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Bolivia Diaries: Day 7, Part 5 - The Motacú Palm

by: Jill Richardson

Sat Oct 30, 2010 at 12:00:00 PM PDT

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In October 2010, I spent 2 weeks in Bolivia learning about their food and agriculture. I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for out of the trip, including learning why the rainforest is being destroyed, how eco-tourism might save it, how Bolivia fits into the drug trade (and what the US does to try to stop cocaine production), and how global warming has already impacted Bolivia.

We spent our sixth and seventh days learning about the agriculture of the Bolivian Amazon, and we kept coming across what our guide, Daniel, called "the most important palm tree" of the region, the motacu palm. This diary is a collection of pictures and information about the motacú palm and its many uses.

My trip was organized by Global Exchange and Food First. You can find out about future Food Sovereignty tours at the link.

Jill Richardson :: Bolivia Diaries: Day 7, Part 5 - The Motacú Palm
Previous diaries in this series:

Pre-Trip Blogging:

The Trip:

The motacú palm, which I believe is Attalea phalerata, is found in both Bolivia and Brazil. The motacú resists burning, so it's very common to see charred landscapes with nothing but motacús left standing in the Amazon, or green pastures full of cows that are dotted with motacú trees.

A motacú palm

To start with, the motacú produces a fruit:

A motacú with fruit

Peeling the fruit

The fruit

The remains of fruits eaten by jochis, large Bolivian rodents

And the seeds are useful for making an oil. Daniel recalls growing up in Bolivia, when you could buy soaps and shampoos made from motacú oils, and I think he might have mentioned candles as well.

In addition to the fruit and oil, Bolivians use the palm fronds for thatching, and they burn the flower covers for llitja, which is needed for chewing coca (see the link for an explanation).

Motacu fronds that were split down the middle lengthwise to use for thatching

The flower and flower cover still on the tree

A motacú flower and flower cover

In addition to its many uses, the motacú also serves as a home to a number of epiphytes; that is, other species that live on the motacu but are not either living symbiotically or parasitically with it. Below are a few pictures of ephiphytes living on motacú palms.

Despite the importance of the motacú to Amazonian Bolivia, I have found precious little about it on the internet. Where I have found information, I have found suggestions that the name motacú actually refers to several other species (such as the Babassu palm) or I have found suggestions of various synonyms for the name "motacú" in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, which then turn out to be names that refer to other species. And even then, there is very little about those species on the internet too.

The one solid source I seem to have found is a book called Biodiversity: a challenge for development research and policy by Wilhelm Barthlott and Matthias Winiger, which mentions the motacu on page 273 (for sale for the low low price of $135... or more). Here is part of their description:

The motacu palm is the single most important palm species in Bolivia...

Roofing made from leaves lasts for 5-7 years; the fruits are edible - and dispersed by rodents, wild pigs, cattle, and monkeys - and also can be used for oil extraction (Moraes et al. 1996). The oil of the motacu palm is used for a variety of home remedies and in the production of cosmetics. Local communities gather mature and immature fruits for oil extraction. The kernel fat content reaches 60-70% and potential oil production from natural stands is estimated to be 1.1 to 2.4 tons/ha/year (Moraes et al. 1996).

The citation here refers to "Notes on the biology and uses of the motacú palm (Attalea phalerata, Arecaceae) from Bolivia," which was published in Economic Botany in 1996 by Monica Moraes Ramirez, Finn Borchsenius, and Ulla Blicher-Mathiesen.

Lack of information about basic, important Bolivian species has been a theme since I returned home and began sorting through my notes from the trip. Bolivians possess an incredible wealth of knowledge about their natural environment and the species that surround them, and yet nearly none of it is available online. And where it is available - under scientific names, or in English, Portuguese, or even Spanish - I can rarely find online references to the terms used in Bolivia.

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As much information as there is on the internet (4.00 / 3)
and this is a staggering ammount, there is orders of magnitude more that is not online yet. Especially in areas like this.

That's why what you're doing is so important to those of us, like myself, who are unable to travel. You're putting that information on the web. You're one of the few who are.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

Brings home your earlier point... (4.00 / 2)
...about loss of knowledge through the generations, eh?

