Ecology of Native Oil-Producing Palms: Implications for Biodiesel Production in Amazonia

EPA Grant Number: F5F11599
Title: Ecology of Native Oil-Producing Palms: Implications for Biodiesel Production in Amazonia
Investigators: Tucker, Joanna M.
Institution: University of Florida
EPA Project Officer: Packard, Benjamin H
Project Period: August 24, 2005 through August 23, 2008
Project Amount: $101,288
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2005) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships


With the launching of the ProBiodiesel Program by the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology in 2002, Brazil demonstrated renewed dedication to alternative renewable energy. Biodiesel is derived from vegetable oils, animal fats, or algae, and serves as a clean-burning and ecologically sustainable alternative to petroleum-based diesel with few if any modifications to the traditional diesel motor. It also represents a locally available resource for the generation of electricity in isolated rural areas.

In the Amazon, several native palm species occur abundantly in both forested and deforested lands and annually produce large numbers of oil-rich fruits that can be sustainably exploited for biodiesel. Certain oil-producing palm species, such as Attalea phalerata or Astrocaryum aculeatum, commonly occupy Amazonian pastures, sometimes achieving high densities, while multiple palm species form an abundant oil-producing palm community in the forest. For people living inside conservation areas and farmers who maintain forest on their land, non-timber forest products (NTFPs), such as native palm oil for biodiesel, represent income-generating alternatives that concomitantly promote forest conservation and diversified production systems.

Limited knowledge about the ecology of native oil-producing palm species in Acre currently hinders the elaboration of biodiesel production systems based on naturally occurring populations. With this study I aim to understand the ecology of native oil-producing Amazonian palms in both forests and pastures and apply this information toward sustainable biodiesel production under two alternative scenarios: forest extraction and silvopastoral production systems.

The overall objectives of this research are:

  1. to assess the current status and future potential of native palms in Acre, Brazil, as a source of vegetable oil for biodiesel production,
  2. and to provide land managers with essential ecological knowledge for oil production from native palms.

To realize these goals, this project will compare oil production from native palms in forest and in pasture – two environments, where palms most often occur naturally at relatively high densities, and investigate factors controlling palm growth rates and fruit production in forests and in pastures in order to pinpoint bottlenecks in the palm life cycle that constrain productivity. In collaboration with an on-going biodiesel research program at the Federal University of Acre, Brazil (UFAC), there will be an investigation of the ecology of seven native oil-producing palm species: Attalea phalerata, Attalea butyracea, Attalea maripa, Astrocaryum aculeatum, Astrocaryum ulei, Oenocarpus mapora, and Oenocarpus bataua. Palm oil production depends on two main factors: fruit yield per individual palm (fecundity) and the number of reproductive palms per area (population density). There should be high variation in fecundity and associated seedling recruitment and spatial distribution in response to light availability in forests. Conversely, in pastures there should be relatively less variation in palm fecundity due to consistent light conditions, but high variation in palm densities according to species and pasture management choice.


The proposed research is organized around three major themes: a) a comparison of fruit production from native oil-producing palm species between forests and pastures, b) the effect of light availability on fruit production, specifically sex ratios of female to male flowers and/or inflorescences, and c) an evaluation of the effects of pasture management practices on palm fecundity and future tree crop (i.e. population growth).

This project will examine how fecundity and population density fluctuate across different environmental and land-use conditions to identify biotic and abiotic factors that constrain fruit production, drive population growth, and determine spatial distribution and abundance of palms. To capture palm population demography and dynamics, over two years there will be measurements of palm recruitment and mortality, individual growth and reproduction, phenology, and species composition within 10 x 300 m belt transects (n=3) established forest and pasture sites. To assess the impact of pasture management on palm populations, pasture sites will be selected along a gradient of land-use intensity. Each pasture site (n=15) will be paired with a neighboring forest site (n=15) for comparison. Five forested areas will also be selected where local farmers plan to convert forest to pasture. Palm population dynamics will be monitored both before and after deforestation (n=5). Light level, soil nutrients, rainfall, soil moisture, and bulk density will be measured at all forest and pasture sites. There will also be records of canopy position (low, middle, high) and sun exposure (direct, indirect, obscured) for individual adult palms in the forest during censuses.

Expected Results:

This research will expand understanding of how landscape heterogeneity affects plant population processes such as regeneration, growth and reproduction. Improved knowledge about native palm ecology will help inform decisions about when, where, and how local producers can best benefit from the emerging demand for biodiesel. The local abundance of native oil-producing palms in both forest and pasture in the Amazon makes palms a suitable resource for the generation of electricity in remote rural communities, and the incorporation of biodiesel into the Brazilian fuel market signifies a shift away from fossil fuels, resulting in reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

One expected result is a possibility to predict palm population responses to different environmental conditions and land-use practices, and hence, provide knowledge to decision-makers that will promote appropriate sustainable biodiesel management scenarios. Estimates of potential oil production from native palms in accessible areas of Acre, Brazil will also be provided. Because it can be derived from native palm fruits, biodiesel has the potential to add value to standing forest and promote conservation, as well as encourage multi-use silvopastoral production systems in Amazonia and increase incomes of local small-scale farmers.

Supplemental Keywords:

Fellowship, Amazon, biodiesel, palms, Arecaceae, Attalea, Astrocaryum, Oenocarpus, reproductive biology, population dynamics, Brazil, NTFPs, palm oil, pasture management, silvopastoral, forest conservation,, RFA, Scientific Discipline, INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION, Geographic Area, TREATMENT/CONTROL, Sustainable Industry/Business, POLLUTION PREVENTION, cleaner production/pollution prevention, Environmental Chemistry, Sustainable Environment, Energy, Technology, Technology for Sustainable Environment, Chemicals Management, International, Environmental Engineering, energy conservation, waste to fuel conversion, Brazil, alternative to petroleum diesel fuel, renewable fuel production, non-timber forest products, emission controls, energy efficiency, biodiesel fuel, biotechnology, ethanol, alternative fuel, alternative energy source, biofuel, environmentally benign alternative, green chemistry, bio-based energy, Amazonia, renewable energy

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2006
  • 2007
  • Final