Occupy the Amazon so as Not to Lose it—with Palm Oil

Written by Andrea

Topics: Agribusiness

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Believe it or not, palm oil isn’t just being produced in Southeast Asia, the Pacific or in West Africa. Increasingly, massive palm oil plantations are sprouting up throughout Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil—yes, in the middle of the Amazon.

I returned last night from a 24 hour visit to the Agropalma plantation. Their sprawling 107,000 hectare (264,402 acre) complex is located just three hours south of Belem, in the Brazilian Amazon. 40,000 hectares (98,842 acres) of this land is covered in palm oil plantations and the other 60,000 hectares (148,263 acres) of land remain in what Agropalma calls “forest reserves”. 1600 kilometers of roads run through the plantation—that’s 994 miles. Agropalma differentiates themselves from many other palm oil producers worldwide through their production of organically certified palm oil. 30% of their total palm oil in production is organically produced and certified. The rest is not.

Agropalma is a major producer of palm oil for all of Latin America, and one of the primary sources of organic certified palm oil to the U.S. and European markets. Their palm oil is destined for the food and cosmetic industry, but not for biofuels. In fact, if you shop at Whole Foods, and buy a 365 brand product that contains palm oil you have most certainly consumed Agropalma palm oil.

Ciranda, the company that supplies and markets the Agropalma oil to the U.S., has been in touch with RAN as a result of our work on palm oil and encouraged us to visit the plantation. My trip to Belem to attend the World Social Forum last week provided the perfect opportunity to take a field trip to Agropalma. Levana, from RAN’s grassroots organizing department, and photographer, Lou Dematteis, visited the plantation and on-site processing facility with me. Andrea and Levana in front of the on-site oil palm processing facility

Our visit to the plantation was an extremely well-orchestrated event, with one planned activity after another, involving traversing long distances in a car (sometimes 1 hour through pure palm oil) to our next destination, and when we arrived at various stops we were often greeted by 8 staff representing a specific department of Agropalma, i.e. phytosanitary control, organic production, environment department, etc. Everybody was super friendly, and willing to answer all of our many questions. By the end of the day, we had ingested much information, including taking a 3km walk through one of the forest reserves, which ended with a torrential downpour, as to be expected in the rainforest. Here’s some of what we were told:

  • The owner of Agropalma was a recipient of the Brazilian government’s tax incentive program in the 1980’s which encouraged industry and individuals to relocate to the Amazon. The philosophy of the government was, “Occupy the Amazon in order not to lose it”
  • Since 2002, Agropalma has only planted palm oil in cleared land—before then (since the early 1980’s) rainforest was cleared to make way for the plantation
  • The Agropalma complex contains 3 residential villages for employees, has a total of 350 houses, houses 2500 people, has 4 “clubs”, 1 school, and 1 medical center
  • Oil palm cutters and collectors get paid extra based on productivity, e.g. how many bunches they collect. Each cutter keeps track daily of each bunch that is picked, as does the onsite manager.
  • The organic palm plantation is at the farthest north end of the complex and is separated by about 150 meters from the conventional plantation
  • Agropalma’s organic certifications come from the Biodynamic Institute, BioSuisse, USDA, and JAS (Japan Agricultural Standard).
  • The Acará river runs north/south through much of the plantation
  • In 2004, in partnership with Sao Paulo University, Agropalma carried out research to assess and monitor the biodiversity of the forest patches near the plantations. More recently, Agropalma has partnered with Conservation International and they are doing some research on biodiversity in and around the plantation as well.
  • For both conventional and organic palm oil production, pest management is done using biological and mechanical control. They use a variety of native predators, sugar traps, pheromones, and inoculation of bacteria or fungus to control pests. Pesticides are used in the conventional area when a major outbreak occurs.

Towards late afternoon, we were heading back to the main office. We still had a 45 minute drive through oil palm plantations ahead of us. As far as my eyes could see into the distant horizon, I saw a boundless green sea of palm trees. I kept thinking that there was something uncanny about the vastness and uniformity, almost Hollywood movie set about it. How could something be constructed in such a grand scale? Agropalma palm oil

We stopped at an old, wooden watchtower, decrepit and rotting, in the midst of the plantation so that we could get a bird’s eye view. We only made it up four stories before the structure indicated we could go no further. In the distance, we could see greenery that differentiated itself from the palm—indeed, some forest. Incredible to think that just 20 years ago, this plantation was rainforest. More incredible, perhaps, was that all we could see from that tower was only 2000 hectares of Agropalma palm oil. It went on forever, yet out of sight lay 38,000 hectares more that we couldn’t see from there.

I stood there and recalled a conversation I had earlier with a company employee. I asked why Agropalma operates in the Amazon region given the poor soil quality (Amazon soils are some of the worst agricultural soils on earth), and therefore the necessity to invest massively in fertilizers. After laughing intensely, he replied, “If there is one place that is the worst in the world to produce oil palm it is here in the Amazon.”

More than twenty years after the Brazilian government’s tax incentive program catalyzed a new wave of “occupation”, the trend continues. Several new palm oil plantations are being developed here (Agropalma considers them competitors), and soy continues to expand and threaten the Amazon at an alarming rate. Cattle ranching, mining, and oil exploration are all major threats as well. If we are to save the Amazon, perhaps it’s time to consider occupying something else, like the headquarters of the corporations and financiers responsible for damaging it.

*Photos by Lou Dematteis/Redux

14 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. bodong says:

    Let’s plant oil palm in the moon!

