The supply of edible oils is seriously inadequate to meet human nutrition requirements, especially in underdeveloped tropical regions. However, several tropical forest species have been used by tribal peoples as sources of edible oils for thousands of years. These oils contain vitamins and minerals and are necessary for cooking in areas where butter or lard are either unavailable or in short supply. There has been little attempt to domesticate some of these species, although ambitious efforts are under way in Brazil, Colombia, and Malaysia (M.Balick, New York Botanical Garden, personal communication, 1986). Domestication would increase yield, lower production costs, and reduce or eliminate characteristics that might inhibit harvesting on a commercial scale while providing a steady supply of edible and/or industrial oils. Some of these plants, e.g., bacabá (Oenocarpus bacaba) and patauá (Jessenia bataua), can grow in both the forest and on semiforested plantations and thus seem to be potential crop species of great importance in the tropics. Some of the more promising tropical oil plants include the following:

  • The patauá palm (Jessenia bataua; family Palmae). The patauá palm grows to a height of 20 meters and is found in the lowlands of tropical South America. The oil of the fruit is almost identical to olive oil in its chemical and physical properties, and the biological value of its protein is almost 40% higher than that of soybean protein (Balick, 1985; Balick and Gershoff, 1981).

  • The babassú palm (Orbignya spp.; family Palmae). The South American babassú palm may reach 60 meters in height. A single tree may produce up to a half ton of a fruit that resembles the coconut, although babassú has a higher oil content. This oil can be refined into an edible oil or used to make plastics, detergents, soap, margarine, and shortening. The seedcake is 27% protein and is an excellent fertilizer and animal feed. Its ability to colonize and thrive in deforested areas makes it an ideal species for turning degraded areas into productive lands (Balick, 1985; Schultes, 1979).

  • The vine (Fevillea; family Cucurbitaceae). Seeds of the fruits of these vines have a higher oil content than that of any other dicotyledenous plant. Gentry and Wettach (1986) theorized that if naturally occurring lianas in a rain forest were cut and replaced by Fevillea, a per-acre oil yield comparable to those obtained in the most productive plantations might be obtained without felling a single tree.


Fiber plants are second only to food plants in terms of their usefulness to humans and their influence on the advancement of civilization. Tropical people use plant fibers for housing, clothing, hammocks, nets, baskets, fishing lines, and bowstrings. Even in our industrialized society, we use a wide variety of natural plant fibers: for ropes, brooms, brushes, and baskets. In fact the so-called synthetic fibers now providing much of our clothing are only reconstituted cellulose of plant origin. [Cellulose is produced in far greater quantities by the world’s plants than any other organic compound—up to 3 billion tons a day, according to R.E.Schultes of the Harvard Botanical Museum (personal communication, 1986)]. Several trees in

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