- Oil palm production in Brazil continues to be conducted on a small scale as compared to the nation’s vast soy plantations. Total oil palm cultivation was just 50,000 hectares in 2010. Today, that total has risen to 236,000 hectares, 85 percent of which is in Pará state.
- While environmentalists fear escalated oil palm production could lead to greater deforestation, Brazil possesses 200 million hectares (772,204 square miles) of deforested, degraded lands, three quarters of which is utilized as pasture, most of it with low productivity that could be converted to oil palm.
- The Rurality Project offers an example of sustainable oil palm production through its recruitment of small-scale growers to boost local economies. But, the bulk of Amazon palm oil is produced on large plantations managed by big firms, like Biopalma, many of which have poor socioenvironmental records.
- If oil palm is to become a large-scale reality in Brazil, without major deforestation, growth will need to be backed by strong regulation and enforcement. But critics say the Bolsonaro government is backing weak regulation that encourages land speculation and deforestation.
“A house built of palm oil, açaí, chickens and flour.” This is how Raimundo Moreira Vulcão, a small-scale farmer from northeastern Pará state, Brazil, proudly describes his new home. Referring to his now nearly complete two-story house, and to his 25-hectare (62 acre) farm, he explains: “I did subsistence farming for 14 years. We always had food on the table, but [oil] palm has allowed us to grow.”
Vulcão practiced subsistence agriculture since he was a child, then in 2012 the 55-year-old farmer realized it was possible to increase his family income not by cutting down the surrounding forest to expand his farm’s fields, but by diversifying crops while working to protect his land’s biodiversity. He started growing oil palm on the already deforested portion of his land, spurred by the crop’s introduction to Brazil and his region.
Along with soybeans, oil palm is one of the most controversial and fastest expanding crops of the last decade in Brazil due to the industrial use of palm oil – currently the most widely consumed vegetable oil worldwide. Oil palm plantation proliferation is causing deforestation and land conflicts in far-flung tropical regions, ranging from Indonesia to Peru. In Brazil, a huge country encompassing 64 percent of the Amazon biome, the production of this oil is the subject of environmental debate, but it also represents an alternative for an economically challenged rural population and a way of reforesting former pastures — though some critics question whether tree plantations should be counted as “forests.”
Today, Vulcão serves as an example, chosen from among hundreds of smallholders in Brazil engaged in the Rurality Project, to demonstrate how commercial agriculture can co-exist with Amazon forest conservation.
The Rurality Project is a program created by the Earthworm Foundation, a global non-profit that helps corporations build responsible commodities supply chains by enhancing relationships with farmers and buyers, while improving social conditions and protecting the environment.
Disproving a long-held fallacy
A many-decades-old argument heard often from Brazil’s influential rural elites is that the conservation of forests and protection of indigenous lands impedes the nation’s agricultural development and economic progress. The assumption: a dearth of new croplands and pastures prevents small-scale farmers and agribusiness from expanding rapidly into the Amazon, the Cerrado and other biomes — putting Brazil’s food security and the country’s economy at risk.
Obviously, it is said, developing countries like Brazil can’t afford such a luxury.
This belief helped justify rapidly escalating deforestation in the Amazon until 2004, during which 27,000 square kilometers (1,04 square miles) were deforested in a single year. Improved government policies and enforcement, along with the voluntary Amazon Soy Moratorium, significantly slowed deforestation after that.
However, under the governments of Michel Temer, and now, rightist president Jair Bolsonaro, swift moves toward environmental deregulation have again caused deforestation rates to rise. Bolsonaro, his agriculture minister and environment minister, have all validated proposed anti-environmental policies, such as the legalization of agribusiness leasing of indigenous lands, by means of the old forest conservation vs. agricultural progress argument.
But recent studies are showing that the old assumption is wrong; that Brazil today possesses sufficient degraded land that — were it utilized scientifically and managed sustainably — could support a major agricultural and economic boom, without any further Amazon deforestation.
Likewise, organizations such as the Earthworm Foundation, and individuals such as Raimundo Moreira Vulcão, are demonstrating daily that initiatives which protect Brazil’s forests can also help boost agricultural productivity on already degraded lands, thus denying the old fallacy and supposed link between deforestation and economic growth.
