Saving tropical forests with sugar palm

Willie Smits is on a messianic mission to spread the green word about the virtues of the arenga sugar palm.

According to Jason Tedjasukmana

As for the future of the fewer than 300 million acres of tropical forests remaining in Indonesia, Smits is pessimistic. “We are witnessing the extinction of a vast part of the biodiversity in Southeast Asia,” he adds.

A key to stopping this destruction, Smits says, is the arenga sugar palm, and he is on a messianic mission to spread the word about its virtues. “Palm sugar produces three times more sugar than sugarcane,” he says, noting its advantage over the sugarcane Brazil is using in its successful ethanol program. “It also has a lower glycemic index than regular sugar.” Yet the greatest promise of the sugar palm lies in what Smits says is its vast superiority over the oil palm, which depletes the soil and then fails to thrive. In benign contrast, the sugar palm grows only in mixed, secondary forests, allowing other species of plants and vegetables to exist and flourish. And after the first two or three years, it requires no pesticides or fertilizer—unlike the oil palm. The sugar palm can grow on the side of a mountain, be harvested daily, and, Smits adds, provide 20 times more jobs than oil palm or sugarcane for tappers and farmers. “By 2030, we could replace all of the world’s oil with ethanol from sugar palm,” he claims, adding that it is the only form of renewable energy that can be produced on a large scale and is ready to go today.

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