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ICTA-UAB researchers alert that oil palm plantations produce infertility in tropical lands

Date: 2017-06-15

Oil palm ICTA-UAB- Mingorria's research

  • Oil palm plantations are replacing 40% of tropical forests and 32% of basic grain crops, according to an ICTA-UAB research conducted in Guatemala.
  • It is estimated that 25 years are needed to make the ground fertile again after an oil palm plantation.

The worldwide expansion of oil palm crops (Elaeis guineensis) is generating a huge environmental impact with a strong influence in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where these plantations are replacing 40% of tropical forests and 32% of basic grain plantations. This is part of a research conducted by the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB), which reveals that in countries such as Guatemala, the oil palm expansion has incremented 600% in the past ten years.  Scientifics warn that this type of crop is destroying the land, making it infertile and finally, unuseful. 

The loss of biodiversity, destruction of the habitat of different species, water and air pollution caused by fire used as a method of land clearing, and health impacts are the most well-known and controversial causes of the environmental impacts produced by this plantation crop.
An ICTA-UAB study conducted by Sara Mingorría in the Polochic Valley of Guatemala evidences that infertility of the ground used for oil palm plantations is one of the most significant environmental consequences of this type of crop. She also points out that this monoculture requires an important amount of nutrients and reduces soil fertility. “This land remains so weak that despite the volume of fertilizer used, the substance disappears without producing any effects and leaving the land in similar conditions as a house floor”, explains Mingorría.

In addition, Mingorría highlights that these plantations are also known as “green deserts” as a consequence of the amount of shadows cast by this trees, which disable the growth of other vegetation. She also points out that it takes 25 years to fertilize the ground after an oil palm plantation.

The lifespan of an oil palm tree is approximately 25 years and after it reaches the end of its usable life, it is necessary to remove it and fertilize the land. As the researcher points out, this action is not profitable for companies due to its high cost.  That is the reason why they search for other unused lands to set up new oil palm plantations.

“There are people who defend the existence of oil palm plantations by arguing that they are sustainable for the environment and also create new job opportunities”, explains the researcher. However, they also cause irreversible environmental impacts and ecological disasters. Moreover, this monoculture attracts new epidemics, pests and insects which affect not only the oil palm workers’ health, but also that of the nearby communities.

The expansion of oil palm plantations began due to the intensifying demand in the Northern Hemisphere for agro fuels, edible oils, industrial lubricants and cosmetics. According to the Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas), created by ICTA-UAB researchers with the aim of registering all socio-environmental conflicts existing around the world, Southeast Asia assembles the major extension of oil palm crops with 8 million planted hectares in Indonesia and 4 million in Malaysia. In Latin America, the dominant extension of oil palm plantations is located in Colombia, with 400,000, followed by Ecuador with 280,000 and Honduras with 250,000.

Due to its versatility and wide use, its expansion is growing at high speeds and it is estimated that its production will triple in the next three years. 

According to EJAtlas, there are currently 72 registered conflicts worldwide related to oil palm production. An example of this is the “ecocide” in the Pasión River of Guatemala, where there was a massive death of thousands of fishes after the establishment of a palm oil processing company, near the river. According to the toxicology laboratory of the Universidad de San Carlos, the reason for this massive death in a length of 150 km was the high amount of pollution caused by the Malathion pesticide used to eliminate flies from the oil palm fruit.

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