The key to curbing deforestation
“A study we did in 2014 with the Brazilian Farm Research Corporation (Embrapa) shows that Brazil can simultaneously reconcile the world’s largest expansion of agriculture projected for the coming decades by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), with absolute zero deforestation, and also with the restoration of up to 36 million hectares [138,997 square miles] of native vegetation. The key to this is a better use of [already] deforested areas,” says Bernardo Strassburg, Executive Director of the International Institute for Sustainability (IIS), a Rio de Janeiro organization.
Today, cattle ranching is responsible for most of the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. But the country already possesses 200 million hectares (772,204 square miles) of deforested, degraded lands, three quarters of which is utilized as pasture, most of it with low productivity; this underutilized grazing land could be made available for cropland expansion now and for the foreseeable future.
The research team led by Strassburg calculated that Brazil can meet future demand for soy, beef and biofuels without deforestation if the productivity of existing cattle pasture were increased from its current average of around 33 percent of its potential, to just 50 percent.
“By increasing productivity, you can release millions of hectares to expand other crops, like soybeans, sugarcane and others that grow in Brazil, and also free millions of hectares to recover native vegetation,” Strassburg explains.
The IIS executive director also believes that other measures could be put into practice to achieve even higher productivity, while helping meet the goal of zero deforestation, including land zoning (when areas to be conserved are divided out from those suitable for cultivation); government subsidies (subject to stringent conditions where funding is terminated if a farmer fails to abide by environmental rules governing the grant); and by acknowledging farmers who practice highly productive agricultural techniques without damaging habitat and rewarding them by making them an integral part of a sustainable global commodities supply chain.
Brazilian oil palm’s environmental problems
Oil palm farming in Brazil has been both a boon and bane; it has improved the lives of Vulcão and other small-scale landholders, but also brought with it environmental hazards. Hundreds of farmers like him saw the opportunity of putting their properties’ degraded land to good use when Lula da Silva (president from 2003 to 2010) decided to press for oil palm cultivation expansion in Brazil, intent upon creating a biofuel production hub in the State of Pará.
With this goal in mind, Lula launched the Sustainable Palm Oil Production Program (SPOPP) and encouraged major public companies — such as the mining company Vale and the oil company Petrobras — to operate in deforested regions so the oil palm plantations (on a fairly modest scale at the time) could take hold.
The idea was to encourage new oil palm producers (known as dendê) in Legal Amazonia not to clear primary or secondary forest for their plantations, but instead use already cleared land, of which the region possesses a large amount.
Almost a decade after the project’s inception, Brazil has still not managed to become a major player in palm oil production; it is responsible today for less than 1 percent of global production. But the crop did achieve significant growth. The total farmed area was just 50,000 hectares (193 square miles) in 2010. Today, the total has risen to 236,000 hectares (911 square miles), 85 percent of which is in Pará state.
According to a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, appraising oil palm farming and resulting deforestation from 2006 to 2014 in a 50,000 square kilometer area in Pará, the environmental protection initiatives practiced by the government achieved positive results. While poorly regulated palm oil production has been a major cause of devastating deforestation in Southeast Asia and Africa, the Brazil study’s findings showed that 90 percent of the oil palm production expansion occurring over that period took place on former pastures or otherwise degraded land, not in forested areas.
However, this expansion, although subject to strict regulation, also has left a negative footprint. This is shown by research conducted in the community of São Luís do Caripi, within the Igarapé-Açu municipality in Pará. Sociologist Luiz Cláudio Melo Júnior, a PhD at the Sustainable Development Center of the University of Brasília, identified negative impacts from oil palm plantations.
“The introduction and increasing development of this crop has had an impact on the environment and the local socioeconomic relations, such as soil degradation, concentration of land among few owners, emigration of traditional family farmers, and attracting rural entrepreneurs, whose attitude differs from that of the small farmers who settled there in the early 20th century,” he observes.
Likewise, a 2015 report by media outlet Repórter Brasil publicized a 2014 survey completed by the Evandro Chagas Institute (IEC), a Pará based NGO. The IEC evaluated water bodies in an 840 square kilometer (324 square mile) area within the oil palm production microregion of Baixo, Tocantins state. Fourteen out of 18 water samples were polluted with pesticides used in oil palm production and with harmful cyanobacteria. Oil palm production as currently practiced utilizes large amounts of pesticides.