Which of course goes back to the beginning of time, too many cultures and civilizations and etc...

so here's the jochi I've been mentioning (4.00 / 2)
so here's the jochi I've been mentioning:

I saw one. There are 2 types in Bolivia - one is nocturnal and one is diurnal. Try looking them up online. I think I found the nocturnal one listed as a "paca" - but no mention of the diurnal one! Which is frustrating, because I saw this animal (the diurnal one) with my own eyes. It exists! And it's called a jochi! So where is it?

I'm lucky that I took a picture of this guidebook, which lists them by other names. Apparently one is called an agouti and the other is a paca. But in Bolivia the agouti is a jochi colorado (red jochi) and the paca is a jochi pintado (painted jochi). And their scientific names are quite different as well. Daxyprocta punctata and Cuniculus paca. Different genuses. Frustrating!

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Ha! (4.00 / 2)
I was just googling them!


Bunch to sift through since one of Genghis Khan's sons takes up most of the hits, though...

[ Parent ]
seriously (4.00 / 2)
I got that too. Very frustrating. I re-Googled it with "jochi rodent" and then - after coming across the paca and getting COMPLETELY confused because there are supposed to be 2 types of jochi, not just one - I went back to my pics to find the one I posted above.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Using common names can be frustrating and confusing when trying to identify wild animals (4.00 / 3)
that's why biologists, taxonomists, etc. often refer to the animal's scientific name.

Harold had me so confused one time early on in our relationship. We'd be out on the river and he'd say look at the fish hawk. I couldn't figure out what he was talking about untill I realized he was talking about osprey. He insisted that an osprey was something completely different, but I assured him that he and I were talking about the same bird. He didn't believe me untill I showed him my field guide.

I'm subscribed to the feed of a blog called Camera Trap Codger. He has a great post on wood rats in which he explains how the definition of the species has changed over the years, most recently due to better analysis using molecular biology.

Scientists don't know it all. Every year many new species are named (I don't like to say discovered, because generally at least for terrestrial and arial species the locals already know about them). There are even quite a few large fauna identified on a regualr basis.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
Scientists don't know it all. (4.00 / 1)
What? Heresy! Hysteria! Something like that!

[ Parent ]
snub nose monkeys (4.00 / 1)
Exactly appropriate to discovering vs. naming is the recent "discovery" of a "new" monkey in Burma. Locals have been eating them for years.

[ Parent ]
ditto in bolivia (4.00 / 2)
newly "discovered" monkey species... the hunters knew all about 'em

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
sorting it out (4.00 / 2)
My search through the usually suspect sources leads me exactly to your photo. One picture worth a thousand words and all that.

There are two paca species, lowland paca and upland or mountain paca. Both are nocturnal, both have rows of white spots. The lowland paca is Jochi Pintado, exactly as in your photo. (The mountain paca is Cuniculus taczanaowskii, not Cuniculus paca.)

If the "diurnal jochi" you saw had dotted white stripes, it must have been a lowland paca or jochi pintado, even though these are reported to be mostly (but not exclusively) nocturnal. If it did not have the dots, it must not have been a paca. It must be from another genus, because there are only two species in the paca genus, both dotted. Namely, it must have been an agouti, whose ranges overlap paca ranges. There are several agouti species, and your photo calls out Dasyprocta punctata for Jochi Colorado. Wikipedia says D. punctata ranges through Bolivia, even though the wiki calls it Central American Agouti.

Finally, we come to agreement with Joanne. The problem stems from common names that use "jochi" for animals from two different genera, although for all I know they were formerly in the same genus. Rabbits and hares were called rodents until they were given their own order. Taxonomists change their minds.

The wiki for agouti reports disagreement about whether agoutis are nocturnal or diurnal. All this tells me is that some agoutis have been seen at night and some have been seen during daylight. Why would anybody say agouti were diurnal unless some had been during the day? Why would anyone say agouti were nocturnal unless some were seen at night?

[ Parent ]
Changing minds (4.00 / 1)
Hmm. And Pluto used to be a planet, right?

[ Parent ]
People can also be confused by the terms (4.00 / 3)
nocturnal, diurnal and crepuscular. Just because an animal is usually one of the above, doesn't mean that you wouldn't ever see it some other part of the day or night.

If an animal is nocturnal and was disturbed during the day, you might see it during the day. Also, some individuals are different in their habbits. We've all heard about people being morning people, day people, night people (I'm a night person, I was born that way and have had to adapt to a diurnal schedule). Well, as we vary, so do all of the other animals. Some fit the mold, others not so much.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
the diurnoal jochi i saw (4.00 / 2)
had no stripes

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
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