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close this bookAmazonia: Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and Its People (UNU, 1995, 253 pages)
close this folder5. Silviculture and plantation crops
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View the documentSilviculture for pulp
View the documentRubber plantations
View the documentOil-palm Oil palm
View the documentCoconut

Oil-palm Oil palm

In contrast to the rather gloomy prospects for rubber in Brazil, an exotic plantation species shows greater promise. African oil-palm is well adapted to most soils and climates in Amazonia. Pará has the largest plantings of African oil-palm in Brazil (table 5.1), but at least 50 million ha in the Brazilian Amazon are deemed suitable for the quick-growing palm (Alvim 1989). Brazil imports palm oil and the market for vegetable oils is growing. Furthermore, palm oil can serve as a substitute for diesel fuel, so both the short- and long-term prospects for oil-palm are bright.

Table 5.1 Area planted to African oil-palm in Brazil, 1991

State Area planted (ha)
Pará 32,000
Amapá 4,300
Amazonas 2,000
Bahia 15,000
TOTAL 53,300

Source: Falesi and Osaqui (1992)

The Bragantina zone has the oldest African oil-palm groves in Amazonia, on both small- and medium-sized holdings. The largest plantations are operated by DENPASA (Dende do Pará, S.A.), which inaugurated an oilprocessing factory along the Belém-Mosqueiro road in 1976 with fiscal incentives provided by SUDAM (Superintendência do Desenvolvimento da Amazonia). DENPASA currently operates two oil-processing factories with a capacity of 20 tons fruit/hour. DENPASA imports planting material from a British company that uses micropropagation techniques to multiply highyielding varieties. DENPASA's 6,000 ha are mostly sandy, so fertilizers are applied according to foliar analyses. Soils are enriched with nitrogen by a thick mat of planted leguminous creepers (Pueraria javanica and P. phaseoloides; fig. 5.4). DENPASA processes oil-palm year-round and provides steady employment for about six persons per hectare.

Following the lead of DENPASA, several entrepreneurs have established three small-scale African oil-palm processing factories in the Bragantina zone near Belém and Castanhal. These oil-palm processing plants, capable of processing 6-7 tons fruit/hour, service 10-20 ha plantations, often in a cooperative arrangement. At least 3,000 ha of African oil-palm are planted on smallholdings outside of DENPASA's property. The small-scale oil-palm processing facilities use boilers fuelled by fruit stalks, cracked kernels, and wood. Fruit stalks are sometimes mulched for later distribution around oilpalms, while the pressed kernels are sold for livestock feed. Oil-palm production is thus linked to the livestock sector, and provides employment opportunities in rural areas.

A cloud nevertheless looms on the horizon for oil-palm plantations in the Bragantina zone and other parts of Latin America. Spear rot, possibly caused by a viroid or mycoplasma-like organism, appeared in the Bragantina zone in 1985. Spear rot stymied an attempt by SOCFIN to establish an oil-palm plantation near Tefé in Amazonas in the late 1970s. Only 2,000 ha of oil-palm were planted by the Belgian company near Tefé, a fraction of the original plans. In the Bragantina zone, only the DENPASA plantations have been struck by the disease as of 1990, when some 400 ha were affected. By 1992, 1,500 ha of DENPASA's plantation near Mosqueiro in the Bragantina zone had been destroyed in an effort to control spear rot. Some 7,500 ha of oil-palm in the Bragantina zone are thus in imminent danger of spear rot.

Some 200 km south of Belém 13,900 ha of recently planted oil-palm are also at risk to spear rot. In 1989, a subsidiary of Banco Real (CRAI Companhia Real Agroindustrial) purchased 3,340 ha of oil-palm established by Agromendes; the latter was a subsidiary of Mendes Junior, a giant construction firm, which diversified into agriculture with fiscal incentives. In 1986, Agromendes and CRAI owned some 6,000 ha of oil-palm in the vicinity of km 74 of the PA 150 highway (Barcelos et al. 1987). As of 1992, CRAI and the absorbed Agromendes, now renamed Agropalma, cultivate 9,210 ha of oil-palm on adjacent properties. Nearby, DENPASA maintains a 2,500 ha plantation of oil-palm, which is processed by Agropalma. Approximately 100 km north-east, along the PA 252 road, REASA operates a 2,500 ha oilpalm plantation. The Moju-Acará area, with 14,210 ha of oil-palm, thus had the greatest concentration of the crop in Pará, in 1992.

CRAI and Agromendes plan to plant a further 10,000 ha on their 33,000 ha property. Roughly half of CRAI and Agropalma's property is slated to remain in forest in order to comply with Brazil's environmental regulations. Some 20 hybrids are planted, with an average yield of 22 tons fruit/ha/yr from the 5,000 ha of plantations in production. Even this diversity of planting material may not save the plantations from spear rot. Banco Real has invested approximately US$70 million in oil-palm along the PA 150 highway, and failure of the oil-palm plantations at CRAI and Agropalma would put 1,000 people out of work.

Inputs at the oil plantations along the PA 150 highway are kept to a minimum, and environmental impacts appear to be negligible. Agropalma maintains a 100 metre strip of forest on either side of streams on the property and plants only on relatively flat surfaces. No pesticides are used on the plantations. A company agronomist suggests that the surrounding forest and second-growth communities provide biocontrol agents (W. Padilha, pers. comm.). A lepidopteran larva, Anteotricha sp., started attacking oil-palm leaves in 1991, but the caterpillar is apparently controlled by a fungus. Native a,ca' palm (Euterpe oleracea) appears to be one of the pest's hosts.

Pressed fruit cake from the processing plant is recycled to the plantations, which have a ground cover of nitrogen-fixing Pueraria. Fertilizer applications are carefully calibrated according to foliar analyses. Provided that spear rot does not appear along the PA 150 highway, Banco Real's oil-palm plantations are likely to succeed. As in the case of the Bragantina zone, the presence of large oil-palm plantations and processing plants could eventually provide a stimulus for small-scale producers to diversify their crop base with oil-palm. Already, Pará, accounts for almost two-thirds of Brazil's oil-palm production (Falesi and Osaqui 1992).

More than 20,000 ha of oil-palm established in the Huallaga valley in the Peruvian Amazon since 1967 are also threatened by spear rot (Pulgar 1987: 134). If spear rot strikes the Huallaga valley, it will deal a severe blow to the Peruvian government's efforts to find viable alternatives to coca production.

The disease, known as amarelecimento fatal in Brazil and marchitez sorpresiva in Peru, is currently managed with varying degrees of success by early identification of symptoms and prompt elimination of diseased trees. Spear rot is thought to be transmitted by insects, but fogging with insecticides would destroy beetle pollinators. The separation of oil-palm plantations by stretches of second growth and other crops may retard the spread of the disease. Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) relish ripe oil-palm fruits, so plantations are best kept away from large towns and cities where large populations of the vultures congregate.

Genetic resistance to spear rot is the best way to combat the disease, and a near relative of African oil-palm that grows wild along the Amazon flood plain promises to help in this regard. American oil-palm (Elaeis oleifera) resists spear rot and has already been used in crossing work with E. guineensis to reduce the latter's height and thereby facilitate harvesting. American oil-palm has also been employed by breeders to improve the oil quality of African oilpalm. Several hybrids between prostrate caiaue, as the palm is known in Brazil, and African oil-palm are under observation at a sizeable oilpalm breeding and evaluation site operated by EMBRAPA (Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuaria) along the Urubu River north of Manaus. Caiaué's resistance to spear rot underscores the importance of conserving wild habitats in Amazonia.