“The biggest challenge lies in the controlled use of pesticides that can contaminate both soil and water bodies. The use of agrochemicals by family agriculture requires greater attention to education and support to this activity,” explains Joao Meirelles, a noted Amazon scholar, author and founder of the Peabiru Institute, a Brazilian NGO.
Biopalma: big producer, poor socioenvironmental record
Currently, seven big Brazilian companies account for 90 percent of all palm oil production in Legal Amazonia. They plant palms directly on their own land and buy berries from small-scale farmers to whom they provide seedlings; fertilizer, pesticides and other soil amendments; and technical assistance. These large companies benefit from tax exemptions when they buy at least 15 percent of their palm berries used in the production of various vegetable oils and fats from family farms. This incentive has resulted in hundreds of family farms including oil palm in their crop mix and thereby increasing their incomes. Approximately 20 percent of all Brazilian palm oil production is due to these small landholders.
One of these big oil palm companies is Biopalma, a Brazilian firm created in 2007 that today is a subsidiary of Vale, and which has an extensive record of conflicts with local communities. One case occurred when the Tembé (an indigenous group living in the Turé-Mariquita Indigenous Reserve in Tomé-Açu, Northeastern Pará) sought judicial relief — indemnification and impact mitigation — for claimed impacts caused by Biopalma activities in the Amazon in 2012. Federal prosecutors in the case have evidence of meetings between the Indians and the company where the native population complained about pesticide contamination killing animals and causing disease.
Biopalma was also recently implicated in human rights abuses when a former employee sued the company for illegal labor practices. The plaintiff argued that he was forced to work “rain or shine” from 6am to 6pm with only a 15-minute break for lunch, without potable water. Biopalma received a small fine from the government, but their operations in Pará essentially remain uninhibited.
“In certain locations and ‘border’ regions, labor conditions are extremely degrading, with high turnover rates and dim prospects [for workers] rising through the ranks. Border regions often embody the very locus of law breaking in an organized and democratic civil society. Under these conditions, in spite of its distinctive socioeconomic relevance, industrial-scale palm oil production inevitably overburdens the environment,” explains André Cutrim Carvalho, a professor of Natural Resources and Local Development in the Amazon (PPGEDAM) at the Federal University of Pará.
The Rurality Project example
Seeking to reduce past negative impacts — and also as a response to international pressure to embrace sustainable agriculture — large companies are investing in initiatives such as the Rurality Project in order to better integrate small farmers into the palm oil supply chain. This program was introduced in Brazil when Cargill and Nestlé, two of Biopalma’s most important buyers, became members of the Earthworm Foundation and started to invest in new sustainable agriculture strategies.
“We are working on a 100 percent transparent, traceable and sustainable palm oil supply chain, due in 2020. This means delivering a non-deforested supply chain in High Conservation Value (HCV) or High Carbon Stock (HCS) areas without peatland development or exploitation of the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities,” says Márcio Barela, a Cargill sustainability coordinator.
The idea of becoming part of a global supply chain never crossed Sheila Oliveira da Silva’s mind until 2014, when she decided to start planting oil palm trees on her small property in Pará. Similar to Mr. Vulcão, this mother of 11 and grandmother to 42 children, was first encouraged to diversify her farm and plant cash crops when Biopalma arrived in her region.
During the first years of production, Da Silva was unsure of which strategies were right for an introduction of the new crop on her land. But once she was invited to join the Earthworm Program, she started to feel empowered about the key role she might play in supply chain sustainability.
“The companies and small farmers do not use chemical products on their land, and the areas used for oil palm [cultivation] had been deforested before and were suitable for this crop according to Embrapa’s Agroecological Zoning. In the trainings we offer [to small-scale farmers], we work on these issues both from a conservation and a health and safety point of view,” explains Julia Faro, an Earthworm Foundation project manager.
“I feel it’s bringing advantages for us and for Brazil. If I had more land, I would plant more oil palm,” says Da Silva.
Key role for environmental regulation
While initiatives like the Rurality Project have had some success in fostering sustainable agriculture in Brazil, they need to be combined with strict enforcement of environmental laws, affirms Erasmus zu Ermgassen, with Trase (Transparency for Sustainable Economies), a supply chain transparency partnership organized by Global Canopy, the Stockholm Environment Institute and other NGOs.
