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Indigenous palm vulnerable

SOPHIE FOSTER
Friday, June 20, 2008

IT'S a little-known fact but for the Sago Palm in Fiji, it takes about 20 years before its extraordinary natural flowering and fruiting can occur killing it in the process.

In the plant world, that shouldn't necessarily make it an issue. But combined with pressures on its natural habitat here and human uses of the plant, this rarity has seen the Sago Palm placed on the list of plants vulnerable to extinction.

It's for that reason that NatureFiji-MareqetiViti has been diligently working away at saving the Sago Palm through education, research and facilitating multi-sector action.

The statistics are alarming. A report, prepared by Chinnamma Reddy, was released this month warning that an estimated 200 Sago Palms were chopped down in Fiji each week as part of the trade in palm hearts.

"Extraction of the edible palm heart is an increasing concern as it requires that a whole tree is cut down, resulting in the death of the palm tree," the organisation says.

Indeed, the heart of the Sago Palm lying by the highway for sale is a common sight in some parts of Viti Levu. The heart is prized for its sweet, crispy delicate flavour and is used especially in curries here.

NatureFiji-MareqetiViti commissioned the report, which it says was based on interviews with the main harvesters and vendors.

"There appear to be no more than about 20 people involved in the harvesting and selling of sago palm heart, but about 200 palms are probably felled each week for the trade. This is a mortality factor which cannot be sustained given the current state of the Sago Palm and the fact that it only fruits once in its 20-year life span before dying," it says.

But the organisation believes that if there is to be any hope of saving the Sago Palm, an educational approach, in consultation with the community, is more productive than, perhaps, any option to criminalise its harvest.

One such consultative option is to introduce an alternative source of palm hearts. NatureFiji-MareqetiViti is currently in the midst of discussions with the Department of Agriculture over plans to introduce an alternative palm heart source the Peach Palm which is grown commercially for its heart in Hawaii and Central and South America.

In Hawaii special plantation measures taken with the Peach Palm mean that it is now available more regularly for gourmet chefs to use as a low-calorie ingredient used in salads, appetisers, baked, boiled or steamed.

Any introduction of the Peach Palm using the know-how gathered from Hawaii for harvesting would mean a less ecologically disastrous way to use the palm heart here.

The Sago Palm (or Metroxylon vitiense as it's known in scientific circles) goes by many names locally - soga, sogo, niu soria and seko. In fact, scientists believe that the Sago Palm is endemic to Fiji - which means that it is a native plant of Fiji or confined to certain regions here.

The need to find ecologically-sound solutions is an urgent one. At present, NatureFiji-MareqetiViti believes only three pockets of Sago Palm are "reasonably secure" with the rest seriously under threat or close to extermination.

It says that the Sago Palm used to "much more common on the alluvial plains of south east Viti Levu and the Rewa Delta. Now they only occur in small disjunct pockets of this historical range. Of the 12 remaining populations only three are considered to be reasonably secure, the remainders are either seriously threatened or near extirpation".

Part of the problem has been the fact that the habitat for the Soga Palm is swampy, upstream of coastal swamps or in coastal lowland areas. All of these areas on Viti Levu and in the Rewa Delta are also areas where there has been high human population pressure.

So even though the palm heart might not be on the tables of a vast majority of people in Fiji (having never been as a starch source for the indigenous Fijian community), the sheer pressure of urbanisation and human settlement has nevertheless forced it to recede.

"The drainage of Fiji's coastal plains has been an ongoing threat to this palm for many years," according to the NatureFiji-MareqetiViti Sago Palm project.

Also threatened with this loss of habitat is the Sago Palm's ability to propagate or reproduce. The NatureFiji-Mareq-etiViti endangered species website () says the Sago Palm propagates by seed.

"The large buoyant seeds fall under the parent tree and float in the water until it can find a suitable place to finally germinate. In the upper Navua gorge, half eaten fruit from bearing palms indicate another dispersal agent - the large, endemic Masked Shining Parrot and bats are the most likely suspects," it says.

In recent times though, a new threat has emerged generated from commercialisation of Sago Palm leaves as thatching.

"Concern for the status of this endemic palm has intensified greatly with the increasing demand from the tourism industry for use of the leaves for thatching.

Recent research by Rounds (2007) has shown that the unsustainable harvesting of the sago palms, and no replanting in harvesting areas have resulted in an almost 50 percent reduction of the distribution and size of the surviving population," Natu-reFiji-MareqetiViti says.

"This has increased the vulnerability status of the sago palms, promoting it to the IUCN Endangered status".

The organisation says sago palm thatching appeared to have only started occurring here around 1942, after the arrival of indentured Solomon Islanders.

It says the use of sago palm thatching has become popular in Fiji's hotels because the leaves can last up to 10 years.

Compare that with the less commercially-sensible option of using short-lived traditional Fijian thatching methods of gasau reeds, pandanus and coconut, and the issue becomes even more complex.

It's an issue that is currently being addressed through educational workshops and consultations with hotels and commercial bodies.

Today, in fact, bodies such these will gather in Pacific Harbour for a NatureFiji-MareqetiViti workshop on the Sago Palm, which will be followed by another workshop tailored for landowners and harvesters on 25th at Galoa Village.

The organisation has also conducted successful presentations to the Architects Association of Fiji in mid-May and helped set up a Turaga-ni-koro committee.

Also in development is a Species Recovery Plan for the sago palm engineered by NatureFiji-MareqetiViti with a consortium of NGOs and government agencies.

Such a multi-sector approach to saving endangered species, focussing on solutions rather than blame, is sure to augur well for the Sago Palm - with the ultimate hope being that it will be around for generations to come in Fiji.

Source material: NatureFiji-MareqetiViti; www.naturefiji.org.





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