Palm oil production has long been a contentious issue and a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the oil's renewable source and application as biofuel make it an appealing alternative, but on the other, some of the most devastating deforestation has occurred to cultivate it. But in a policy move designed to both protect its remaining forests and replenish parts already lost, Brazil announced today a plan to expand its palm oil cultivation into previously deforested regions, promising a sustainable alternative to the destructive methods practiced in other parts of the world.
The Program for Sustainable Production of Palm Oil, announced today by Brazilian President Lula da Silva, is novel in its approach to protecting standing forests while allowing cultivation in areas that have been deforested in the past, namely for use as short-lived sugarcane plantations or lumber operations. The program would allow palm oil to be produced without the net negative impact from its cultivation seen in Indonesia and Malaysia, where rainforests are cleared for palm plantations.
According to Brazil's Minister of Environment, Izabella Teixeira:
The Program for the Sustainable Production of Palm Oil launched by Brazil today is unlike any other framework in the world. It is designed to utilize degraded lands and prohibit the expansion of production in forest areas, thus helping to fight deforestation--which converges with the Amazon Ecological-Economic Macrozoning law. Sustainable growth and environmental protection is a top national priority for Brazil.
Along with allowing farmers to plant on low-productivity deforested land through a change in zoning laws, the program explicitly forbids farmers to clear additional forests for palm oil cultivation. Right now, Brazilians produce palm oil on 70,000 hectares on land--which covers less than half of the country's demand--meaning most of it had to be imported from abroad where cultivation practices have been criticized. Under the proposed plan, 31.8 million acres would be made available under these guidelines.
The expansion of sustainable palm oil plantations in Brazil will also incentivize farmers to recover lost forest. Under the law, farmers are required to maintain between 20 to 80 percent native vegetation on their land. Palms are naturally occurring in these regions, which means expanding their cultivation literally reforests cleared forests as well.
Brazil's push for sustainable palm oil production will be a boon to the economy. According to Globo, the government estimates the income of farmers will more than double, and expanded cultivation will produce jobs as well. A shortage of jobs contributes to black market work, like in illegal lumber operations, which is responsible for much of the deforestation in the first place. The plan hopes to undercut these activities by providing legal, and most importantly, sustainable work for locals.
Once a shameful scar of imprudent agricultural practices, soon Brazil's deforested regions may teem with new life--to the benefit of the environment and the people who live and work there. So often it seems nature must suffer for our industries to profit, as is the case with palm oil production throughout much of the world, but that doesn't have to be so. Instead of losing forests in the quest for palm oil, in Brazil they'll soon be sprouting up.