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 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.”