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Sugar Palms in Indonesia

Sugar palms have long been used in Indonesian communities to provide sugar and fuel in the form of ethanol to local communities. Today their culture is driving reforestation, and providing export quantites of ethanol form large local community cooperatives.

Once a large area of rainforest has been destroyed in SE Asia, normally a highly invasive grass, Imperata cylindrica takes over the land. Germination inhibitors released from the roots of the grass prevent most other plants from growing and a sterile grassland results. Animals cannot eat the grass due to its high levels of silicates that rapidly ware down the teeth of grazers. The Masarang organization, building on previous research has perfected a way of re-establishing a mixed forest on denuded lands. By adding sugar palms into the mix, soil stabilization is enhanced, and an invaluable sustainable energy source (sugar & ethanol) is created.

Masarang has perfected all the practical difficulties in the entire process of re-establishing forest on denuded lands. In order to grow, sugar palms require mixed forest of at least 15 types of tree, many of which live in harmony with specific soil fungi that wrap around the roots and make nutrients available to the tree that it cannot extract itself. The process of collecting seed of the rainforest trees, preparation of the seed for germination, planting of the seed, and care of the young trees has been worked out in a way that simple village nurseries can, and very successfully do carry out.

Once the forest has become established, young sugar palms are planted. Highly effective in capturing sunlight the palms grow well and their roots, unusually for a rainforest tree, grow deep into the soil. This is a plus of the sugar palm as it stabilizes the ground, and in steep areas, helps to prevent landslides. After a number of years a huge flower spike is produced, the flowers pollinated, seeds produced and the palm dies.

The trick with the sugar palm is that if the end of the flower-spike is cut off, the palm does not die. In fact, if you cut of the end, you can collect 60 liters of sugar rich sap every day from the palm. There is a special technique of cutting the end of the flower spike that ensures that the flows every day. Local communities have been using the technique for hundreds of years. The Masarang organization worked with the local communities to perfect the process and now teaches it across Indonesia.

Local communities join together in cooperatives and collect the sugar palm sap harvest. The sap is then transported to village processing plants that reduce the sap to palm molasses. This must be done within 8 hours of harvesting, otherwise the sap turns to vinegar. The molasses can either be processed locally or collected for processing in a central location. If processed locally, a number of products come out of the process: alcohol as fuel for cooking stoves; palm sugar (rich in minerals and particularly good for diabetics); pure drinking water; and the little waste is great fertilizer for rice paddies. Village scale processing plants have been developed that achieve all this.

The palm sap harvest is so large, that ethanol is produced in quantities suitable for export for use as biofuel in cars. Many thousands of people across Sulawesi and Kalimantan, are now involved in cooperatives producing Sugar Palm products. There is nothing theoretical about this, the communities can be visited and all the processes seen in real life. The Indonesian government is now supporting the introduction of the sugar palm forests.

Willie Smitt is the driving force behind Masarang. He was fired to start the Sugar Palm Project through his drive to protect rainforest in an effort to save Orang-Utangs. Anyone wanting to support the projects in Indonesia should visit the Masarang web site.

Arenga Palm sugar can be bought here.

The Masarang Foundation led by Willie Smits fights deforestation, the extinction of the wildlife and child poverty - global issues that will ultimately affect us all. Masarang implements solutions that are actively supported by the local population and have proven to be effective at low cost. In 2007, the BBC appointed Masarang as one of the 12 best charities worldwide.

Visit the Masarang website and help the charity in any way you can.

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