Can Small-Scale Farming Save Oil Palm?

A laborer reaches up into a palm tree

This is the eleventh piece in a series on the Plantationocene—an alternate name for the epoch often called the Anthropocene. The Plantationocene Series aims to create a conversation about multiple forms of plantations, both past and present, as well as the ways that plantation logics organize modern economies, environments, and social relations.

“Palm oil is already in half the packaged goods in your supermarket. By 2020 world production of it will double from what it was in 2000. You and I are becoming palm trees.” This message from anthropologist Michael Taussig alerts us to the large amounts of palm oil that most people consume and use in products such as breads, soaps, and fuel. Palm oil is filling up more space, not only in consumers’ lives, but in tropical regions around the world.

Production has expanded because palm oil is less expensive than its competitors: soy, canola, and sunflower oils. Lower costs are explained by its productivity. One hectare of oil palm can produce more than five tons of oil, compared to the next most productive crop, canola, which rarely exceeds three tons per hectare. This level of productivity is not necessarily a spontaneous result, but the product of a careful genetic selection over the past 100 years aimed at increasing output, in which the industry has prioritized productivity over disease resistance. However, lower costs don’t guarantee profits for farmers, as palm oil prices depend on volatile international markets that can set prices below production costs. So, genetic selection and dependence on international markets expose farmers, especially small-scale farmers, to economic and environmental risks that make their livelihoods vulnerable and fragile. However, small-scale farmers have not been passive in facing these risks. Small-scale oil palm growers in Colombia have developed tools to confront the risks imposed by the oil palm industry that can draw a way forward for a transition out of the plantationocene

Oil Palm Expansion and Transition in Colombia

The expansion of the palm oil industry in Colombia has been a state policy. Oil palm crops in Colombia extend for more than 1.2 million acres. Large-scale palm oil production in the country started in the 1960s. Over six decades, this crop has accumulated both land and importance in national politics. In 1998, when Carlos Murgas, the owner of one of the largest palm oil companies in the country, became minister of agriculture, he established a form of state-subsidized contract farming named productive alliances. Under these schemes, a palm oil company makes the necessary arrangements for prospective small-scale growers to access credit and subsidies to plant palm and signs a long-term contract (usually for 25 years) to buy palm fruit from them. The government also established that diesel fuel should contain a minimum 12% of biofuels, which are manufactured with palm oil. Today 40% of the national palm oil production is used for biofuels, so almost half of the national palm oil production has a secured buyer.

Each swing of the global debate about palm oil can change the lives of thousands of families.

Colombia has not been the only country to promote palm oil crops. In 2007, President George W. Bush announced that in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, fuels in the United States should contain vegetable oils, such as palm oil. Recent studies suggest this policy has resulted in the opposite effect. The increased demand for palm oil has sharpened deforestation in Southeast Asia to clear land and plant palm. Carbon emissions have increased, as clearing and burning trees to make room for palm crops releases carbon in forest peatlands.

This environmental chaos has led to political debates about the need to reduce demand for palm oil in high-income countries. The European parliament, for example, has discussed measures to reduce oil palm imports. The World Wildlife Fund has pressured the palm industry worldwide to adopt sustainable environmental standards, while other organizations are more skeptical about the possibilities of reform in the industry and are driving a total ban on the use of palm oil in products imported into England and other countries. Future demand for palm oil is hanging by a thread.

The Costs and Benefits of Palm Oil

Reducing the demand for palm oil could significantly affect the lives of rural communities in Colombia and other countries. Today, more than 100,000 workers depend on this industry. Given the number of jobs and livelihoods that depend on this crop in Colombia, each swing of the global debate about palm oil can change the lives of thousands of families.

Palm oil crops have brought both economic opportunities and vulnerability for farmworkers, and this is also true for small-scale farmers. There are more than 4,000 small-scale oil palm growers in Colombia, with less than 50 acres of palm each. While different farmers have contrasting experiences, many are earning higher incomes by growing oil palm and have managed to keep peasant farming practices. Peasant practices, in this context, are characterized by agroecological production, meaning growing and raising a variety of plants and animals that ensures spatial diversity. While peasant palm crops are still usually monocrops, they are often surrounded by polycultures. However, the cash and subsistence crops planted by peasants to complement palm crops are significantly less profitable. Before planting palm, many of these farmers had to work outside their farm and, in some cases, abandon it because the production of cassava, plantain, or cocoa was not enough to support their family. In other words, oil palm has been the only option for many small-scale farmers to make their farm economically viable.

A green, thriving thicket of plants

Some small-scale farmers have oil palm surrounded by polycultures, planting different crops side by side. Photo by author, July 2018.

For many other farmers, palm has caused dispossession and displacement. Large oil palm companies have intimidated and displaced those who oppose or hinder the development of large-scale palm projects. These projects can be very lucrative. At the same time, they need large capital investments. Planting twenty-five acres of palm costs about US $60,000, before farmers even get the first harvest. In this context, it is surprising that so many peasant families without capital manage to make a living from oil palm.

