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Indigenous enterprise for the domestication of trees and the commercialization of their fruits

Mary Melnyk
Room 509, SA-18
Washington, DC 20523-1812


Forests offer a great variety of products of potential market value. The indigenous peoples of Amazonas State, Venezuela, already recognize this value and have been selling their own native wild fruits in the state's capital, Puerto Ayacucho. They are able to sell there because they have access to public and private transport to the market. There is a distinct seasonality to the appearance of wild fruits, as seen through their increased sale during the wet season. One constraint to sale, however, is that as the population of Puerto Ayacucho and nearby villages increases, the availability of trees decreases as a result of pressures from home-building and agriculture. There have been examples where wild seedlings have been collected for village nurseries to be planted in gardens. These same species have potential for incorporation into agroforests.

As a researcher develops programmes and projects for the domestication of indigenous trees and the commercialization of their products, it is important to select those trees preferred by local people and to ensure that local people will benefit. Furthermore, when selecting these species, the researcher should consider their seasonality, availability and management, as well as perishability, transport and pricing.


Ethnobotanical inventories of indigenous knowledge of plants and their environment have great value in identifying species for domestication and commercialization. Indigenous people themselves are enterprising and have been selling and starting to domesticate these inventoried products without any intervention from outside commercial interests or from governmental or non-governmental organizations (Asibey 1974, 1977; Padoch 1987, 1988; Padoch et al. 1987). These accomplishments already achieved by indigenous peoples and other small-scale farmers should be further supported. To promote and improve markets to benefit local gatherers and vendors, it is important to consider resource tenure, distance to markets, access to transport, seasonal variations in supply of products and tree management (Scoones in press). Tree management could include their integration into agroforestry systems.

The study area

Non-timber forest products are actively marketed in Puerto Ayacucho in Amazonas State, Venezuela. In 1990, the Amazonas State population of about 100,000 included over 43,000 indigenous inhabitants (OCEI 1992a,b). All indigenous peoples within Amazonas State have the right to hunt, fish and collect wild products, including timber, for their personal consumption; thus they have the right to continue their traditional lifestyles. Edible wild plant products are collected mainly for household consumption and for sale in the local market. Wild fruits and fish may be sold legally, but the sale of game animals, birds, ornamental fish, wild orchids and timber is strictly prohibited by law. Although the fruits are described here as `wild', this does not imply that they do not belong to anyone. On the contrary, they are the common property resources of the members of a particular village. `Wild' is used only to distinguish forest from cultivated products. Very few indigenous villages within Amazonas State have full legal title to their lands; however, some villages have been given a collective title for the right to use and enjoy the land, according to traditional customs. Those villages without such rights are often found within national parks and protected areas that occupy approximately half the area of Amazonas State (García 1993). Those villagers without title do farm, fish and hunt. However, uncertainty exists about the future.

Most of the state's population is concentrated within urban areas, particularly Puerto Ayacucho, the major centre, with a 1990 population of over 36,000 (OCEI 1992a). There is a road running north-south through Puerto Ayacucho, which allows for the transport of agricultural and forest products from other states and surrounding villages to the central market. Vendors with permanent stalls sell agricultural produce both from within the state, and also from production sites elsewhere in Venezuela. These permanent vendors reside in Puerto Ayacucho and are criollos, the mixed-race population of southern Venezuela. The markets are open all days of the week, except Sunday.

Although Saturday is the traditional market day in Puerto Ayacucho, indigenous vendors arrive from their villages in large trucks every weekday. The trucks are supplied either by the local government or by private owners. This transport is well organized and arrives in the villages in the early morning to pick up the vendors and their produce. It leaves Puerto Ayacucho again at midday to return to the villages. The indigenous vendors do not have stalls, but sell instead along the pavement.

All the vendors in the main market were surveyed on average every 4 to 5 weeks over a period of 13 consecutive months. The origin of each vendor was noted and each was listed as indigenous, criollo with a permanent market stall, or criollo with no permanent stall. The prices and the origin of the products were also recorded.

