National Geographic News
A sugar palm energy researcher.
Scientist Willie Smits believes that the Arenga sugar palm may be the key to protecting tropical forest in Indonesia while providing opportunity for villagers through a unique process of biofuel production.

Photograph courtesy Eric Rasmussen

Marianne Lavelle

For National Geographic News

Published June 22, 2011

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

One of Indonesia's most ardent rain forest protection activists is in what may seem an unlikely position: Spearheading a project to produce biofuel from trees.

But tropical forest scientist Willie Smits, ­­after 30 years studying fragile ecosystems in these Southeast Asian islands, wants to draw world attention to a powerhouse of a tree—the Arenga sugar palm. Smits says it can be tapped for energy and safeguard the environment while enhancing local food security.

Smits says that the deep-rooted feather palm Arenga pinnata could serve as the core of a waste-free system that produces a premium organic sugar as well as the fuel alcohol, ethanol, providing food products and jobs to villagers while it helps preserve the existing native rain forest. And scientists who have studied the unique harvesting and production process developed by Smits and his company, Tapergie, agree the system would protect the atmosphere rather than add to the Earth's growing carbon dioxide burden.

"The palm juice chiefly consists of water and sugar—made from rain, sunshine, carbon dioxide and nothing else," says Smits. "You are basically only harvesting sunshine."

The project, being funded in part by a 73,160 euro grant (U.S. $105,000) from National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge initiative, has potential to disrupt a cycle of poverty and environmental devastation that has gripped one of the most vulnerable and remote areas of the planet, while providing a new source of sustainable fuel.

The Fuel Threat to Forests

Tapergie's sugar palm production facility that opened last year in Tomohon (map), in the North Sulawesi province of Indonesia, and the microscale facilities called Village Hubs that Smits aims to launch on nearby islands, are a far cry from the oil palm biofuel operations that have devastated the rain forest.

Demand for oil made from the pulp and seeds of oil palm trees in Southeast Asia soared when European countries sought to displace petroleum fuels with biofuel in the past decade. It was a move that governments hoped would reduce carbon emissions, but the impact was the reverse. Tracts of rain forest were cleared, and peat land was drained and burned on a massive scale to make way for oil palm monoculture. Because of the carbon emissions caused by rainforest destruction, Indonesia leapt to the top tier of world greenhouse gas emitters, just behind giant energy consumers China and the United States.

Smits, who had been knighted in his native Netherlands, was among the forest advocates who sounded the warning around the world about the impact of large-scale biofuel production from oil palm in his adopted home of Indonesia.

Smits already had gained recognition as one of the world's most prominent protectors of Asia's great apes and their habitat, as founder of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. He laid out the biofuel problem, and the rain forest restoration efforts he had spearheaded, in talks around the world, including in the popular online series sponsored by the nonprofit TED.

But Smits felt he could take those restoration efforts much further, and the secret was a tree with a value that was first impressed upon him 31 years ago, when he was courting a native Indonesian woman of a mountain tribe of Sulawesi who would become his wife. (She was later elected a female tribal leader for her good deeds.)

By custom, before the marriage, he was required to pay his dowry in the form of six sugar palms. It seemed a meager offering, until Smits realized each tree's potential yield.

The fruit can be harvested and sold as a delicacy. A starch, sago, can be extracted from the stems. The wood is stronger than oak. Most important of all, the tree has a distinctive sap, which can be tapped the way a sugar maple is tapped for maple syrup, but year-round and in vast quantities. The high-carbohydrate juice can be used to make a palm sugar that is a healthier substitute for white cane sugar. Smits estimated that there are at least 60 different products that can come from the Arenga sugar palm, making it a wholly appropriate marriage gift.

"This was enough to support a young family," he said. "That got me interested in studying the sugar palm in more detail."

"The Most Amazing Tree"

He found that the Arenga sugar palm had numerous qualities that made it a virtual sentry of the forest. Its deep roots mean it can be grown on steep, almost vertical, slopes—offering protection against erosion. It needs little water and is drought- and fire-resistant, important on volcanic islands. It is resistant to pests and needs no fertilizer; its presence in a forest actually enhances the soil.

