© Acaté Amazon Conservation
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A Peruvian delicacy, palm beetle larvae and palm fruits known as aguaje
© Acaté Amazon Conservation
The Plate

Deforestation Threatens Peru’s Food System, Environment

Biting the head off a four-inch grub comes with a unique set of challenges.

These wrinkly white insects—offspring of the Rhynchophorus palmarum beetle—have viscous guts the consistency of melted butter and stringy skin that sticks in your teeth like cooked celery. In the rainforest cities of Peru, locals call this grub suri and consider it a delicacy. 

As an after-dinner snack one evening, I purchased a couple from a street vendor, their plump bodies impaled on a skewer along with two lightly fried chunks of plantain. Severing head from body is a process best avoided on a date night. Upon first bite, I only succeeded in popping the succulent pouch and dribbling oil all over my shirt. Then a chunk of suri wedged itself between two molars so I gave up chewing and just slurped the thing down spaghetti-style. It tasted like melted butter.

Suri begins its lifecycle inside decaying palm trees, where the Rhynchophorus palmarum beetles lay their eggs. And these days, there’s a surplus of fallen trees available for expectant beetle moms. That’s because Peruvians are rapidly cutting down palms, known as aguaje, to make quick cash selling the fruit, leaves and wood. But what’s good for baby suri is bad for the local economy, contributes to climate change and reduces genetic diversity within the region. Destroying rainforest for commercial gain is unsustainable and could potentially upset entire communities, experts say.

“Aguaje is one of the most common plants in the forest, so people have an idea that it can be cut down, and it’ll always be there, but we’re already seeing scarcities,” says William Park, the co-founder of Acaté Amazon Conservation, which runs rainforest conservation projects.

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Instead of climbing the 30-meter palms to harvest fruit and leaves sustainably—a difficult and oftentimes dangerous task—Peruvians fell the entire tree, says  Tarek Milleron, a forest ecologist who runs education programs in the region.

The palm leaves and wood go toward raising suri and making huts, roofs, bows and arrows and hammocks. In the rainforest city of Iquitos, thousands of families are supported through aguaje sales, according to the IIAP, which means cutting them down is a big problem for everyone—including wildlife.

No one knows how many trees are chopped each year, but rough estimates suggest that in Iquitos, 17,000 female aguaje plants are cut to satisfy the city’s demand for aguaje fruit, according to the research center Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP). And Iquitians consume a lot of the fruit—between 20 to 50 tons of aguaje fruit daily, according to the center. Locals use it in ice cream, jam, juice, desserts and as a snack. And because of the fruit’s nutritional properties, as National Geographic has reported, its just beginning to catch on as a potential new super fruit outside the region.

Birds, monkeys, and tapirs also rely on easy access to the fruit for survival, Milleron says. And many indigenous communities hunt those animals attracted by the fruit. If there aren’t any trees left, the animals will go elsewhere, which could spell disaster for local communities.

“It’s an issue of depleting the supply close to where people live, and the community ends up losing a source of livelihood,” Milleron adds. “Food insecurity is a real issue in the Amazon. Palms can be really important to bridge a time of scarcity.”

Even reforestation efforts can’t keep pace with the rate of cutting, Park says. It can take up to 17 years for a tree to regrow and become productive again. And since locals are killing the most desirable trees—those with delicious fruits and palm hearts—only undesirable trees are left to pass on their genes, which sets the species back genetically.

Losing the trees is also a big deal for foreign countries. Aguaje palm trees store more than 600 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare (almost 4,000 acres). That’s is three to five times more than any other tropical ecosystem, according to IIAP.

Milleron visits communities within the rainforest to teach people to climb the trees instead of cutting them down. There’s also been talk of fixing the problem with science by engineering dwarf palm trees that only grow a couple meters so they don’t need to be cut or climbed.

While there isn’t much of a market for the suri grubs outside the jungles of Peru, foreigners can help save the palm trees they nest in by making sure the palm hearts they buy in cans in the supermarket are sold by sustainable companies. Look at the label to see where the product was produced.

“Palm hearts [are exported] to foreign consumers who don’t realize it’s [contributing to] deforestation,” says Angus Morrison, the founder of Frutama, a fruit-selling business based in Iquitos.

Unfortunately, with such a demand for all aguaje products, it’s difficult to see one solution that will prevent widespread deforestation. “It’s a race against time. If the price [of aguaje] goes up then, sadly, the demand and the destruction will increase massively,” Morrison adds. “That seems to be what’s happening.”