According to a study recently published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics and co-authored by Ermgassen, Nicolas Koch (MCC Institute, Berlin), and Francisco Oliveira (former Director of the Action Plan for Deforestation Prevention and Control in the Legal Amazon), good government policy needn’t be an agriculture vs. environment proposition, but can simultaneously reduce deforestation while boosting agricultural production.
The research evaluated the Priority Municipalities List, a flagship Brazilian government policy launched in 2008 that targeted municipalities that had high deforestation rates with increased field inspections and fines for forest clearing. While previous studies had shown that stringent enforcement helps reduce deforestation, as might be expected, this study focused on the policy’s effect on agriculture.
“Contrary to claims that forest conservation harms agriculture, we found that the policy helped halve deforestation and boosted cattle production,” Ermgassen reports. By far the most striking improvements that resulted from stronger regulation and enforcement were seen in beef production, with a 14-36 percent increase in the stocking rate (the number of cattle raised per hectare of pasture).
“We think that disincentivizing speculative land clearing made farmers think twice about clearing new land. Instead of expanding production by clearing forests as before, farmers started to intensify, increasing cattle stocking rates,” says Ermgassen.
This evidence indicates that it is not cattle production that directly drives deforestation, but rather rampant land speculation. Rural elites make large profits in Brazil by clearcutting Amazon rainforest (often illegally) with the intent of selling the “improved” land to ranchers at value-added prices. Stronger enforcement breaks that link in the deforestation chain.
New government, new challenges
While scientific findings show that improved forest protection efforts can promote a more sustainable and profitable agricultural sector in Brazil, they also suggest that recent moves by the Jair Bolsonaro administration to undermine Ibama (the nation’s forestry and environmental enforcement agency), and Funai (its indigenous affairs agency) may ultimately backfire on Brazilian agriculture.
New Bolsonaro policies seem meant to encourage increased land speculation, along with low-input, low-output forms of agriculture where deforestation rates rise and agricultural land use continues to be inefficient, according to analysts.
The current government’s policies are a cause for concern, agrees Gerd Sparovek, Professor at the Luiz de Queiroz Agriculture School of the University of São Paulo and President of the São Paulo Forestry Foundation. “There are two ways to increase [agricultural] production volume: either increasing production efficiency through yield gains, or expanding the farmed land by deforesting natural areas, and in Brazil we have historically been doing both at the same time.”
When asked via email by Mongabay to comment for this article about the possible negative consequences of relaxing environmental laws and fines, Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s Minister of Environment, argued that these governmental policy shifts are intended to “invest resources from fines better and quicker.” He says that the Bolsonaro administration plans new measures ranging “from better monitoring and [satellite] imaging to faster enforcement responses, and measures providing economic dynamism to the forest population, such as sustainable forest management and adequate economic zoning.” Details regarding these proposed policies have not yet been revealed.
Sparovek is concerned that the administration’s actions, especially its attempts to weaken laws, along with a government narrative that places agriculture and conservation in an adversarial relationship, heralds “a significant weakening of important measures that curbed deforestation in the past. If this tendency continues and becomes a reality… we may again experience high deforestation rates, leading to massive losses for the environment — and for rural [agricultural] production as well.”
Strassburg, B. B. N., Latawiec, A. E., Barioni, L. G., Nobre, C. A., da Silva, V. P.,. Valentim, J. F, Vianna, M., Assad, E. D., 2014. When enough should be enough: Improving the use of current agricultural lands could meet production demands and spare natural habitats in Brazil. Glob. Environ. Chang. 28, 84–97.
Koch, N., zu Ermgassen, E., Wehkamp, J., Oliveira, F., Schwerhoff, G., 2017. Agricultural Productivity and Forest Conservation: Evidence from the Brazilian Amazon; Social Science Research Network: Rochester, NY, USA.
Benami E., et al, Oil palm land conversion in Pará, Brazil, from 2006–2014: Evaluating the 2010 Brazilian Sustainable Palm Oil Production Program, Environmental Research Letters, 15 March 2018.
Benami, E., Curran, L. M., Cochrane, M., Venturieri, A., Franco, R., Kneipp, J., Swartos, A., 2018. Oil palm land conversion in Pará, Brazil, from 2006–2014: evaluating the 2010 Brazilian Sustainable Palm Oil Production Program. Environmental Research Letters, Volume 13, Number 3.
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