Evidence mounts for oil palm under agroforestry in Brazil

oil palm agroforestry system

Oil palm agroforestry system in Brazil.
Photo: Debora Castellani

Can Brazil avoid the widespread deforestation which has occurred in Southeast Asia and develop an oil palm industry that is both productive and environmentally friendly?

A study of oil palm grown in trial plots of ecologically diverse agroforestry systems in the Amazonian state of Pará, northern Brazil suggests it may be possible.

Results after 5 years show oil palm yields in agroforestry systems are, on average, higher than those of monocrop systems. Carbon stocks in one of the plots were higher than in secondary forests or conventional agroforestry systems, and biodiversity is flourishing under oil palm agroforestry.

“This is the first time in the world that the feasibility of oil palm in complex agroforestry systems has been demonstrated,” says Andrew Miccolis, who was working as a consultant with Brazilian cosmetics company, Natura, when he helped design and set up these agroforestry systems in 2008.

“The challenge is to build up evidence of how oil palm agroforestry systems can provide a socially, economically and environmentally feasible alternative to monocrop systems.”

Miccolis is now working with the World Agroforestry Centre to design a broader project that will continue to monitor the oil palm agroforestry systems and test new options in various smallholder contexts with a view to scaling them up in a series of demonstration plots.

Oil palm (Eleais Guineensis) produces the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world. In recent decades it has been blamed for widespread deforestation and land use change, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, which account for about 90 per cent of total global production, most of which is grown in large monoculture plantations.

Oil palm monoculture. Photo by Moses Ceaser for CIFOR

Oil palm monoculture.
Photo by Moses Ceaser for CIFOR

In 2010, Brazil produced less than 1 per cent of the world’s palm oil. But, with large areas of land in the country considered suitable for oil palm, the potential for high yields, increased incomes and greater employment opportunities, the area under oil palm is set to rapidly expand.

To its credit, the Brazilian government has made a commitment to sustainability in oil palm production, putting in place policies to ensure it is only grown on land considered to be degraded and does not become responsible for deforestation. But these policies may be tested under the pressure of big business.

Companies such as Vale, the second largest mining company in the world, Petrobras, the state‐controlled Brazilian oil giant and ADM, an American global food-processing and commodities-trading corporation, have already started to establish large‐scale oil palm plantations in Pará.

Farmers and traditional communities are naturally interested in growing oil palm but nervous of the monoculture model that is being promoted by companies. They fear the plant disease and market-related risks of relying on a single commodity for their livelihoods. The farmers still want to be able to grow their staples and cash crops such as cassava, beans, cacao, açai palm (Euterpe oleracea) and cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum).

“The solution seems to lie in developing a system whereby oil palm can be grown alongside, not in competition with, the crops that farmers’ value,” outlines Miccolis. “But there has been very little research on oil palm agroforestry systems to date.”

Studies such as that by Miccolis and colleagues will be vital to making the case that oil palm can be a win-win for farmers, the private sector and the environment.

Already many companies are looking to source more sustainable oil palm, as evidenced by the funding of this research by Natura and recent moves by Nestlé, L’Oreal, Unilever and Ferrero to implement policies for using ‘forest-friendly’ oil palm in their products.

Through the Dendê Project: Agroforestry Systems and Family Farming (dendê is Portugese for palm oil) a series of demonstration plots were established in 2008 on farmers’ fields in the area of Tomé Açu in Pará state. Each plot has been planted with different combinations of tree species and crops, and has undergone different management regimes.

“We want to come up with a design for an agroforestry system that avoids over-shading of oil palm but allows enough shading for secondary species such as cacao and black pepper,” explains Miccolis. “Also, we need to determine what species will grow well in local conditions, increase soil fertility and provide mulch for oil palm and other species.”

After 4 ½ years since the plots were established, analysis has shown that average oil palm yields in the agroforestry systems are more than 7 tons per hectare per year compared to 5 tons in monocrop oil palm of the same age under similar conditions.

The researchers found that soil carbon stocks in the oil palm agroforestry systems on one plot were 71-76 Mg Carbon per hectare compared to 60 and below in conventional agroforestry systems and in 10 to 15 year old regrowth. Miccolis believes this could be attributed to the intensive slash and mulch combined with the addition of organic fertilizer which improved soil health on the plots.

In terms of biodiversity, greater plant species diversity and birdlife was observed in the demonstration plots compared to conventional plantations nearby. This is of course still below that of secondary growth forest, but then the agroforestry systems were only around 3 years old when this was measured.

Miccolis explains how in the study, the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) ‘shone out’ as a fertilizer species with a high nutrient content and biomass production. “The use of such species through pruning and mulching reduced the need for fertilizers and helped increase oil palm yields and carbon stocks.”

While the findings of the study are still preliminary, it does seem clear that there is strong potential for intercropping oil palm with agroforestry systems in Brazil.

“More conclusive results on the economic feasibility will require at least a few more years of oil palm harvests and more time for other species such as cocoa, açai and timber species to bear fruit.”

The next step is to build on the lessons learnt from the study in Tomé Açu and further monitor the performance of the established plots. A project currently being developed by the World Agroforestry Centre will trial other sustainable models for oil palm cultivation by smallholder famers in the Amazon, in conjunction with partner organizations.

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The Dendê Project is a collaborative effort between several partner organizations, including NATURA (major Brazilian cosmetics company) and their Bioagriculture Research Program, EMBRAPA (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation), CAMTA (Tomé Açu Farmers’ Cooperative) and FINEP (the Brazilian Government’s Funding Authority for Studies and Projects).

More information

Miccolis A, Marson R and de Andrade T. (2012). The expansion of oil palm in the Brazilian Amazon: paths forward for sustainability among family farmers. Presentation to the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) 2012 Congress.

Miccolis A, Vasconcelos S, Castellani D, Carvalho V, Kato O and Silva A. (2014). Oil palm and Agroforestry Systems: coupling yields with environmental services, an experiment in the Brazilian Amazon. Presentation to the World Congress on Agroforestry 2014.

Carvalho V, Vasconcelos S, Kato O, Capela C and Castellani D. (2014). Short-term changes in the soil carbon stocks of young oil palm-based agroforestry systems in the eastern Amazon. Agroforestry Systems.

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Kate Langford

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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