The fruit gatherers came mostly from villages located approximately 60 km to the north or south of Puerto Ayacucho along the main road. Some vendors also came from farther south on the Orinoco River or from the neighbouring Bolívar State to the north. These people would normally come to Puerto Ayacucho for other reasons, such as to pick up a government cheque or take a family member to the hospital. They would then take advantage of the trip to Puerto Ayacucho to sell their agricultural and wild products, including agricultural produce, condiments, wild plant products, fish and termites (Syntermes sp.). Only the sale of wild fruits will be discussed here.


The ethnic groups harvesting and selling edible wild fruits were the Huottuja (also known as Piaroa), Hiwi (also known as Guajibo), and Curripaco. Also, within the market some criollo vendors sold fruits originally bought from an indigenous gatherer. Of all the vendors selling wild fruits throughout the 13 months surveyed, 2% were criollos with permanent market stalls, 6% were criollos who arrived for that particular day (that is, non-permanent), and the remaining 92% were indigenous.

Fruit harvesting and seasonality

The appearance of wild edible fruits in the market generally reflects their availability relating to their fruiting seasons, rather than to any conscious decision by vendors to sell one product over another during a particular time (Melnyk 1995). The wild fruits sold within Puerto Ayacucho's markets were Humiria balsamifera (Aubl.) St. Hill. (Humiriaceae) and the palm fruits Euterpe precatoria Mart., Jessenia bataua (Mart.) Burret, Mauritia flexuosa L.f. and Oenocarpus bacaba Mart. (Arecaceae). Humiria balsamifera has a short fruiting period in February during the dry season. The height of fruiting for the palms was during the wet season from May to October.

Pickers climbed to collect the fruit panicles of E. precatoria, J. bataua, and O. bacaba. Such non-destructive methods may be considered sustainable, but increased extraction of wild fruits might result in reduced regeneration of the species (Nepstad et al. 1992), although this seems unlikely (Peters 1990). Sometimes a man's wife may help him collect or carry the fruits back to the house. It is usually the man who sells the fruit in the market; however, he may be accompanied to market by his wife. The fruits of M. flexuosa and H. balsamifera are collected from the forest floor by women who then sell them.

Euterpe precatoria, J. bataua, O. bacaba, and H. balsamifera are sold as whole fruits. Humiria balsamifera is eaten fresh as a berry, whereas fruits of E. precatoria, J. bataua and O. bacaba are warmed in water to soften them. They are then ground in water to make a beverage from the mesocarp. After the seeds and the exocarp are removed, the beverage is ready to drink. Mauritia flexuosa is prepared for sale by removing the mesocarp from individual fruits to aggregate a kilogramme and then wrapping the kilogramme in a leaf. The buyer then mixes the mass in water to prepare a beverage or to eat the pulp raw.

Profits and losses

When the value of time invested and the transport costs were taken into account, earnings from the sale of wild palm fruits were greater for an indigenous vendor than were the wages of a labourer in the area. The market day of 12 September 1992 provides an example, even though on that day the fruits commanded their lowest prices of the year. On most occasions, the vendor would harvest and sell one 40-kg sack of fruits; for example, E. precatoria, or J. bataua. The price of both fruits was VEB 20/kg (equal to USD 0.29; exchange rate Venezuelan bolivars (VEB) 68.82 = USD 1.00). Each vendor thus made VEB 800 gross. After paying VEB 120 for transportation, the net earning is VEB 680 for 14 hours of labour (9 hours for collection and transport plus 5 hours for selling). By comparison, a labourer with a minimum wage of VEB 300 for eight hours of work would earn only VEB 525 for the same 14 hours (Melnyk 1994).

