Palm oil might seem an odd proposition for reducing poverty and preserving rainforests. In recent years, the negative environmental and social impacts associated with its cultivation have become widely known.

In the Brazilian Amazon, however, there are hopes that the relatively-new palm oil industry will avoid some of the mistakes made in other parts of the world, and provide opportunities to benefit local people, help avoid deforestation and recover degraded lands.

Will it work? That depends on the institutions, regulations and support that’s put in place around the nascent industry, say the co-authors of a recent Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) study.

   Since 1970, around 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been deforested due to human activity. CIFOR Photo/Miguel Pinheiro
   Da Costa’s father processes beans grown on their land. CIFOR Photo/Miguel Pinheiro


For Elinelson Da Costa, a settler in the Brazilian Amazon, switching to oil palm cultivation meant coming on the right side of the law – and Amazonian preservation.

Before, he’d made his living working at a clandestine charcoal oven, which processed timber felled illegally from the forest. “I didn’t want to work there, but I didn’t really have a choice. I needed to provide for my family.”

In 2010, the Brazilian government launched the Program for Sustainable Production of Palm Oil (SPOPP), which restricts oil palm cultivation to already-cleared land and incentivizes companies to include smallholders. As a result, nearly 1,500 Amazonian smallholder families have entered into the oil palm sector so far, says CIFOR scientist Frederico Brandão.

   “When I came to live here I was given a settlement property. You can only imagine: when I arrived on this land, there was pretty much nothing,” says Da Costa. CIFOR Photo/Miguel Pinheiro
   Da Costa's stepfather in the fields. CIFOR Photo/Miguel Pinheiro

Da Costa’s family was one of them. At first, he says, they were skeptical: “We were afraid to start planting oil palm on our land. People warned us, ‘If you plant palm oil, it will ruin your land. You won’t have enough space for your own crops, and you won’t produce your [cassava] flour.’”

But that concern hasn’t eventuated for most farmers, says Brandão. Through a combination of civil society pressure, governmental concern and private sector adoption, farmers have been encouraged to keep growing their other crops alongside oil palm, and food security has not been notably affected so far.

As the oil palm plants reach maturity, the Da Costa family expects the move to continue paying off in terms of providing a reliable income.

“You can’t always sell your flour. But oil palm is different: you always have a buyer,” says Da Costa. “And that’s the key to it all – having someone buying what you’re producing.”

   Despite political and economic instability in recent years, the Brazilian palm oil sector seems stable – at least for now. CIFOR Photo/Miguel Pinheiro


While stories like Elinelson’s exist, the scheme cannot be considered an inclusive development program in its current format, say the researchers.

They found that more marginalized smallholders are less likely to meet eligibility criteria. And within the schemes themselves, initial results indicate extremely differentiated outcomes, ranging from crystal-clear success to near abandonment, with the bulk of farmers found in intermediary positions.

The smallholders involved are a diverse group, with a wide range of agricultural skills, resources and capabilities. It’s still too early to understand exactly why some succeed where others fail, say the researchers, and they’re keen to keep researching the topic and answering those questions.

   Smallholders participate in a focus group for the CIFOR study. A strong history of social movements and union action means communities here tend to be quite open and vocal when compared to their counterparts elsewhere in the world, says Brandão. CIFOR Photo/Miguel Pinheiro

At this point, they recommend making the scheme design more flexible, to reduce exclusion without sacrificing viability, and adding in capacity-building where it’s required – such as paying special attention to farmers at risk of credit default or failure. They’re hopeful that these moves will allow more farmers to succeed, says Brandão.

As Brandão notes, there is clear potential for Brazil to produce oil palm in ways that help reduce poverty and don’t impinge on forests – though much still depends on the ways that companies adopt the rules and the government keeps its commitment to tackle deforestation and support smallholder agriculture.

Da Costa remains hopeful oil palm will provide him and his family a stable source of income and opportunities for development. He’s proud of how far he’s come, and clear about his aspirations: “In the future I would like people to say: ‘Elinelson is not the same Elinelson we used to know. Now he’s a businessman!’ Well, not a businessman really, but a producer,” he says.

For more information on this topic, please contact Frederico Brandão at
This research was supported by UKAID-funded KnowFOR (Forestry Knowledge) program.
Copyright policy:
We want you to share Forests News content, which is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). This means you are free to redistribute our material for non-commercial purposes. All we ask is that you give Forests News appropriate credit and link to the original Forests News content, indicate if changes were made, and distribute your contributions under the same Creative Commons license. You must notify Forests News if you repost, reprint or reuse our materials by contacting