  2. Rachel Smolker says:

    So was there no other answer to the question about “why plant on the worst soils in the world?” Seems like that and the long time it takes to establish may be the only things holding back massive further PO in Amazon? (but soon we will be using biochar to enrich amazon soils and anything will be possible…)

  3. Thank you for this information. I went to Brazil in 2005, and was appalled at the destruction of the rainforest along the Amazon River. If we do not all work together to stop this massive destruction of the world’s rainforests, we will not have clean air to breath. The last information I received, was that the world’s rainforests were disapperaing at a rate of 8 acres per second. This is horrible, and all in the name of GREED!

  4. Bonnie Alicia Berkeley says:

    Are there any parrots in the palms? Does this monoculture support any wildlife
    at all?

  5. Errin says:

    Why are there all of these palm plantations? Why did Brazil enact these tax incentives? Ask the WTO and World Bank.

  6. bodong says:

    Some Reflections

    Now, it is easy for the EU, the Wall Street Journal and the author to take pot shots at Malaysia and Indonesia for attempting to lift themselves up economically by cultivating palm oil for biofuels. In fact, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council issued a rebuttal to some topics reviewed in this story. And although some of it is ridiculous, it does point out obviously hypocritical things like this —
    Britain has little forest left, as most land has been converted to agriculture. Such a paucity of forest cover and the preponderance of agricultural land have resulted in reduced biodiversity and caused the loss of fauna and flora.
    According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Britain has less than 12 per cent of its land under forest cover compared with 64 per cent for Malaysia. Agricultural land makes up 71 per cent of its total land area compared with less than 19 per cent in Malaysia, of which oil palm accounts for two-thirds.
    In the 19th century, Europeans were despoiling southeast Asia for the rubber and timber trades. From the WSJ, peaking of Borneo —
    In the 1800s, Dutch and British traders began carving up parts of the island to produce rubber and other commodities. Later, Malaysian and Indonesian timber barons devastated millions of hectares of forest logging tropical hardwoods. Today, only a little more than half of Borneo’s once-ubiquitous rain-forest cover remains, according to WWF, the global conservation organization.
    As a citizen of the United States — the world’s largest natural resource consumer driving much of the planet’s freefall — and largest abuser of the global commons, which is the environment upon which we all ultimately depend, I must add this apologetic to my criticisms of land use practices in southeast Asia. After all, people are just trying to feed themselves, raise their families and prosper economically as far as that is possible. Quoting the WSJ concerning Indonesia, “the arrival of new palm-oil plantations has meant jobs and opportunities for many Dayak families [of Kalimantan], and some have even taken ownership stakes in the operations.” There are environmentalists in southeast Asia just as there are here among the NGOs in America — I have quoted some of them. At the same time, John Q. Suburban in the United States is just trying to feed himself, raise his family and prosper economically as far as that is possible.
    So, in the short run, some will win, some will lose and everyone wants to live. Over the longer term, however, the underlying problem is too many people (wherever they live) consuming too much energy and other natural resources. Overshoot and unsustainable modes of living are not confined to southeast Asia, as any American should know.
    Dave Cohen
    Senior Contributor
    The Oil Drum
    davec @ linkvoyager.com

  7. Dan Abramson says:

    You hit the nail on the head brother. Now lets all go out and stimulate the economy with additional spending in an effort to lower the unemployment rate and improve our standard of living. After all we’re all about increasing production right? Even if we produce things that no one needs, which of course leads to an increased effort to market those things, leading ultimately to an increased level of frustrated desire and unhappiness.
    The economy as it exists today is a ponzi scheme of the highest magnitude because it fails entirely to account for the eventual costs to our life support system. The planet can only invest so much for so long. When this tide runs out it will be shown that we are all swimming naked to no where– that the things of real value have been missing for a long time.

  8. Prescott Bergh says:

    Per the question from Bonnie Alicia in Berkeley regarding bird species in this plantation: Biological monitoring of the flora and fauna of Agropalma lands is on-going and accomplished in cooperation with the University of Sao Paulo. Due to improved habitat management, the number of bird species has increased from 338 in 2003 to 406 in 2008, while the number of mammal species has increased from 27 to 37 over the same time frame. The golden parrot, the national bird of Brazil is one of the species that has been repatriated.

  9. bodong says:

    Let’s talk by data: how large forest area in the US and Europe converted to corn, soy and canola? Use FAO and USDA data….. all you’ll can see who’s the GREED! after that, use data which countries more pollute to the air, and learn about Kyoto Protocol…. you’ll find who’s the GREED!

  10. Becky Shops says:

    new at amazon this week.. another million books you might buy and will never read :D

  11. Douglas Laing says:

    RAN:I have read with great interest your report on the visit to Agropalma in Para Brazil. One of the serious limitations to the expansion of the oil palm into the Amazon basin is a condition known as Oil Palm Bud Rot, a disorder that seriously reduces yield and kills palms. I note in Google Earth images in plantations along the Acará River which suggest a massive presence of this disorder. My question to RAN is did you hear any commentary about the Bud Rot problem during your visit and did you observe symptoms of unhealthy palms (apparent abnormalities in the top leaves) or areas with missing palms in the plantations. Hope to hear from you.

  12. Douglas Laing says:

    RAN I am still waiting with interest for any observations you may have with respect to palm diseases at Agropalma

  13. Doris Cellarius says:

    Back to Bonnie’s question about birds, it is not clear to me whether the Agropalm forests studied in this report were “palm oil forests” or native forests.

    http://www.ib.usp.br/~lfsilveira/pdf/agropalma2.pdf.pdf

    It troubles me to see planting palm trees considered “reforestation”. I think of forests as more being more diverse.

    Second question: How much of Agropalm’s lands are “organic”?

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