But peasant communities have managed to persist in adverse contexts with the support of different organizations. Of course, the peasantry is a broad group, with diverse experiences. But those who have managed to build resilient livelihoods with palm have some characteristics in common. A key factor is the diversification of income sources. Growing and raising a diversity of crops and animals allows small-scale farmers to rely on other crops, when they face losses on a specific crop due to price drops or pests. As a result, peasant farmers can confront the risks associated with falling prices or pest damage of one crop by relying on the income and food produced by other crops. 

In a grove of palm trees, one palm lacks fronds and fruit

Oil palms have been made vulnerable to disease because of industry methods. The palm seen here died due to a pest. Photo by author, June 2019.

These risks, in the case of oil palm crops, are not minor. An oil palm crop has about 150 trees per hectare. These plants are very different from the native palms that have inhabited Western African forests for thousands of years. To attain greater productivity, the oil palm industry has engaged in plant selection, crossing, and cloning to develop new types of palm, usually from plants that are genetically similar to each other. These transformations have prioritized productivity, sacrificing other important characteristics such as disease resistance. By planting thousands of hectares of palms that are very similar to each other, which have been selected without prioritizing resistance to diseases and have no natural barriers from other palm crops, the oil palm industry has made it easier for pests to spread throughout large regions.

A grove of palm trees with piles of cut palm fronds in the foreground

The impact of disease can be profound. In Puerto Wilches, many farmers had to eradicate about half of the palms to stop the spread of a bud-rotting pest. Photo by author, June 2019.

This vulnerability was confirmed when a bud-rotting pest spread over thousands of hectares in Colombia wiping out about 86,000 acres of palm in the southwestern municipality of Tumaco and 50,000 acres in the northeastern municipality of Puerto Wilches. Afterwards, these two towns plunged into economic and social crises. In Tumaco, a municipality of around 190,000 people, about 7,000 lost their jobs after this pest wiped out palm oil crops. Today, Tumaco is one of the most conflict-afflicted towns in the country, and many explain the surge in violence as partially fueled by the unemployment left behind by palm crops. In Puerto Wilches, many small-scale farmers who bet on palm to improve their income are facing foreclosure. Oil palm crops, in their current shape, can be very productive, but equally risky.

Small-scale farmers point the way forward

What, then, are the prospects for rural communities who depend on oil palm? Small-scale oil palm growers have some important lessons to teach going forward. Crop diversification, characteristic of peasant agriculture, is a key component of sustainable agriculture. Different small-scale farmers in Magdalena Medio have planted other crops alongside palm. Cecilia, Roberto, and many other farmers I have met over the past year maintain an agroecological farming approach around their palm crop. This allows them to rely on subsistence and some cash crops when the palm productivity or prices drop. At a larger scale, these crops, together with mixed bushes that mark the border between farms, can form natural barriers to prevent or slow the spread of pests.

However, palm crops themselves are usually grown as monocrops because knowledge about how to intercrop oil palm is scarce. This plant was introduced to small-scale farming in Latin America and Southeast Asia over the past few decades, so traditional peasant knowledge in these areas does not include oil palm. Additionally, research on this crop has focused on plantations. Today, research and support for agroecological farming, including oil palm, is crucial. Policies supporting diversified farming in the hands of small-scale producers are also crucial. Just as different governments have made sure to secure palm oil demand, diversified agriculture also needs clear policy commitments, including land access for peasants.      

A farmer points toward a lush field of palm oil, cassava, plantain, and cocoa

Roberto points towards his palm oil crop, behind a polycrop of cassava, plantain and cocoa. Photo by author, June 2019.

To forge these changes, it is necessary to support organizations pressuring governments and private companies to implement them and financially supporting peasant agriculture (La Vía Campesina, at a transnational scale, and Asociación Campesina del Valle del Río Cimitarra, in Colombia, are two good examples). It is also important to clarify that these proposals do not imply destroying oil palm crops. These crops offer opportunities for sustainable farming practices, to generate higher incomes for rural communities, and to support thousands of families in Latin America and Southeast Asia. High levels of productivity in oil palm will enable farmers to produce more oil in a smaller area, decreasing pressure to expand the agricultural frontier.

While destructive on large-scale plantations, integrated into agroecological farming, palm can be more sustainable. What is needed, then, is a progressive transition towards a future in which palm can bear more valuable and sustainable fruits in tropical regions around the world. This future depends on government policies, the decisions of the European parliament, and many more people, you and me included. Because, in the words of Michael Taussig, “you and I are becoming palm trees.” Transforming oil palm crops means transforming agricultural fields in Colombia, transforming forests in Indonesia, but also transforming ourselves.

Featured image: A worker for the Palmas del Cesar palm oil company in Colombia cuts fruit that later will be processed as palm oil for export. Photo by Carlos Villalon, 2016.

Author’s note: I am deeply grateful to the farmers and workers who have participated in my research. I would also like to thank Julian Barajas, Laura Perry, and Marisa Lanker for the very useful comments that helped me improve this piece. My research on oil palm has been generously funded by grants from the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, the Scott-Kloeck Jenson Fellowship, the Nave Short-Term Field Research Grant, the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies, the Crowe Scholarship, the Mellon-Wisconsin Fellowship, and the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, as well as a Rural Sociological Society Dissertation Award.

Angela Serrano is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is currently conducting dissertation fieldwork with small-scale oil palm growers and plantation workers in Colombia. Contact.