The threat of the disappearance of sugar palms in West Manggarai regency in Flores, as a result of unending exploitation without rejuvenation, prompted Abraham Manggas, 47, to cultivate sugar palm seedlings and replant the crop.
So far this year, he has replanted 3,500 sugar palm trees, locally known as raping, which are economically significant to the West Manggarai community.
Abraham has planted raping in a five-hectare area in the regency’s Nantal and Golo Ruu subdistricts in Kuwus district.
Born in Wetik, Kuwus, on March 4, 1965, the man has been important to the conservation of sugar palm habitats in the region.
Since 2005, farmers in West Manggarai, particularly in Kolang in Kuwus and in Masang Pacar district, have grown limited amounts of sugar palms on their own plots of land in attempts to support the crop.
The decline in the population of civets and bats caused by human hunting in West Manggarai has hampered the natural distribution of sugar palm seeds, as the animals eat the fruit of the trees, scattering the seeds over other areas in the process.
Sugar palms (Arenga pinnata) grow wild in forest and farm areas and are categorized as non-wood forest trees. In Kuwus and Masang Pacar, they serve as industrial trees because most people in the districts process sugar from palm juice (derived from flower clusters) as a source of livelihood.
The trees grow on hills and slopes at an altitude of 300 meters. The areas covered by sugar palms are rarely affected by landslides because the trees have many strong roots that are five to 12 meters long, binding soil to the same depths.
Despite the economic significance of sugar palms to the local community, there has been no major effort to maintain their existence, which is threatened by palm sugar producers’ very high dependence on the trees — with their productive period lasting from nine to 17 years.
Population increases and income growth, coupled with expanding areas of agriculture and plantations, has led to the destruction of sugar palms. “Though there were signs of the total elimination of sugar palms, local people were unaware of the importance of replanting,” said Abraham in his home in Ruteng recently.
Realizing the economic, cultural and ecological significance of sugar palms to West Manggarai, “I got motivated to set up a cooperative, Wae Belang, in 2006, engaged in the development of sugar palm seedlings,” the man said.
The seedlings were distributed to palm sugar producers affiliated with farmer’s groups. In 2010, Wae Belang conducted replanting popularization and formed new groups in several villages including Tueng, Golo Riwu and Lambur.
Abraham said that according to a study by Dr. Oto Maryatmo, every year sugar palm roots lengthen by 50 to 100 centimeters. Sugar palm trees can store hundreds of liters of water when it rains for about two hours.
Apart from serving greening purposes, sugar palm replanting is also useful for soil fertility, land conservation and landslide prevention.
In economic terms, besides palm juice for sugar, the stems and leaves of sugar palm trees are used to produce thatch roofs, brooms, toothpicks and containers for offerings. Sugar palm fruit is also consumed as snacks, especially during the fasting month of Ramadhan.
According to Abraham, sugar palm juice is processed into brown sugar, stick sugar and refined sugar. Brown sugar is sold to other provinces and used for cooking, making cakes and even producing cosmetics. The juice can also be turned into liquor and can serve as an alternative fuel.
Abraham said he spent his income from the sale of brown sugar on the education of his children from primary school to college. Successful people in Kuwus and Masang Pacar districts have all derived their educational expenses from their parents’ brown sugar business gains.