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Mexico plans huge increase in palm oil production in sensitive ecosystems

  • The government seeks to plant an additional 100,000 hectares (almost 250,000 acres) in the state of Campeche, half of which is under conservation protection.
  • Scientists, conservationists, and residents say existing oil palm plantations have already damaged important wildlife habitat and water sources, and worry what may come from an influx of many more.
  • Local organizations have filed a complaint before the Latin American Water Tribunal, saying the Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food is promoting the program to plant 100,000 hectares of oil palm, “without consideration for the researchers, academics, environmentalists, indigenous people, and communities who live in the area where they intend to impose this crop as a development alternative.”

The Mexican state of Campeche sits on the Yucatan Peninsula, a region renowned for its lush jungles and high biodiversity. But the state’s forests are being wiped out by agriculture and fire, threatening habitat for wildlife and the land indigenous communities need to survive. Now, a plan to increase the state’s palm oil production is prompting further concern that Campeche will soon lose its natural heritage to the onslaught of development.

Campeche has the largest percentage of land designated for environmental conservation of any state in Mexico. However, the government is planning on implementing one of its most ambitious economic plans: the cultivation of thousands of acres of oil palm to satisfy internal demand and sell oil palm derivatives on the international market.

But residents, local authorities, and conservationists worry that if these plans become reality, Campeche will trade its natural splendor for monoculture plantations.

Industry carved from forest in Campeche, Mexico. Photo by Robin Canul.

An ambitious plan

The Mexican government announced in March 2016 that it plans to plant 100,000 hectares (almost 250,000 acres) of oil palm in the coming years.

“Campeche is laying the foundation to transform, to remove petroleum from its economy and be a national and international example, igniting the enormous productive potential of the countryside,” the official press release states.

This announcement was backed at that time by the governor of Campeche, Alejandro Moreno, who said that the project would additionally “lead to unprecedented investment, generate employment, remove petroleum from the economy, and propel the transformation of the state.”

According to official estimates, by planting those 100,000 hectares, Campeche would increase its land under palm cultivation fivefold to 120,000 hectares, “making the state the country’s main palm cultivator.”

León Enrique Ávila is a researcher and agroecology engineer at the Universidad Intercultural de Chiapas who has conducted extensive field research in Campeche. He calls the stretch of land planted with oil palm in the states of Tabasco, Chiapas, and Campeche “the Mesoamerican palm corridor.” According to Ávila, the agroindustry companies operating there  have obtained land “aggressively” and with the assistance of the government. He also says that the area planned for oil palm expansion in Campeche is home to wetlands with high conservation value that are home to threatened species,

“Campeche has more tropical jungle, more protected jungle than Chiapas because there the Lacandon jungle is already being depleted,” the researcher explains.

Researchers like Ávila say the consequences of oil palm production in Campeche are already evident: crops grown dangerously close to sensitive ecosystems, forests logged, plantations expanded near rivers.

Campeche’s forest is under pressure from industrial agriculture. Photo: Robin Canul.

Ávila says the huge palm oil expansion planned for Campeche will spread these problems to new ecologically important areas – including those that are protected.

“The risk, above all, is to the southern part of the Laguna de Términos protected area,” Ávila said. “This area is a mangrove swamp. All the species found in the gulf of Campeche reproduce in this reserve. It is a protected area of high primary production, of many nutrients for the animals.”

A threat to wildlife and water

Raymundo Barrios, resident of Palizada, one of Campeche’s 11 municipalities, says oil palm has slowly surrounded the communities where he grew up. He says the replacement of forests with oil palm plantations has displaced wildlife, including one species he used to see quite regularly: the jaguar.

Barrios said he’s seen disoriented jaguars crossing highways where it had once been unthinkable to see them, in search of unusual prey out of desperation from lack of food.

Photo by Mongabay.

Another change he has noticed is reduced water availability. He says that even the traditional wells have disappeared. The water table is now at depth of at least 30 meters (100 feet), which requires special machinery to reach.

“The drought and climate change have hit hard here,” Barrios said. “We are experiencing much more heat. Traditional wells no longer work. They have to be made with machinery to reach 30 meters underground.”

According to Barrios, oil palm companies have been monopolizing land near rivers, where growing conditions are better. Barrios says companies prefer to plant in areas that are close to river-level.

“They take good land, wet lands, at most seven meters (23 feet) above the river,” Barrios said. “The water tables have gone down in communities.”

Intact wetlands still remain in Campeche, but conservationists wonder for how long. Researcher León Enrique Ávila says that when he took students to southern Campeche, he found beautiful wetlands and lakes he had never seen. “They are some lovely areas [but] the oil palm is approaching.”

The advance of plantations

As Barrios noted, palm oil is not a new industry for Campeche. In 2012, the government launched a plan for restructuring production. In just two years, the area planted tripled to around 13,805 hectares (34,113 acres).

At that time, the Mexican government sought to “propel agroindustrial development, modernize the rural sector, and improve campesino [small farmer] quality of life,” said Ricardo Isaac, a researcher with the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

However, the rapid growth of oil palm in Campeche concerned activists and academics, who witnessed oil palm expansion affected protected lands. Thus, when they learned of the government’s plan to turn Campeche into Mexico’s principal producer of palm oil in 2016, they were opposed.

But this opposition was not well received.

