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Latin America palm oil production doubled since 2001 without massive uptick in deforestation

  • On July 17, 2017

Latin America palm oil production doubled since 2001 without massive uptick in deforestation
3 mins read
The area of land planted with oil palm has doubled in Latin America since 2001, but a new study finds that most plantations were established on land that had already been cleared.

The palm oil industry’s rapid growth in Southeast Asia brought with it massive amounts of deforestation and associated impacts on local communities and biodiversity. So, as oil palm operations proliferate across the tropics, it’s perhaps no surprise that the impacts of palm oil production outside of Southeast Asia are the subject of increasing scrutiny.

For instance, a study published earlier this month in the journal Environmental Research Letters by researchers with the University of Puerto Rico looks at the types of land being converted to oil palm plantations in Latin America. The area of land planted with oil palm has doubled in Latin America since 2001, but the study finds that most plantations were established on land that had already been cleared.
The majority of the land in the region that has been turned over to palm oil production was originally cleared by ranchers so they could graze their cattle on it, according to the study. If palm oil continues to replace pastures instead of forests, the authors suggest, Latin America may be well positioned as a regional producer of sustainable palm oil.
“After the environmental devastation witnessed in Asia, the big question was whether Latin America would do palm oil right,” Paul R. Furumo, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Puerto Rico and the lead author of the study, said in a statement. Latin America is home to the world’s largest forested area with conditions suitable for palm oil agriculture, Furumo added.
While “sustainable” palm oil production is a complex issue, it can certainly be said to begin with the type of land use changes made in order to plant a new oil palm plantation. “When forests are cut down, it is a 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,” Furumo said.
Previous research has suggested that deforestation was playing a less pronounced role in Latin American palm oil production than in the Southeast Asian countries of Indonesia or Malaysia, which collectively produce about 80 percent of the world’s palm oil. But Furumo and co-author T. Mitchell Aide, of the Department of Biology at the University of Puerto Rico, are the first to identify the specific types of land uses that have been converted to palm oil production.
Furumo and Aide integrated MODIS satellite imagery with high-resolution Google Earth images to map nearly 540 million hectares (about 1.3 million acres) of oil palm in 10 different Latin American countries. They then used Google Earth to look backwards in time and determine what the most recent land use and land cover was before any particular area was planted with oil palm.
They found that 79 percent of the time, oil palm had been planted on lands already heavily impacted by human activities, such as pastures and croplands. The other 21 percent of the time, oil palm plantations replaced what was classified as “woody vegetation,” which includes but is not limited to forests.
Cattle pastures alone accounted for as much as 56 percent of oil palm expansion. Croplands made up another 18 percent, and banana plantations four percent.
These findings at the regional level did not necessarily hold true at the national level in all cases, however. Peru had the highest rate of deforestation for palm oil production out of all the countries studied, with 76 percent of detected oil palm plantations replacing forests, the researchers determined. This finding is in-line with other studies that have shown palm oil to be an emerging threat to the Peruvian Amazon.
And while only 24 percent of palm oil expansion in Guatemala came at the expense of forests, 89 percent of that expansion occurred in the country’s Petén department, which contains the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. The authors of the study said that weak local governance and land tenure laws were to blame, which, they argue, points up the importance of industry oversight by international certification programs.
All the same, given the current land use dynamics around oil palm plantations in Latin America, the region could come as close to achieving sustainable palm oil production as the world has ever seen if future expansion were to be guided by sustainability initiatives like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Furumo and Aide argue.
That would certainly be a development welcomed by companies that have pledged to clean up their palm oil supply chains and committed to ramping up their use of certified sustainable palm oil. Recent research has found that there may not actually be enough certified sustainable palm oil available for all of those companies to meet their targets.
“The present trend of oil palm expanding onto previously cleared lands, guided by roundtable certifications programs, provides an opportunity for more sustainable development of the oil palm sector in Latin America,” Furumo and Aide write in the study.

Oil palm plantation and forest in Costa Rica. Photo by Rhett Butler.
Furumo, P. R., & Aide, T. M. (2017). Characterizing commercial oil palm expansion in Latin America: land use change and trade. Environmental Research Letters, 12(2), 024008. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aa5892