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Deforestation and palm oil cultivation in Latin America

Blog, 28 April 2015
© Mazidi Ghani

Francisco Naranjo, RSPO Technical Manager Latin America

Current data from the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) shows that Latin America is home to half of the world’s remaining tropical forests. These forests contain a high grade of endemism and biological diversity, a doubly great resource, which, if used sustainably, could promote the social and economic development of millions of people.

In total, 12 countries in Latin America grow commercial palm oil, contributing nearly 6% of global production per annum. While oil palm is a relatively new crop in the region – the first commercial plantations were established around 50 years ago and were developed by farmers who traditionally cultivated other products such as banana, coffee and cocoa – it has become an increasingly lucrative alternative for many farmers.

Although Latin America has advanced significantly in identifying and establishing reserve zones or protected areas, the capacity for managing these reserves on behalf of local and national governments is still very limited. In some cases, this capacity deficit has led to the deterioration of habitats and ecosystems in protected areas. For the majority of Latin American countries, a lack of coordination between the politics of conservation and development has also contributed to conflicts between the productive sectors and the public and private institutions that provide social and environmental care and support.

In terms of conservation, the main challenge facing Latin America is its rate of deforestation, which is among the highest in the world. For some countries, such as Brazil and Mexico, the rate of deforestation has decreased considerably, despite the increase in palm oil cultivation. However, the accumulated deforestation across the region is substantial. Given such contradictions it is difficult to find a clear, direct relation between deforestation and the cultivation of palm

To fully appreciate how critical diversity is to Latin America, and understand the root causes driving deforestation, local studies and wider research are essential. We know that one of the primary causes of deforestation is the growth of the agricultural frontier; but we need to develop a clearer picture of the role palm oil plays in this. To do this we need detailed evidence.

In Latin America, biological diversity and unequal distribution of income between people underpin high levels of poverty. But if palm oil cultivation is to be a social and economic development solution to this problem, it must come via a path that reconciles the conservation of natural resources with the urgent challenge of achieving sustainable economic and social development.

In this context, RSPO can boost palm oil production in Latin America by encouraging growers to adopt its Principles and Criteria – the cornerstone of its certified sustainable palm oil standard. Among these, one key principle clearly establishes the prohibition of setting up new planting of palm oil in primary forests of high conservation value (HCV).

While Latin America is hampered by current low prices of palm oil and high production costs, growing interest in sustainable palm oil in the region and rising global demand for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) promises great potential for growth.

Thirteen new plantations and mills are expected to be certified in 2015. RSPO has 64 members in Latin America, 26 of which are oil palm growers managing more than 250,000 hectares of oil palm plantations. Total CSPO production has reached 275,000 metric tonnes – derived from 59,000 hectares of plantations and eight RSPO-certified extractors located in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Ecuador. Sustainably produced palm oil is expected to exceed more than a million tons by the year’s end. Achieving this milestone would turn Latin America into the region with the highest percentage of sustainable palm oil in the world. From deforestation to reforestation in less than a generation: who knows?