Since 2001, palm oil production has grown tremendously. An increase in the cost of soybean oil and a move away from trans-fats in foods, including Girl Scout cookies, helped fuel the boom in palm oil plantations.
The countries currently responsible for most of the production of palm oil – Indonesia and Malaysia – have garnered a bad reputation for destructive practices. Indonesia has recently moved towards cleaning up the industry, but they still have a long way to go.
Palm oil plantations exist in Brazil, but make up a very small percentage of the world production. However, because of so much palm oil demand, the number of plantations is increasing.
Brazil already has forest policies in place to prevent the sort of deforestation from occurring there that is happening in the southeast Asia rainforests. According to this article, the Brazilian government prohibits planters from receiving low-interest government loans if they clear virgin rainforest.
Ironically, the fact that the Brazilian rainforest has already been cleared in many places can help to start off the palm oil plantations on a sustainable foot.
Cattle Ranching to Palm Oil Plantations
When rainforest is cleared for cattle ranching, which is what much of the Amazonian rainforest has been cleared for, the land doesn’t stay productive for long. Rainforest soils are delicate and not very nutritious for plants. The cattle compact the soil and the ranchers have to move on after a few years.
These degraded lands can be planted with palm oil trees. The trees anchor the soil and reduce erosion. They increase rainfall in the region and provide a buffer against fire.
Furthermore, the palm oil plantations make more money than cattle ranches and also employ more people.
So What Could Go Wrong?
Brazil also has laws limiting cattle ranching and logging of pristine rainforest, but lack of governmental oversight makes those laws less than effective.
In order to encourage sustainable palm oil plantations, the market has to demand sustainable palm oil production. The biggest consumers of palm oil are China, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia – countries that don’t have a big track record of environmental awareness.
On the other hand, many Western companies are looking for sustainable palm oil. Brazilian producers may see this as an opportunity to lock in customers and take them away from the southeast Asian producers currently dominating the palm oil market. With only 6% of the palm oil on the market sustainably produced, there is a lot of room for growth.
Image by OneVillage Initiative, used with Creative Commons license.