This article is a summary of my PhD research carried out with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Bangor University.
A victim of it’s own beauty? The xaté palm of Central America
For my PhD research I was studying one particular palm species that is important to the horticultural industry – Chamaedorea ernesti-augusti commonly known as xaté. My research has focused on the over-harvesting of this species used widely in flower arrangements and bouquets. My study site encompasses the border region of Belize and Guatemala. In this short article I discuss the over-harvesting of the species and highlight some potential conservation approaches currently being explored to reduce the pressure on wild xaté populations.
The Chamaedorea floristry industry
Chamaedorea is the largest genus of palms (Arecaceae) in the neotropics, with many species of high socioeconomic importance. My study species, xaté (C. ernesti-augusti) is distributed in the seasonal forests of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. The large, elegant, heart shaped leaves of xaté are exported and are ideal for use in flower arranging and bouquets as they remain green for up to a month after harvesting.
The annual value of exports from Guatemala alone is estimated to be US $4 million. This small understory palm has on average 5 leaves per plant and it is suggested that a maximum of two leaves per plant should be harvested per year. However, it is thought that harvesters (locally known as xatéros) often take more than this. The leaves are taken in large bundles to processing factories where they are sorted before export. The packaged leaves are then flown in a refrigerated airplane to Miami or Amsterdam where they are then distributed to florists across the USA and Europe.
Illegal xaté harvesting
In Guatemala, harvesting of wild xaté is only legal when carried out within a licensed forest concession or from licensed cultivated xaté. Large scale illegal harvesting is carried out in both Guatemala and Belize and this illegal industry is an important income source for many communities. I interviewed over 300 people in Guatemala and Belize and found it is often the poorest, landless households that are dependent on xaté as a primary source of income, in particular communities in Guatemala located close to the border of Belize. Xaté has declined sharply in Guatemala and people from the border villages often illegally cross into Belize’s pristine forest to harvest in the Greater Maya Mountains. Harvesters will spend up to two weeks on a harvesting trip in the forest and can harvest around 1000 leaves per day. As alternative employment is rare in rural Guatemala, the annual income for a xaté harvester is often higher than that of people not willing to take the risk of crossing the border. Irrespective of legality, there are now concerns about the sustainability of extraction.
Cultivation as a conservation strategy
As part of a Darwin Initiative Project (UK government funding), Belize Botanic Garden prepared a xaté cultivation training programme which was delivered to 50 farmers from four villages in 2005. The programme provided participants with xaté seedlings and the botanic garden planted a demonstration plot to encourage xate cultivation. However, this project was aimed at farmers in Belize, people whom are not dependent on wild harvesting of xate. Cultivation of xaté has also been encouraged in Guatemala by local non-governmental organisations. These initiatives have created opportunities for people to diversify their livelihoods but whether it has helped to reduce pressure on the wild populations is yet to be seen. Unfortunately my research suggests that cultivation is unlikely to resolve the problem.
It is possible that Fair Trade certification of cultivated leaf may encourage some to adopt xaté cultivation. However, to become an economically viable enterprise, the price per leaf would need to increase drastically or people would need to plant large areas of xaté. Furthermore, the illegal xaté harvesters tend to be those without land and so are unable to invest in cultivation. Certification also requires monitoring to ensure wild harvested leaves are not laundered through the plantation and thus exacerbate the current over-exploitation. It is possible that increasing land ownership would encourage households to initiate small plantations, however land reform is well known to be a difficult process.
The future for xaté
The demand for xaté leaf has continued to remain high and stable for the last thirty years. Potentially, with increased land ownership for the xaté harvesters and a premium price through certification, cultivation may help to reduce wild harvesting pressure. However, the situation is a complex mix of ecology, politics and socio economics and it is unlikely that cultivation is a simple conservations strategy. Is the xaté palm a victim of its own beauty or could it’s beauty could be it’s savior? Perhaps the conservation of this species relies upon a greater awareness amongst florists and consumers of the over-extraction. By demanding sustainably sourced xaté it may be possible to secure the future of this species, without compromising the livelihoods of the people currently dependent on xaté harvesting.
This work by Sophie Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.