For many people, the mere mention of palm oil conjures up dystopian images of trees planted in military drill formation across vast stretches of land bereft of the brilliant greens and abundant foliage that characterize tropical rainforests in their natural state.
But 18 demonstration farms on 60 hectares of land in the Amazonian state of Pará in northern Brazil are repainting that picture, posing a challenge to the convention that the vital oil can only be profitably grown in high volumes as a chemically dependent monoculture.
Since 2017, Andrew Miccolis and a team of researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), have been demonstrating that oil palms can produce higher yields and a wide range of benefits in mixed agroforestry systems.
Building on pioneering efforts on three farms in 2008 by cosmetics company Natura & Co., Brazil’s crop research agency Embrapa, and Pará-based cooperative Tomé-Açu Mixed Agricultural Cooperative through the SAF Dendê project, the researchers have also shown that oil palm agroforestry can deliver competitive financial returns.
“A combination of oil palm interspersed with rows of timber trees and crops such as açaí (Euterpe oleracea), banana, cocoa, passionfruit and cassava can do as well or even better than monocultures,” said Miccolis, CIFOR-ICRAF Brazil country coordinator and lead researcher on this project, during an interview ahead of International Day of Forests.
“Benefits extend to improved farmer livelihoods, and healthier ecosystems due to better soil health and increased plant diversity, as well as higher carbon sequestration as compared to conventional monocrop systems. Project farmers have also reported these systems better adapted to the effects of climate change, such as prolonged droughts, which are increasingly common in this region.”
On the initial 6 hectare trial farms begun by Natura/CAMTA in 2008, after 11 years the yield volume of fruit bunches — from which palm oil is extracted — was 180 kg a plant, compared to 139 kg a plant in monocultures at the same age.
Palm oil, a major cause of deforestation, is used in about half of packaged products available in supermarkets in ready meals, baked goods, chocolate, cosmetics and shampoo, to name a few. It is also used as animal feed and as a biofuel in many parts of the world.
Sustainable production systems provide a great deal of flexibility for farmers, offering better protection from fluctuating market prices and other risks such as plant diseases. It allows them to match the system to their own livelihood needs and adapt to shifting market conditions.
“For example, when the price of oil palm was tanking on global markets and at the same time, the price of cocoa was quite high, then farmers had the choice of pruning and thinning the oil palm and allowing more sun for the cocoa — to prioritize it for sale,” Miccolis said, adding that altogether 35 species are grown alongside oil palm on the trial farms.
“The opposite is now also true where the price of oil palm has really gone up a lot. It’s almost tripled in the past few years. That’s increased the demand for palm oil and allowed farmers to focus a little bit more on the oil palm than on the other tree crops.”
Another benefit derives from the fact that the gender-diverse farmers are managing several trees on the same plot, which reduces their overall labor input. A farmer might produce a smaller volume of oil palm per hectare due to a lower number of trees, but overall, they will produce more if the other crops are taken into account.
“Preliminary findings from financial modeling shows these systems are also actually financially more feasible than the monocrop systems, with shorter payback periods, higher internal rates of return and more favorable return to labor,” Miccolis said.
“We also believe the higher land-equivalent ratio will ultimately lead to land sparing – reducing the need to encroach into forests in neighboring plots. Instead of using swidden techniques to clear land for cassava, for example, they can produce more cassava in the same plot as the oil palm. And therefore, need to clear less land to do so.”
Swidden, also known as shifting cultivation or, formerly, “slash and burn” is used to clear and prepare the land for planting in the tropics. On the SAF Dendê farms, swidden is replaced by “slash and mulch,” which involves coppicing, or pruning, which encourages new growth, promoting soil health and plant development.
Higher yields are largely due to the intensive agroecological management practices the farmers use, in which nutrients are supplied largely by the biomass of trees and shrubs known as fertilizer or “engineer” species.
Composting and by-product residues from the oil palm mills, the fresh fruit bunches, as well as shells and other plant waste from CAMTA’s fruit processing plant are also used. Farmers thus avoid chemical fertilizers and pesticides — one of the aims of the research is to test whether it is possible to supply the nutrients required by the oil palm and other tree crops through these highly efficient plants.
“People talk about a circular economy, but this is like circular agroforestry based on agroecological principles and practices,” Miccolis said. “One of the components of this project is really taking best advantage of the biomass that’s produced locally through these systems.”
The trials were designed using participatory methods, to ensure they meet farmer objectives and environmental criteria. Inclusivity is a key approach in the project, as the “family farms” in the region are often too small to qualify for provisioning big companies, which require plantations of 6 to 10 hectares.
“There is a widely held belief that intercropping with other perennial crops and native trees cannot work for oil palm. The early findings from the family farm sites led by CIFOR-ICRAF suggest that not only is it technically and financially feasible to intercrop long-lasting trees with oil palm, but also that, when properly managed, these systems can provide key social benefits and environmental services,” Miccolis said.
“Instead of reducing the impact on biodiversity caused by land clearing, we’re actually trying to bring biodiversity into the oil palm plantations, which is quite novel. While enabling conditions must be addressed, there is a large potential for uptake of these agroforestry techniques in other tropical landscapes.”
This project received support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in its second phase (2017-2020) and is supported by the CIFOR-ICRAF Agroecology Transformative Partnership Platform.
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