Producing up to ten times more vegetable oil per hectare than other crops, palm oil has gained increasing prominence on the world stage due to its versatility, whether in the food, cosmetics, hygiene, or biofuel industry. Palm oil production worldwide has grown by more than 300% in 20 years, with around 80% concentrated in two Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The humid tropical regions have the ideal climatic conditions for the culture; however, these areas are generally home to sensitive ecosystems from an environmental perspective. Respect for social and environmental issues places Brazil in a vanguard situation concerning other producing nations and guarantees the product’s competitiveness due to its sustainability.
All cultivation is carried out respecting the Agroecological Zoning of Palm Oil, a government program that defines the sustainable implementation of this crop, allowing its production only in deforested areas in the Amazon region. In that matter, palm oil is strategic for the recovery of degraded areas, as it is a perennial crop with manual harvesting.
Following strict laws, forest areas that have already been degraded are recovered through the planting of palms and the conservation of adjacent forests, which contribute to the reestablishment of the ecological balance. After the fruits that provide the oil are reaped, the tree is maintained. The activity preserves the vegetation and enriches the soil. Furthermore, palm oil has a positive balance in terms of carbon emissions and generates jobs in the region, since planting and harvesting cannot be mechanized.
According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) data, in 2020, the Pará state recorded 188.5 thousand hectares cultivated with oil palm, more than 90% of the total area planted in Brazil, which equals 202.2 thousand hectares. Regarding the amount produced, Pará is responsible for 98.6% of the national production of palm oil (2,829.4 thousand tons in 2020).
The oil originating from the palm has been consumed for over 5 thousand years and was introduced in the Americas in the 15th century. It is said that oil palms brought from Africa arrived in Brazilian lands in the colonial period, between 1539 and 1542.
The palm tree reaches 15 meters in height. Its fruit is orange in color. Its yield is a very high one: it produces 10 times more oil than soy, 4 times more than peanuts, and 2 times more than coconut. From the fruit’s almond, an oil used in cosmetics and the manufacture of chocolate is also extracted.
A properly conducted planting begins to bear fruit at the end of the third year, with production between 6 and 8 tons of bunches/ha, reaching its peak in the eighth year. It can reach 25 tons of bunches/ha, a production that remains at this level until the 17th year; it declines slightly until the end of its productive useful life, which lasts around 25 years.
Palm oil is the most suitable for the manufacture of vegetable butter, due to its consistency and for not going rancid, it is excellent as cooking and frying oil, and also suitable for making creams and baking bread, cakes, pies, fine biscuits, etc. Some Brazilian regions are major consumers of palm oil for domestic purposes, especially Bahia.
One of the largest producers in Latin America, Agropalma works with Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) [Homepage] certification. The RSPO has developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). Worldwide, it has more than 5 thousand members who represent all links along the palm oil supply chain.
“Not only the company but all our partners are certified. We have a partnership with the NGO Conservation International to help monitor the conservation of species,” explains André Gasparini, Commercial Director at Agropalma. The company has been in the state for 40 years, and almost 25% of its total palm oil production comes from family farming and integrated producers.
It is in Pará that families of small and medium farmers get involved in the cultivation of palm oil, associating themselves with Agropalma’s Integration and Family Agriculture Program. The project has been developed for two decades and has transformed the social and economic reality in the northeast region of Pará, where the company is located.
When the project was implemented, in 2002, 50 families took part in it. Since then, this number has increased four times and, today, there are 203 families. Another 44 integrated producers also cultivate palm oil and sell their production to Agropalma.
Iracema Pinto, 60, has 7 hectares of land dedicated exclusively to palm plantations in the municipality of Moju. Today, she already plans to expand the oil palm plantation. “I have 3 hectares where we grow açaí, cupuaçu, manioc, and other species, but focused on our livelihood. Our work is with the palms, and we sell all their fruits,” she highlights.
Her palm oil endeavor has been so successful in such a small area that the family members had to organize themselves to improve their work routine. Iracema plays the role of coordinator within the structure that the family has set up. “My son and son-in-law are directly taking care of production. I take on other functions, but when necessary, I go with them to the field,” she said.
“I plant on 10 hectares and I earn a living,” reinforces Edmilson Ferreira Barros. He is happy to emphasize the economic benefits of cultivation. “We were a needy community when we began oil palm planting 20 years ago, and today the families are stabilized, my children are studying, and others in our community are going to college,” he says.
Producer of an area of 200 hectares, Jabrair Martins Ferreira was a soybean producer in Mato Grosso state when he decided to invest in palm a few years ago. “The cost of planting is high, and it takes a little longer to start producing. But then it is worth it.” Today, he has 20 employees and manages the business with his son’s help. “With the technical assistance of Agropalma, we have stability, and everyone works safely,” he concludes.