With the money earned, indigenous vendors buy items such as pans, clothes, shotgun cartridges, kerosene and other foods. The foods might include tinned foods, white bread and soft drinks. The question, however, remains whether or not the purchased foods compensated nutritionally for the fruits sold. A comparison was made of the calorie, carbohydrate, fat and protein contents of one kilogramme of J. bataua fruits with examples of the nutritional content of purchased foods bought from the sale of one kilogramme of J. bataua (table 1). Purchased foods in general provide a greater amount of calories, carbohydrates and proteins than the single kilogramme of J. bataua. However, J. bataua is a better source of fats, with the exception of corn oil, the price of which is subsidized by the national government. Purchased foods can therefore compensate for nutritional values forgone from the sale of wild fruits; however, it is highly dependent on what is bought. Often items of low nutritional value such as soft drinks were bought. Alternatively, other household necessities such as soap or fish hooks were purchased. The nutritional status of a vendor's household will ultimately depend upon the vendor's choice as to how the money earned is spent.

Table 1. A comparison of the nutritional contents of 1 kg of Jessenia palm fruits with the nutritional content of other foods purchased for the same price; on 12 September 1992 the fruits sold for VEB 20 per kilogram (= USD 0.29)

Calories Carbohydrates
Jessenia bataua 470 40 30 10
Areya corn flour 2412 533 7 56
Rice 2066 454 2 41
Sardines, tinned 260 0 14 31
Corn oil 2528 0 286 0
Fish 606 0 16 107

Sources: Balick & Gershoff 1981, Instituto Nacional de Nutrición 1983


The indigenous villages surrounding Puerto Ayacucho are among the largest in Amazonas State. With increasing population growth along the road, there has been an expansion of agriculture with the consequent loss of forest cover. As a result, the wild palms are farther and farther from the villages and the vendors must spend more and more time to collect the fruits. Some vendors reported that they walked as many as 8 hours to get their harvest. Harvesting sites beginning at a distance of 8 km from a village were observed directly during the field research; however, the reports were that 20 years previously harvesting was in the immediate vicinity of the village.

Indigenous peoples have responded in various ways to the decline in the availability of wild fruits. For example, sometimes village youths have gone on expeditions to collect wild seedlings for a village nursery, while on other occasions villagers collect seeds germinating in the forest to plant in homegardens. The Venezuelan Forest Service has also become involved and aided in reforestation projects using J. bataua, O. bacaba and E. precatoria.

Recommendations for expansion of NTFP use

Research and projects for the domestication of wild trees and the commercialization of their products should be based upon the products already sold in the market and build from them. For Amazonas State, the two species with great potential would be J. bataua and E. precatoria. The fruit of J. bataua provides a high-quality protein and oil (Balick & Gershoff 1981). Indigenous peoples have largely stopped processing the oil because it requires a lot of labour and subsidized vegetable oil is available. Although the oil can be used for cooking, it is believed to cure respiratory problems such as coughs and congestion. As a result, it is of high value, commanding VEB 1000 in 1995 (USD 3.70) for one litre. The production of palm oils such as that of J. bataua could contribute to the economic growth of Amazonas state and to Venezuela as a whole, because Venezuela imports close to 90% of the total vegetable oils consumed (anonymous 1993).

Like J. bataua, E. precatoria can provide several products. In addition to the fruit, palm hearts are a possibility. The extraction and sale of this product have not yet been explored for Amazonas State and its peoples. The extraction would have to be sustainably managed, for example, through the incorporation of the palm into an agroforestry system. Furthermore, in Venezuelan cities such as Caracas and Valencia the leaves of E. precatoria are becoming a popular material for thatching the roofs of restaurants, etc., using the knowledge, labour and materials of the indigenous peoples of Amazonas state. Those involved have profited financially from this enterprise.

Puerto Ayacucho is the main market for wild NTFPs such as fruits. It could be expanded by developing other products, such as oils, palm hearts and thatch as described above. At the same time, it is important to support villagers to develop their own microenterprises for cultivating, selling and processing of wild products. Training in business management practices would help to ensure that gains in the commercialization of indigenous products and profits from them would remain with indigenous gatherers and vendors. The participation of local peoples is essential, but so is the involvement of local and national governments, to establish policies that promote the domestication of indigenous trees and the commercialization of their products. For example, the government should grant tree or land tenure and should assist in maintaining roads and providing transport, as well as invest in research. Public awareness campaigns and advertising could also promote the products.

