The road to oil palm expansion in Latin America is paved by… cows?

Cattle pastures and other previously degraded lands are the primary source of new oil palm plantations in Latin America.

San Juan, Puerto Rico - A new study published last week in the journal Environmental Research Letters by researchers at the University of Puerto Rico gives us the first regional look at what lands are being converted to oil palm plantations in Latin America. Palm oil is a primary ingredient in our processed foods, soaps, cosmetics, and even as a source of biofuel. Growth of the oil palm industry has caused widespread deforestation in Southeast Asia creating a polemic among conservationists, the private sector, and consumers.

In Latin America, the area planted in oil palm has doubled in the last decade, and this new study shows that most oil palm plantations are being established on previously cleared lands, particularly cattle pastures. If oil palm continues to replace pastures instead of forests, the region may have a strong advantage toward sustainable palm oil production.

“After the environmental devastation witnessed in Asia, the big question was whether Latin America would do oil palm right”, says lead author Paul R. Furumo, “especially given that the region contains the largest forested area with conditions suitable for oil palm agriculture.”

“Sustainable oil palm production is complex, but begins with land use changes during planting. When forests are cut down, it is to the long-term loss of both species and communities, but intensifying production on previously degraded lands may create a huge opportunity for conservation in this sector”, affirmed Furumo, a PhD candidate at the Department of Environmental Science of the University of Puerto Rico.

A previous global-scale remote sensing study had suggested the less pronounced role of forest conversion to oil palm in Latin America, but the authors took this a step further by identifying the specific land uses being converted to oil palm. Using a custom web application called Landmapper, the researchers integrated MODIS satellite imagery with very high resolution Google Earth images to map oil palm plantations in 2014. They mapped a sample of over half a million hectares of oil palm in 10 different countries throughout the region, the equivalent to more than half of the total FAO reported area for Latin America. They visualized these polygons in Google Earth to look back in time and see what the most recent land cover was before conversion to oil palm.

Oil palm expansion onto previously degraded lands

The results indicate the outsized role that cattle pastures play in the development of oil palm agriculture in Latin America--nearly 60% of expansion occurred on these lands. This is roughly equivalent to the proportion of forest loss associated with oil palm expansion in Southeast Asia. Pastures have long dominated the production landscapes of Latin America and open up the countryside to expanding oil palm by establishing important infrastructure (i.e. roads), clearing lands for planting, and driving up land prices where large-scale industrial agriculture is more competitive. Beyond pastures, croplands were also identified as a significant source of new plantations (18%), as well as banana plantations (4%), but only in select countries.

There were, however, examples of national and sub-national variations to the pasture—oil palm narrative. Peru had the highest proportion of deforestation in the study region; 76% of detected oil palm replaced forests, equating to nearly 16,000 hectares. This echoes other studies that have shown evidence for oil palm as an emerging threat to the Peruvian Amazon, particularly larger plantations. Similarly, while only 24% of oil palm expansion in Guatemala replaced forests, 89% of this was found in the Petén department which contains the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. The authors point to weak local governance and land tenure laws in these examples, suggesting the importance industry oversight by international certification programs.

The more favorable land use dynamic surrounding oil palm expansion in Latin America, if guided by sustainability initiatives like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), may bring us as close as we’ve ever been to a sustainable oil palm industry.

Most palm oil produced in Latin America is consumed locally

The study also shows that most palm oil being produced in Latin America is consumed in the region, instead of being exported to distant markets like Europe. There is a strong internal demand for palm oil in the region and the study suggests that this is in part driven by the surge of recent domestic biofuel targets.

Colombia, for example, the leading palm oil producer in Latin America and 4th largest in the world, has a national 10% biodiesel blend (B10). This target is fulfilled completely by domestic production, which accounts for about half of national palm oil production. Planting energy crops on previously degraded lands may validate biofuel development in the region, avoiding commonly cited issues of carbon and biodiversity loss.

But it remains to be seen how local demand for palm oil, especially as an ingredient for non-food products, fits in with international market-based incentives for sustainability. “Though the demand may be less for certified palm oil that ends up in your vehicle instead of your stomach, engaging in certification may in fact be easier for oil palm growers in Latin America that plant on pastures instead of forests”, contends Furumo, “these producers may already be closer to compliance with sustainable management and land use practices.”

To explore whether the development of oil palm plantations on previously degraded lands does in fact create benefits for Latin American oil palm producers, the lead author is conducting fieldwork in Colombia monitoring bioacoustic diversity in oil palm landscapes and interviewing local stakeholders with the support of a Fulbright fellowship.

Paul R. Furumo
University of Puerto Rico - Río Piedras
Department of Environmental Science
[email protected]

Dr. Mitchell Aide
University of Puerto Rico - Río Piedras
Department of Biology
[email protected]

Published: 10 Feb 2017


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