“We have registered clandestine logging and when we did they made us leave at gun point. This was last year in Palizada, Tumbo de la Montaña,” said Ronny Aguilar, a journalist and activist from Campeche.

Aguilar said he and two local environmental protection organizations, Colectivo Conciencia and Ka Kuxtal y U Yich Li’um, were forced to file a complaint before the Latin American Water Tribunal (TLA, from the Spanish acronym).

The complaint was lodged October 2016, seven months after the government announced their plan. According to the complaint, the Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) was promoting the program to plant 100,000 hectares of oil palm, “without consideration for the researchers, academics, environmentalists, indigenous people, and communities who live in the area where they intend to impose this crop as a development alternative.”

According to Aguilar and the local organizations, the “planting process and devastation” of the extensive planting of oil palm were already being seen in 2016 in five of the main municipalities of Campeche: Calakmul, Candelaria, Palizada, Carmen, and Escárcega. Each one of these municipalities, they say, contains land belonging to protected areas.

According to the complaint document, organizations fear the oil palm plan in Campeche may end up affecting the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. According to the Mexican government, the reserve is considered “the second greatest stretch of tropical forests in the Americas and the best conserved in the region, with a total of 723,000 hectares [approximately 1,787,000 acres].”

In addition, the Maya city of Calakmul is located in the reserve, which, along with the surrounding forests is listed as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Oil palm plantations have not yet reached Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, but they are present in the surrounding area, which is earmarked for crop expansion.

Another area of concern is the Flora and Fauna Protected Area of Laguna de Términos. It is part of the largest watershed in Mexico, formed by the Grijalva and Usumacinta rivers, two important tributaries for the country.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland show the progression of heavy land clearance around – and within – the Laguna de Términos protected areas. 2019 has been a big year for deforestation, and several new areas of clearance have displaced primary forest.
Satellite imagery shows an area within Laguna de Términus lost much of its remaining forest cover this year. Source: Planet Labs.

“Everything is in Laguna de Términos, all the palm is around it, all the rivers are surrounded by palm,” Ronny Aguilar said. “They have drains, dams they made illegally. The Candelaria River, the Escárcega River, and Palizada River. It’s a red flag. It’s estimated that there are 42,000 hectares [almost 104,000 acres] registered around Laguna de Términos.”

The plantations Agular references belong to the company Palma Tica. Requests for comment sent to Palma Tica were not answered by the time this story was published.

Destructive consequences

In 2012, a Palma Tica plantation bordering Laguna de Términos experienced a rodent infestation. To address the problem, the company decided to use corn sprayed with the toxic pesticide Furadan to poison them.

However, this solution created an even greater problem: a massive die-off of deer, pigs, rabbits, sloths, and birds. The authorities of the municipality of Palizada, where the events took place, considered it a matter of “carelessness.”

“They killed 1000 hectares [almost 2500 acres] of our pasture,” said Raymundo Barrios, who said the incident displaced many animals to other areas inhabited by people.

The Mexican government wants to plant 100,000 hectares of oil palm in the state of Campeche. Photo by Página Abierta.

In 2017, “more than 5000 hectares [almost 12,400 acres] of low and middle jungle [were logged] without authorization for the change in land use … and drains were constructed flowing into the Palizada River,” according to the complaint filed with the Latin American Water Tribunal (TLA) by local organizations.

In response, the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA, Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente) fined Palma Tica two million pesos (approximately $100,000) for logging, along with a lesser fine for the illegal construction of waste drains.

In 2012, a study by the Tabasco campus of the Colegio de Posgraduados for the Campeche state government in 2012 found that the best areas for oil palm plantations are near water sources like rivers.  According to the local organizations’ complaint, this information helped define which areas were to be used for oil palm plantations and “was presented to businesses so they would invest in potential production areas, while increasing the risk of contaminating the rivers.”

Three residents of southern Campeche told Mongabay under strict anonymity that there are armed narcotrafficking groups in the region, and that they have witnessed incidents in which these groups have defended the interests of palm oil companies. Two of these witnesses claimed they were threatened and one said he saw “halcones” (“hawks,” lookouts and spies) posted on local roads leading to oil palm plantations.

Ronny Aguilar and researcher Ricardo Isaac agree that, so far, the expansion of oil palm has been achieved by convincing campesinos of the profitability of the palm fruit from which palm oil is produce, and by using lands that would otherwise be classified as unused.

However, Campeche comprises some 56,850 square kilometers (almost 22,000 square miles), of which approximately 75 percent is forest in a good state of conservation, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.

Claudia Monzón Alvarado, a researcher from Colegio de la Frontera Sur, has studied the cultivation of oil palm in the Campeche region. She believes that the “great challenge” of the oil palm expansion project in Campeche is to ensure that it is implemented in such a way that small farmers make profits in the short or medium term.

“Here oil palm faces a great challenge and has an opportunity to create environmental regulations that are currently nonexistent,” Alvarado said. “If planting is imminent, it should be done sustainably, not just from an environmental standpoint but from a social one too. We have to consider both components and stop designing policies based on financial gain.”


This is a translated and adapted version of a story that was produced by Mongabay Latam and first published on October 9, 2019.

Banner image: Locals have started noticing drastic changes in the natural landscapes due to the planting of oil palm. Photo: courtesy of Página Abierta.

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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