News & Views

The Sensational Sago Palm

Sago is a remarkable plant found throughout Melanesia that produces a starchy staple food from its root and trunk. It also produces a suite of construction materials essential for building and thatching local houses, and a rich protein source from beetle larvae that develop in its felled trunk at the end of its life. The sago palm is a true biocultural plant that is central to many communities in places like Bougainville and Papua New Guinea. Thus, the recent arrival of a strange disease – shown in a close-up photo to the left – has been greeted with some alarm as it threatens to undermine everything from food sovereignty to traditional architecture.

A grant to the National Agricultural Research Institute of Papua New Guinea is enabling a fruitful collaboration between Western-trained and Indigenous knowledge holders to jointly unravel the nature, causes and solutions of this quietly unfolding catastrophe. Work is underway, and so far researchers have discovered a fungal infection that destroys the palm from the inside.

Photos from the start:

  • Fronds of the sago palm in Tinputz, Bougainville
  • Mother and daughter filling bamboo with sago flour which is cooked on an open fire (photo: Blake Everson)
  • The roof of the grand Haus Tambaran of Seane Falls Village, which serves as the communal home to the 104 villagers, is constructed with sago (photo: Blake Everson)
  • A boy carries sago palm leaves, which are dried and cured by fire smoke to create a roof which can last ten years
  • The trunk of a diseased sago palm in Bougainville
  • Two sick sago plants near a stream in Bougainville