Because of these qualities, Smits found that the Arenga sugar palm could be a key species in his efforts to restore Indonesian rain forests that had been brutally logged and burned for decades.

"It's the anti-particle of oil palm . . . the most amazing tree I've ever run into," says energy expert Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado, and member of National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge advisory board. Lovins recommended Smits' project as the first grantee in the society's three-year energy initiative when he learned of his idea for furthering his rainforest restoration and protection efforts by tapping the sugar palm for fuel.

Smits knew the sugary juice tapped from sugar palms typically was fermented to produce a traditional alcoholic beverage. That meant it also could be used to produce the alcohol fuel, ethanol.

And Smits said that he discovered that because of the tree's special leaf structure, its year-round production and extremely efficient photosynthesis, the yield of ethanol from the sugar palm was far greater than the biofuel output from other feedstocks in use around the world. Smits says that his process can produce 19 tons (6,300 gallons/24,000 liters) of ethanol per hectare annually. That's a staggering output-to-land area ratio compared to corn, the favored ethanol crop of the United States, at 3.3 tons (1,100 gallons/4,200 liters) per hectare, by most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture yield figures. It also far outshines Brazil's sugarcane; output was assumed to be 4.5 tons (1,500 gallons/5,700 liters) per hectare in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recent lifecycle analysis of renewable fuels. [A hectare is 2.5 acres.]

But there's a catch. Producers can't sow row upon row of sugar palms the way they blanket the countryside with cornfields in Iowa, sugarcane in São Paulo or oil palm plantations in Sumatra. For one thing, the sugar palm flourishes best in a diverse forest environment, not in a monoculture.

And, importantly, each sugar palm requires constant attention. For optimum production, it must be tapped twice a day by tappers trained to slice a thin layer from the end of the stalk on which male flowers are growing. If done properly, the tapping extends the life of the tree—by "stealing" some of the tree's energy that was intended as storage for its seeds. (The ripening of fruit is thus delayed.) But the juice in which the energy is stored must be preserved quickly on site or nearby, or else it spoils due to uncontrolled fermentation. Smits says that the tapping process cannot be mechanized.

"It is five-to-20 times more labor intensive than harvesting oil from the oil palm," says Lovins. "You don't hear about it from those in who are locked into the industrial monoculture mentality. They think the economics are bad. But Willie thinks the economics are terrific."

That's because the sugar palm Village Hubs, as Smits envisions them, would provide something as important to this region as fuel—economic opportunity.

A Stake in Forest Protection

Tapergie's facility that opened three years ago in Tomohon—the world's first Arenga palm sugar factory—now has 6,285 palm tappers as members of the cooperative, making the twice-daily journey into the village forests to collect juice to be brought back to the factory. Thanks to sales of the special palm sugar they produce, they earn an income that is twice the region's prevailing minimum.

Sustainable energy is also a part of the design of the factory. It operates on geothermal heat (waste energy captured from the state energy company). In this way, clean energy replaces devastating practices that prevailed for making traditional palm sugar, in which hundreds of thousands of trees were cut to fuel the fire that boiled the sap. In addition, the biofuel produced on-site from the sugar palm is used to replace gasoline in motorcycles, small vehicles, small machines and generators, and is also used as cooking fuel in special burners. Once scaled up, biofuel could be transported for further refining for use in conventional vehicle engines elsewhere, Smits says.)

The Village Hub idea that Smits now aims to test would bring small, turnkey versions of the Tomohon factory—and its employment and energy benefits—to remote areas on the 3,000 or so islands east of Sulawesi. These are areas where people typically live without electricity, fuel, communication, education, health services, or potable water.

