A new frontier: Oil palm in the Peruvian Amazon
Understanding the effects of Peru’s new boom crop on the country’s forests and its people
Aoife Bennett has seen forests go up in flames as Amazon rainforest is cleared ready for the new, highly contentious crop in town: oil palm.
At the heart of this rush to grow oil palm is the belief that the crop can lift the local people out of poverty, whilst also not damaging the environment. Living with oil palm producing villages and communities during her DPhil research gave Bennett a unique understanding of the producers’ lives, motivations and challenges. “Everyone wants prosperity and everyone loves the forest,” she says. “However, naturally, prosperity is much more highly valued, and the forest comes much lower down the list of priorities where livelihoods are concerned.”
Oil palm is often viewed as a win-win solution to poverty alleviation and environmental goals, because it is a tree and has a higher yield than other oil crops. Unfortunately, it is not always the ‘silver bullet’ solution to sustainable development. Bennett explains that it is very dependent on the production models utilized, and the geographical areas that are selected for planting (forest versus degraded areas).
The Peruvian Government estimates that at least a further 600,000 hectares of the country’s Amazon rainforest is ‘apt’ for oil palm, but it is already the third largest agricultural driver of deforestation in the country. A worrying statistic considering the youth of the oil palm sector in Peru.
Bennett, who has been measuring forest biomass since 2012, has discovered that the reality of deforestation is in excess of official estimates. “If trends continue, the government will not be able to meet their zero deforestation commitments in time,” she warns.
She explains, “Amazon forest has an amazing capacity to recover from forest degradation and deforestation by itself, when this is facilitated by policy and practise. “Rethinking new, young forest, secondary forest and even fallows as environmentally and socially beneficial rather than legislating them as ‘degraded’ is one of my main policy recommendations.”
I believe that there is still time to do this the right way — Peru is still in the early stages of oil palm development.
Through her research Bennett hopes to inspire a more holistic view of forests as well as a better understanding of the communities who live in and around them. Banning oil palm is not realistic, nor would it be a solution. Rather, she sees that there is an opportunity for government policy to encourage farmers and companies to look after and grow forest alongside oil palm, and support good practice, such as keeping fallow land and changing forest land titling legislation.
The Peruvian Government are in a difficult position, having to align rural development goals with conservation commitments, but Bennett believes that there is opportunity to forge a prosperous future for the Peruvian people and a greener future for the country.
Find out more about Aoife’s research in the School of Geography and the Environment.
School of Geography and the Environment: As the oldest Geography department in the UK, Oxford has an outstanding tradition in geographical teaching and research. Graduate students and academic staff are working across the discipline, with research encompassing environmental, human, and physical geography. Research includes studies on migration, through pensions policies, biogeography, climate change, flood risk, desertification, biological and cultural diversity, amongst other topics. Find out more on their website.
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