tropical South America could be exploited for the fiber that they produce; their commercial potential is, at this point, unrealized. Promising species include:

  • The tucúm palm (Astrocaryum tucuma; family Palmae). The tucum palm reaches a height of 20 meters and is native to the western Amazon. Its fiber is considered to be among the finest and most durable of the plant kingdom and is highly valued by Amazonian Indians. Furthermore, the tucúm produces an edible palm heart and a fruit that contains three times more vitamin A than do carrots (Balick, 1985; Schultes, 1977).

  • Rattans (Demoncus spp.; family Palmae). Rattans are climbing palms native to the Asian tropics. Trade in rattan end products amounts to more than $1 billion a year. Unable to afford imported rattan, Peruvian peasants have begun to use Demoncus, a local climbing palm that has proven to be a very satisfactory substitute (A.Gentry, Missouri Botanical Garden, personal communication, 1986).


Tropical forest peoples are the key to understanding, utilizing, and protecting tropical plant diversity. Virtually every plant mentioned in this paper—not only the lesser-known species like the tucum palm and the buriti but also the well-known ones like corn and chocolate—were first discovered and utilized by indigenous peoples. Although it may come as a surprise to many that modern botanists are learning about useful plants from primitive peoples (the science known as ethnobotany), we are in fact just getting started. A single tribe of Amazonian Indians may use more than 100 different species of plants for medicinal purposes alone, yet very few tribal populations have been subjected to a complete ethnobotanical analysis and the need to do so becomes more urgent with each passing year. As we struggle to protect the dwindling tropical rain forest and find new and useful plant species for the benefit of modern human beings, the people who best understand these forests are dying out. More than 90 different Amazonian tribes are said to have disappeared since the turn of the century (G.Prance, New York Botanical Garden, personal communication, 1986). Through extinction and tribal acculturation, true forest peoples are dying out, and their oral traditions are disappearing with them. Each time a medicine man dies, it is as if a library has burned down.

Conservationists often talk about the problem of disappearing species, but the knowledge of how to use these species is disappearing much faster than the species themselves. In order to collect this information, we need to expand ethnobotanical field research. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and the National Geographic Society, together with leading botanical institutes like the Harvard Botanical Museum, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Missouri Botanical Garden, are working to document ethnobotanical lore (Figure 11–1). The results of this type of research are not only lists of useful species but also data on potentially useful wild and cultivated varieties as well as ecological information on how to best utilize tropical ecosystems in a sustainable manner. The collection of this type of information, combined with expanded programs bringing some of the more

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