Smits says his portable mini-factories, running on local biomass and solar heating, could help villages meet all of these needs, because they would include equipment for telecommunications as well as for making fuel. He sees the sites becoming economic centers that provide more than jobs—they would produce drinking water, electricity, cooking fuel, compost and cattle feed, while enabling telephone and satellite-based broadband Internet access.

Because the wellspring of all these benefits would be the Arenga sugar palm, the villagers would have a shared investment in protecting and cultivating the trees and the needed diverse surrounding forest, as Smits sees it. So the system, in which communities would own 49 percent of the operations, would be designed to establish a virtuous cycle of protection.

"It's what we call 'sustainability,' " says Smits.

There have been past efforts in Singapore and Borneo to cultivate sugar palms for their fibers or sugar. But Smits believes Tapergie's effort can be successful where others have failed, because of its determination to maintain a mixed village forest, and to do it with community ownership.

The sugar palm has vast potential, he says, but it can only be unlocked in a holistic system, with production working hand-in-hand with protection. Lovins says the two are tightly interwoven in the system Smits has designed; "It gives people a stake and the clout needed to protect the land and forest themselves," he says.

Smits will be reporting to National Geographic on the success of his first Village Hub deployment over the course of the next year.

Mary Saunders
Mary Saunders

In the original TED talk, Willie Smits spoke of saving an orang orphan baby from a trash pile. This lovely baby was the impetus and starting point for the rest of the story. A fire wiped out much of his original work. Fire was also a reason to choose sugar palm for its fire resistance. This is the second fire-story I know of regarding attempts to re-establish forest gardens in tropical sites that have been destroyed by soil- and bio-mass-mining. This Indonesian story aligns with Vandana Shiva's work showing that far more in benefits must be added to equations of value so that the full worth of diverse systems are figured in, rather than just counting up the tons of a commodity for export. Local people need to tend to subsistence and health as values first. If there are surpluses, then trade can come next. This is so obvious that I am simply amazed at the personal attacks she deals with for saying such things. What brain chip bits are missing in people who fail to understand the need for back-up in functions and beauty-in-diversity rather than the boring mono-cultures some seem to crave?

Ananth Kumar
Ananth Kumar

Hopefully Sugar Palm could be the solution to many problems. Most of the time communities destroy forests for the sake of livelihood, however if they see that protecting a rain forest secures their financial future, then it turns the tables on destruction.

Time will tell. 

We need researchers like Smits to continue their work and save our planet. ramu ramu

It is a very important discovery for the world at large and many nations would be eager to share this knowledge to use their sugar palm to be converted to energy and at the same time for food security also. Even though countries like India have research Institutions inn sugar research, no worth research of this magnitude is done even though these institutions are in existence for longtime. It is time that the  work done in Indonesia is replicated and taken forward for providing relief to the mankind on both the important issues of food security and energy which are very crucial.

Hailk Noje
Hailk Noje

just as Margaret answered I am surprised that some people able to make $7101 in four weeks on the computer. visit W­W­W.M­A­X­4­5.C­o­M

Michael Holmes
Michael Holmes

If this Palm is as fruitful as it seems to be, then its development should be encouraged, there doesn't seem tp be much future for monoculture systems in general, just look at what has happened to the Matto Grosso in Brazil.

Harry Snape
Harry Snape

As usual with articles like this, it's bunkum.

World wide average yield of sugar per hectare is 60+ tonnes per hectare, properly managed cane farming can reach 180 tonnes per hectare. That's a hell of a lot more than the 24 tonnes per hectare. Brazil for example raised its average sugar production per hectare to 93 tonnes per hectare.

Sam Ragil
Sam Ragil

Crazy, . . . I mean marvellous idea.

Carl Braund
Carl Braund

Almost as beneficial (for fuel use) as Cannabis - which simply has a near endless list of benefits across the board & is awaiting to be freed finally from the grips of the few & unleashed back to the global populations as Nature's FREE gift of yore.