If the market were expanded, production would consequently need to be increased, without overexploitation. Therefore, an opportunity to increase availability of these fruits would be to plant wild species in fields to enrich fallows and in homegardens. The palms readily germinate in homegardens when their seeds are discarded. Not only would this make trees more available for harvesting, but also a fallow containing a greater biomass than currently exists could decrease the length of time a particular field lies in fallow. If the rotation cycles of fields are decreased, then a possible result could be a decrease on the pressure to cut mature forests. Such a reduction in fallow periods to four years has been reported in Brazil, due to the inclusion of the Babassu palm, Orbignya phalerata Mart. (Hecht et al. 1988) and might work with other species in Venezuela. Managed swidden fallows in Peru have been found to have more understorey growth than unmanaged fallows (Unruh 1988). This could possibly result in improved recovery of nutrients. Birds and bats were attracted to the fruit trees of the managed fallows and they deposited seeds while feeding, which could further enrich the fallow area (Unruh 1988). The planting of these species would also reduce harvesting pressure on the trees in the forest.

If one is to consider a steady income from the sale of products throughout the year, then seasonality of products must be assessed. The survey showed that wild palm fruits appeared mainly during the wet season. There is thus a production gap during the dry season. However, it is the dry season when cultivated products such as the peach palm (Bactris gasipaes H.B.K) are available. By utilizing these seasonalities, a production system could be designed involving both wild and cultivated palms to maintain product availability and hence income throughout the year. Again an agroforestry system could be designed that incorporates the traditional, wild palms with the cultivated palm, to facilitate production and harvesting. Such a system would have added utility by reforesting previously cleared areas.

Overall, the promotion and planting of the above species should have a positive effect on the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples living near Puerto Ayacucho. They practise swidden agriculture, and they have a great opportunity to enrich their fallow fields with these species. Such an enrichment would bring the trees closer to the homestead, decreasing the labour and time invested in collecting the fruit from the wild. Moreover, as game and fish are becoming more scarce in the area, the good-quality protein provided by J. bataua could partially substitute for the decline in animal protein consumption, thereby contributing to household food security. As indigenous peoples become more involved in a cash economy, a system combining the traditional, wild fruits with cultivated fruits could allow them to maintain a steady income throughout the year.


The indigenous peoples in Amazonas State are able to sell wild fruits because of their right to harvest, their access to transport, and the demand for the fruit from urban inhabitants; however, the availability of wild fruit trees has been declining. This resource of wild fruits exists within the traditional territories of indigenous peoples, and this study documents how they and urban merchants already profit from the sale of fruit. It is the local market that directly benefits these people. The same benefit may not be true in international markets, where there are many intermediate transactions. Local markets, local preferences and product diversity should be considered in the design of the commercialization and even domestication of indigenous trees. As livelihood systems are diverse, utilizing wild and agricultural products, so too should be production systems. Incorporating several species into production systems will guard against risks associated with market or environmental fluctuations. The advantages, therefore, of these products are that their sale can improve livelihoods, as they provide both food and income; their management can aid reforestation and forest conservation; and the cultural traditions of indigenous peoples would not be as greatly altered as they might be if they were to become engaged in wage labour, or if their land were converted to other uses.


This research was performed in fulfilment of requirements for the doctoral degree at Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine of the University of London. It in no way reflects the opinions or policies of the United States Agency for International Development. This research was funded by the United States Man and the Biosphere Program, the Charles A. Lindbergh Fund (Guggenheim Grant), British Petroleum, the British Council and the Central Research Fund of the University of London. Further visa, permit and logistical support was provided by the Office of Professional Development and International Relations (ODEPRI) and the Autonomous Service for the Environmental Development of Amazonas State (SADA-Amazonas), both agencies of the Venezuelan Ministry of the Environment. Additional funding was provided by a U.K. Overseas Research Students' Award. Special thanks are also due to Roger Leakey for valuable comments on the manuscript.


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