Ensia is a magazine (online and print) that showcases “environmental solutions in action.” It’s produced by the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota, and covers a wide variety of environmental and sustainability issues. The publication is well known for its inter-disciplinary perspective. The UC Food Observer has previously shared work published in Ensia: Urban farming is booming. What does it really yield? and The biggest source of plastic trash you’ve never heard of.
An increasing number of food and personal care products contain palm oil, which is produced by the oil palm tree. The oil palm tree is native to West Africa, and it’s been planted “throughout the tropics” to meet growing demand. The crop has “drawn international ire due to the large-scale deforestation and social harm large plantations have caused, with some advocacy groups even calling for palm oil bans.”
Indonesia and Malaysia currently produce the vast majority of the world’s supply of palm oil, but the crop’s profitability is spurring interest elsewhere, including Latin America. And there’s good reason for that: it’s an “incredibly productive” crop.
“As agro-economist Patrice Levang, research director at the French Institute for Development assigned to the Center for International Forestry Research, says, “Oil palm is one of the best possible commodities. This is something that must be acknowledged: the positive side of oil palm. It is eight to 10 times more productive than soybean.””
The production of oil palm also provides social benefits by boosting local economies and providing opportunities for regular income in rural areas.
“Alejandra Rueda, founder of Colombian agricultural consulting company Nes Naturaleza, says, “Small [palm oil] producers have seen great benefits from this crop as it is a perennial crop that provides a stable income to families.” An estimated 130,000 to 140,000 direct and indirect jobs come from palm oil production in Colombia alone.”
But there are some big downsides to oil palm production…and serious environmental risks. Experience in other parts of the globe clearly demonstrate those risks. Since oil palm trees grow best in tropical climates, their production places them in “direct competition” with tropical rainforests. In Southeast Asia, the production of palm oil has led to deforestation. Land has been cleared by burning and habitat has been lost. Communities that rely on the rainforests for livelihood and survival have been seriously impacted. And then there’s the matter of carbon sequestration.
There’s some evidence that palm plantations may be “driving deforestation in Latin America”; an April 2015 survey reported that about 29,000 acres of “primary and secondary Peruvian Amazon rainforest had been cleared to make way for oil palm.”
And there are social downsides as well.
“In addition to environmental issues, palm oil is linked to social problems as well. Land tenure and land rights are weak in many countries in Latin America, which puts many small farmers at risk of losing their land as the palm oil industry develops. Colombia in particular has developed a reputation for land-grabbing, where paramilitary groups have sometimes violently appropriated land.”
A big question remains: can Latin America producers increase “palm oil production without replicating the damages suffered in Southeast Asia?”
Author Duncan Gromko thinks so, and has three policy recommendations that come together beautifully in a section that could easily inform production of other commodities in other parts of the globe. They include having more plantations owned and managed by small farmers; better ecological planning; and sustainability certification.
This is an in-depth exploration of this topic; a must read.