Director of Research
Brian Griffiths is passionate about sustainable natural resource management and wildlife economies in the Peruvian Amazon. He is a human ecologist that also engages with anthropology, ecology, and conservation biology, and prioritizes community-driven work. His recent projects include the ecology of natural Amazonian mineral licks and the influence of cultural practices on hunter behavior, each conducted in collaboration with the Indigenous Maijuna people of Peru. Brian has done consulting work with the Smithsonian and United Nations, among others, on topics ranging from environmental education to wildlife economics. Brian helps direct the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER, Director of Research) and OnePlanet (Director of Conservation Science). He holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Public Policy (George Mason University) and bachelor’s degrees in Plant Science and Environmental Engineering (University of Delaware), and is a faculty member in the Earth Commons at Georgetown University where he teaches courses in sustainability. Before coming to Georgetown, Brian was a Postdoctoral Fellow at George Mason University, the Executive Director of ACEER, and a Fulbright grantee.
Learn more about Brian Griffiths
September 27, 2021
The Plight of the Aguaje
A stand of palm trees towers above the swampy forest floor, 10 meters, 20, 30. Just visible at the top of the tree is a flash of color—stark red against the white, misty air of the rainforest. The breath of a breeze is followed by a plunk. An odd, scaly fruit—the size of a large chicken egg—pops back up to the surface of the stagnant water. An aguaje. Perhaps a snack for a tapir later, I think – or, perhaps a snack for me? I’m not the aguaje fruit’s native seed disperser, but I can’t resist the sweet orange flesh hiding behind its scaly exterior. I pull out a knife and set to work. My snack is made even more enjoyable by the presence of a pair of mated macaws nesting atop the trunk of a nearby dead aguaje, which has lost its crown; I can almost hear the begging of their little chicks in the nest.
This mammoth palm tree, Mauritia flexuosa, or the aguaje palm, is one of the climax species of the Amazon, forming monocultures for acres in flooded areas. As I can attest, it’s a delicious fruit that’s a prized commodity for millions of people in the Amazon. Each tree can grow hundreds of the fruit yearly; to cut them down for their desirable produce is a profitable business venture.
Unfortunately, the aguaje palm is dioecious: the trees are distinctly male or female. Only the females produce fruit, so they are the trees that are chopped down. The remaining female trees’ fruit will be consumed by large primates, tapirs, and other mammals, the seeds dispersed. The seedlings that sprout will be 50% female and 50% male, by chance. Over generations, the ratio of females to males slowly shrinks, and stands become dominated entirely by male trees. When those trees die—unable to reproduce or provide food for the mammals—the entire ecosystem is lost.
How can the drive for economic growth be reconciled with environmental conservation? In this case, the aguaje provides habitat, food, nesting sites, and countless other ecosystem services – but it also provides almost 150 metric tons of fruit to the city of Iquitos alone, each month.
Members of some rural communities in the Amazon have a solution. Instead of cutting down the trees, aguaje harvesters are using locally-made and sourced harnesses to climb and gather fruit, allowing female trees to continue production. A group of entrepreneurs are even trying to grow aguaje trees in their chacras, or agricultural fields, for sustainable harvesting that doesn’t require a trip to the forest. Invariably, some of these fruits are missed and lost, sustaining the animal populations and future generations of aguaje.