Ensuring sustainable açaí fruit production in the Amazon river delta

With açaí fruit becoming increasingly popular, it is important to understand how farming management practices are affecting vital pollination services. Associate Editor, Ainhoa Magrach comments on the recent article, Anthropogenic disturbance of tropical forests threatens pollination services to açaí palm in the Amazon river delta by Campbell et al.

Worldwide the demand for the berries of the açaí palm is increasing. These anti-oxidant rich foods have now become the latest trend in healthy lifestyles and one of the largest contributors to the economy of local communities in the Amazon. Traditionally, açaí palms have been managed as “forest farms” where fruit production of local palm stands was increased by selectively removing other tree species. This made açaí one of the best examples of non-timber forest products contributing to forest conservation. However, the recent increase in demand has led producers to intensify production by increasing the density of palms at the expense of other tree species and to occupy cleared upland areas. Açaí, like many other crops depends upon the crucial ecosystem services provided by natural ecosystems, such as pollination by wild pollinators. However very little is known on the impact of these different açaí farm management practices on the provision of pollination services to açaí.

In their recent paper Campbell et al. aim to better understand how local farming practices and landscape structure affect açaí flower-visitor communities and how these ultimately affect fruit production. In their study they focus on two different types of habitats: lowland floodplains and upland farms along a gradient of forest cover and management intensity (measured as açaí density). Floodplains represent areas in which native forest is being converted into simplified agroforests while upland areas represent previously cleared areas being planted with açaí palms.

A key finding of their study is that açaí showed a strong dependence on biotic pollination by a diverse set of insect pollinators. They find that visitation by bees in particular is greater in floodplains surrounded by increasing forest cover while intensive management (in terms of acai palm density) had negative effects on flower-visitor richness. Further, their results indicate that ants, whose abundance peaks in intensively managed upland plantations, had a negative effect on fruit set which could be mediated through their effect on the behaviour of other pollinators (e.g., beetles).

Pollination services from natural ecosystems are vital for agricultural production, but we need to understand how different farming practices affect them. At present we find many farmers who benefit from pollination services provided by wild pollinators and whose management practices often adversely affect these same wild pollinators. It is thus crucial for us to develop strategies to protect both local pollinator biodiversity and the livelihoods of local communities whose income depends on these pollinators. Campbell et al. make an important step forward providing empirical evidence on the importance of pollination services for açaí production and their dependence on surrounding forest cover.

Read the full article,  Anthropogenic disturbance of tropical forests threatens pollination services to açaí palm in the Amazon river delta in Journal of Applied Ecology.

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