NIPA, the Renaissance Crop (Feature)

Nipa is one of the widely distributed and useful palm in the mangrove forests of South, Southeast Asia and Oceania. But despite its many uses, it is considered one of the most underutilised crops today. Through its project on conserving nipa diversity, Bioversity is making considerable progress in reversing this trend.

NOTE: This article is written by Dr Koji Tsuji, a research fellow of the Japan-CGIAR programme 2009-2011 supported by the Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Sciences. Dr Koji spent a year in Malaysia in surveying and characterising the nipa genetic resources in Peninsular Malaysia. Below is a summary of the work he carried out.

Nipa huts amidst vast rice fields remain one of the ideal landscapes ingrained in the heart and mind of most Southeast Asians. If you were born and raised in the Philippines, for example, it is very likely that as a child, you have drawn a rice field, mountains in the background and a nipa hut.

Nipa (Nypa fruticans) is one of the widely distributed and useful palm in the mangrove forests of South, Southeast Asia and Oceania. Nipa has historically provided useful products to indigenous peoples living these regions and is known by different vernacular names such as "chak" and "at-ta" in Thailand, "dua la" and "dua muoc" in Vietnam, "dani" in Myanmar and "atap palm" in Singapore.

Among the many uses of nipa are for roof thatching, wall-partioning of dwellings, umbrella, hut, cigarette wrappers, fioat for fishnet, arrow, firewood, fishing pole, broom, rope, medicine, juice, tea, yjnegar and fermented drink.

Why has Nipa become underutilised?

In spite of such usefulness, nipa is considered as an underutilised crop today. Rapid industrial development in the region has made it inevitable for higher quality artificial goods to supersede the goods made from nipa. In addition, it is difficult to cultivate and manage nipa in farmer's fields.

Nipa is a mangrove plant, hence it favors brackish water environments such as estuaries or shallow lagoons and colonises at the upper tidal reaches of rivers, semi-liquid mud of estuaries and along coastlines.

Recent Research Work on Nipa

Recently, research on nipa has focused on its potential use as biofuel crop because it has several advantages compared with other biofuel-aIcohol crops. For example it has high alcohol content, it does not compete with other crops for agricultural land and has no bagasse disposal problem.

Studying nipa's rich diversity

Peninsular Malaysia is one of the regions where nipa habitats are common but they are decreasing due to ongoing industrial development. Because of this situation there is a need to develop a conservation strategy to help protect nipa habitats from further decline. In this respect, information on genetic diversity within and among the natural populations is important to gather so we can select habitats and regions suitable for nipa conservation.

My research to assess the genetic diversity of nipa in Peninsular Malaysia was carried out in cooperation with Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI). At first, we carried out a field survey on nipa in Peninsular Malaysia before targeting the sea coast and riverbank areas. In total, we visited 10 out of 11 states in Peninsular Malaysia and 29 habitats. To collect mature and young leaves, fruits and inflorescences, we recorded environment of the habitats, morphological characters of nipa and interviewed some local people about utilisation of nipa.

While there are still some communities using nipa for traditional purposes, this practice is quickly dying due to the disappearance of nipa habitats caused by industrial development. Studying nipa's genetic diversity helps both scientists and farmers to rediscover the crop & work on ingenous ways to use and conserve them.

This study used AFLp, a DNA marker that is good in detecting high levels of polymorphism, to analyse DNA extracted from the young leaves collected in the field survey. Polymorphism was detected within each population and region. Polymorphism and the frequency of heterozygosity (=a parameter about polymorphism) was highest in the west coast southern region. In addition, a phylogenetic tree based on the result of AFLP demonstrated that all individuals in each of the three geographic regions clustered together in their respective groups. These results suggest that we should make effort to target many habitats in many regions for conservation of nipa in Peninsular Malaysia.

Nipa in the future

Among its many other uses, nipa can play a role as a biofuel crop. By detail chemical analyses, we can also expect to find and isolate useful compounds as medicine in nipa plant. However, the difficulty of cultivation and management in farmer's fields will prevent commercial utilisation of products derived from nipa. To resolve this problem, selection of droughttolerant nipa seeds is a useful strategy as these would be suitable to cultivate in farmer's fields. In addition to expansion for commercial utilisation, conservation of traditional utilisations should not be forgotten.

While there are still some communities using nipa for traditional purposes, this practice is quickly dying due to the disappearance of nipa habitats caused by industrial development. Studying nipa's genetic diversity helps both scientists and farmers to rediscover the crop & work on ingenous ways to use and conserve them. ❖