Gil Lambert
Gil Lambert

Be knocked over by stupid conservatives, unfortuntely and undoubtedly

Palle Havmoller
Palle Havmoller

Good news for the battered environment.I still remember Willie from 1980s when working in Sumatra and also later got impressed by the sugar palm during my stay here in Thailand where it is popular with rural communities because of the many uses.Nipa palm appears to have similar potential in the mangrove forest in S.Thailand and could help in preventing this very useful ecosystem being replaced with shrimp farming.

Elaine Borges-Ibanez
Elaine Borges-Ibanez

Wow! Am amazed at the energy and enthusiasm generated within this story about the Arenga palm. I wonder how far it has spread now, since I see the original publication date was June 2011.  Fascinating grass roots idea with potential to expand and have a very positive impact on the local economy.  Look forward to Smits latest report then...

john Duczek
john Duczek

Sounds good from what is in the article. Especially if it needs to grow in a diverse Forest environment. If it can bring Villagers out of Poverty that is a great thing too. Would like to see the World make a Quantum leap to A Solar Hydrogen Economy in the long term, but hey this seems a good step to wean us off fossil fuels and keep a good Environment too.

Alfred Inkiriwang
Alfred Inkiriwang

Sugar palm tree has been for years already promoted in Sulawesi Utara, Seminars on the characteristics of this tree were held aroound ten years ago. 

M. Enright
M. Enright

"but there's a catch"... of course there is, a monoculture is not a healthy ecosystem. This article only mentions the benefits to humans, where does the wildlife fit in?

Peace Seeker
Peace Seeker

Inspired by his relationship with a Kwaxkwaka'wakw elder, the filmmaker embarks upon a cinematic journey contrasting the tree-farms that dominate the landscape surrounding his home with an ancient rainforest on the Pacific Coast of Canada. Guided by passion and a determination to honor reality, Boyce travels to the most remote corner of Vancouver Island, through some of the most intensive logging on the planet, into a wilderness that is on the brink of extinction. Massive trees, ranging in age between 1,200 years old and seedlings, thrive along the banks of an ancient river floodplain, which provides for diverse life forms in the temperate rainforest. This film is an evocative journey, contrasting forestry as practiced for ten thousand years by First Nation's people with modern logging.

Chandramouli Chandrasekaran
Chandramouli Chandrasekaran

@Harry Snape my friend.. your figures are sugar per hectare but the figures being talked here are ethanol per hectare i.e ethanol obtained after processing whatever sugar is being produced in a hectare of land..Hope this clears your confusion. This is actually a brilliant idea which must be considered seriously. Although doing too much of it might have other environmental, economic and social complications (because we humans tend to overdo things) but still,  it must be pursued further considering the state of things.

Carla Clark
Carla Clark

@Harry SnapeAs usual, those who claim articles like this are 'bunkum' can't provide the sources behind their claim.  Also, you missed the entire point of this article.  Sad, but so typical.

Carolyn King
Carolyn King

You didn't read the rest of that paragraph, ending with "... the sugar palm flourishes best in a diverse forest environment, not in a monoculture."

If it could be grown as a monoculture, it would probably be in cultivation by now.  The article doesn't mention the wildlife, but in "a diverse forest", I would think that quite a few birds and animals would prosper.

Harry Snape
Harry Snape

@Carla Clark @Harry Snape  Any chance you could have have done a simple search for yourself? Say "sugar yield per hectare Brazil" or the same for Australia?

For example "" contains the statement: "The average yield of cane stalk is 60–70 tonnes per hectare per year. However, this figure can vary between 30 and 180 tonnes per hectare depending on knowledge and crop management approach used in sugarcane cultivation."

frank goudreau
frank goudreau

@Harry Snape@Carla Clark

Harry. you're more than a little confused. Your numbers aren't wrong but you can't stuff sugarcane or corn into your gas tank. If you look up the yields of ethanol per tonne of sugarcane and for corn per bushel you get the same numbers that are in the article. They used roughly 160 bushels per acre for corn and 280 tonnes per hectare for Brazilian sugarcane, These seem to be broadly accepted averages.

You just sound foolish. Think before you post man.


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