Palm oil has become a global pariah for environment and human rights activists for its link to destruction of rainforests, harm to endangered species and displacement of small farmers. Its growing use as both as a feedstock for biofuel as well as its widespread presence in cookies, sweets and cosmetics has spurred global backlash, accompanied by a more recent backlash against the backlash.
To this backdrop, Brazil has promised to give palm oil a new face. The country is plowing ahead with a plan to develop palm oil in the Amazon without the damaging side effects that garnered increasing criticism in Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s largest producers of palm oil. Brazil’s government has launched a plan to grow dende palm on degraded or already deforested in land in the Amazon, with the promise that the effort will create much-needed jobs that will help reduce the pressure for further deforestation. The move will help expand its already extensive biofuels program that is currently focused on ethanol, used in cars, toward the production of biodiesel, used in trucks.
The appeal of palm oil for Brazil is much the same as it has been in Southeast Asia. The crop produces up to 10 times more oil per unit area than soybean, rapeseed or sun flower seed, making it extremely attractive both for fuel and energy purposes as well as for processed foods. It also blows other crops out of the water when it comes to actual biodiesel production, as depicted below.
The country’s two biggest companies are leading the palm oil charge. State-run oil company Petrobras this year began planting dende palms in the Amazon state of Para on areas that have been identified as degraded or already deforested. This is meant to help generate jobs to reduce the pressure on rainforests caused by the unemployed picking up chainsaws, a bit like what has happened here. The operation is a partnership with Portuguese oil company Galp, which will buy the palm oil and turn it into biofuels in facilities in Portugal, with the fuel ultimately being used to meet European Union biofuels mandates.
Mining colossus Vale this year bought out a palm-oil producer called Biopalma that will also grow dende palm to be used for biodiesel, which will power its massive network of trains that drag iron ore from mines to export terminals on the coast. That program is designed as a partnership with local family farmers that will be able to grow dende palms alongside other crops. The company will gain energy efficiency in the process because the fuel for the trains will be made near where the trains actually run, cutting down on the energy-consuming process of hauling fuel.
The government has created an additional plan that seeks a 10-fold increase in the number of family farmer growing dende palm in the Amazon over four years. It estimates that those families will be able to nearly quadruple their income if they plant dende instead of depending on manioc or acai, a traditional Amazon fruit that has gotten hip in new age circles in the US.
So has Brazil figured out a path toward sustainable and profitable palm oil production? Since these operations are just getting started it’s a bit early to tell. I think the intention to do this right is there, but actually making it work – without Brazil’s palm industry turning into something that looks like what’s going on in Malaysia – will be tougher than it seems.
Petrobras’ plan to use already deforested land for palm oil is a logical way to grow this crop without pressuring existing forests. But as Roberto Smeraldi of Amigos da Terra aptly points out, nobody’s going to cut down trees to plant dende – they’re going to cut down trees to graze cattle, and then in five years use that land to cultivate dende. There’s also been some talk of allowing palm oil plantations to be considered part of a property’s “legal reserve,” or in other words allow a landowner to present that area as if it were native forest, therefore reducing their requirement to grow or maintain native forest elsewhere. Dende ain’t native here, it’s native to Africa. And no forest in the world has dozens of hectares of the same plant, which means calling a palm oil plantation a forest is simply absurd.
The small farmers argument also strikes me as a bit misleading. Agropalma, one of Brazil’s biggest palm oil producers, emerged as one of the only legitimate employers in the Para town of Tailandia after a 2008 government operation to crack down on deforestation. The company began encouraging local farmers to cultivate oil palm alongside their traditional crops – a scheme the government is promoting as a sustainable form of cultivating dende. The social and environmental research group Reporter Brazil heard a different version from settlers and tenant farmers in the region.
The time spent on the harvest is considered one of the biggest problems for the settlers. All of them affirmed that they had stopped cultivating crops such as rice, corn, manioc and bananas for lack off time, and today depend entirely their purchases from the market for their food.
Again, this is a problem of monoculture. It’s economically savvy to scale up operations, but doing so with crops always implies greater use of pesticides and fertilizers and greater chance of plague and disease wiping out crops. Tending to huge crops of palm trees, made delicate by their artificial concentration, doesn’t leave the settlers time to plant other crops that would both provide food and reduce the likelihood of bugs eating up the palms.
Reporter Brasil also points out that many areas where palm oil is being cultivated are notorious for sketchy land titles, which is often a recipe for problems. Representatives from palm oil grower Biopalma, which was acquired by Vale as part of its palm oil effort, sought to buy up property from quilombolas – rural communities populated by descendants of escaped slaves. Many of those quilombolas are still seeking to establish their ownership over that land, in some cases administer it collectively.
This is not to say this can’t be done. Palm oil has been cultivated for decades in the state of Bahia, where dende oil is heavily used in local cuisine. In Bahia, the plantations tend to be smaller, are more likely to be family run, and are extensively linked to local culinary traditions that give them a local cultural importance. But this situation is one that developed over an extended time frame, and isn’t necessarily something that could be quickly replicated on the Amazon frontier.
I’m glad to see Brazil trying to do this one differently, and I won’t say this will never work. But I do think maybe this will not be quite as simple as might sound.