especially the provinces Quebec and Ontario.
Thanks for your valuable comment.
Here are some of the steps I believe are necessary to move towards more sustainable agricultural practices:
1) Knowledge: Producers and consumers become aware of current unsustainable practices. Here, the work of NGO's, the press, government regulatory agencies, scientists and other researchers can be important in exposing the environmental and social impacts of unsustainable agricultural production.
2) Provision of alternatives: In light of this knowledge, individual producers (sometimes with the support of NGO's or government programmes) change to their methods to create products in a more sustainable way.
3) Consumer support: In order for the producer to continue with more sustainable practices, they will need to find a market for their goods. In this regard, certifying and labelling of a product, for example as 'organic' or 'fair trade', can help consumers recognize what they are supporting when they buy one of these products.
4) Success inspires change: Once the benefits of a more sustainable practice become apparent, more producers may be inspired to make the switch. Benefits may include improved human health through reduced exposure to pesticides and fertilisers, longer term retention of healthy soils and even improved profit margins from selling a value-added product.
In New Zealand (my home country) I have witnessed a large increase in the organic/local food movement and also the provision of Fair Trade products (www.tradeaid.org.nz). Likewise, in Chile the demand for organic products has been increasing by twenty percent each year (http://www.santiagotimes.cl/santiagotimes/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14140&Itemid=41). These offer alternatives to exploitative practices, allowing consumers to support and sustain practices that are less harmful for the environment. You can also find out about many other innovative ideas on www.worldchanging.com - that's what we're all about!
Richard - from what I understand, the method the indigenous people used has similarities with the way maple syrup is extracted. However, the volume obtained compared with cutting the palm unfortunately is not enough for it to be profitable.