Cover Image
close this bookBlending of New and Traditional Technologies - Case Studies (ILO - WEP, 1984, 312 p.)
close this folderPART 2: CASE STUDIES
View the documentChapter 3. Application of microcomputers to Portugal’s agricultural management*
View the documentChapter 4. Off-line uses of microcomputers in selected developing countries*
View the documentChapter 5. The use of personal computers in Italian biogas plants*
View the documentChapter 6. Microelectronics in textile production: A family firm (United Kingdom) and cottage industry with AVL looms (United States)
View the documentChapter 7. Microelectronics in small/medium enterprises in the United Kingdom*
View the documentChapter 8. Integration of old and new technologies in the Italian (Prato) textile industry*
View the documentChapter 9. The use of numerically controlled machines on traditional lathes: The Brazilian capital goods industry*
View the documentChapter 10. Electronic load-controlled mini-hydroelectric projects: Experiences from Colombia, Sri Lanka and Thailand*
View the documentChapter 11. The application of biotechnology to metal extraction: The case of the Andean countries*
View the documentChapter 12. Cloning of Palm Oil Trees in Malaysia*
View the documentChapter 13. Technological Change in Palm Oil in Costa Rica*
View the documentChapter 14. Biotechnology applications to some African fermented foods*
View the documentChapter 15. Use of satellite remote-sensing techniques in West Africa*
View the documentChapter 16. India’s rural educational television broadcasting via satellites*
View the documentChapter 17. New construction materials for developing countries*
View the documentChapter 18. Photovoltaic solar-powered pump irrigation in Pakistan*
View the documentChapter 19. Photovoltaic power supply to a village in Upper Volta*

Chapter 13. Technological Change in Palm Oil in Costa Rica*

* Prepared by Carlos A. Izurieta, Consultant, San JosCosta Rica, on behalf of the ILO.

THE CULTIVATION OF palm oil in Costa Rica was introduced by the “Compania Bananera de Costa Rica” CBCR, a subsidiary of the United Fruit Company (UFCO) during the first half of the 1940s. Costa Rica thus became a pioneer on the American continent in the development of this agro-industrial activity which was later adopted by Colombia, Ecuador and Honduras.

In 1946, the CBCR had 646 hectares of plantations of palm oil on the Pacific coast (Quepos area) of Costa Rica: this area grew rapidly to 2,424 hectares in 1949, 4,133 hectares in 1953 and 15,287 hectares in 1983. In early 1983 the total area under oil palm in Costa Rica was 15,787 hectares (see Table 13.1 below). There were two main reasons for this rapid expansion. First, the end of the Second World War resulted in good prospects for crude palm in the international edible oil market. Second, in 1949 the Costa Rican Government granted a contract to UFCO to promote the cultivation of palm and cocoa in addition to that of banana.

Table 13.1. Palm Oil Plantations in Costa Rica





Area under production





New plantations










Sources: CBCR and the Institute for Agrarian Development.

By the 1950s, the palm had displaced banana cultivation in the Quepos area. Between 1953 and 1971, CBCR’s actual area under bananas was reduced from 16,000 hectares to about 8,000 hectares whereas that under palm plantations increased from 4,133 hectares to over 12,000 hectares. The banana cultivation was replaced by that of palm oil because the world banana market is saturated and its future prospects are also quite bleak. Secondly, the African palm is less vulnerable to plague, disease and strong wind than the banana palm. Thirdly, palm oil can meet the requirements of the domestic, regional and international markets better than bananas.


Botanical Aspects

The CBCR has used two species in developing its plantations, that is, Elaeis Guineensis Jacquin, generally known as the “African palm” and Elaeis Oleifera or the “American palm”.

The Guineensis species is subdivided into what are known as the subspecies “dura” (D) and “pisifera” (P). A natural cross between D and P gives rise to the tra (T), a hybrid. For many years, the tra was considered to be another subspecies until genetic experiments demonstrated to the contrary.

The D produces a fruit with a pulp or mesocarp (the main store of oil) which is rather sparse and with a regular-shaped kernel protected by a very thick and hard shell. The P, while having a more generous pulp and a shell-less kernel, has the disadvantage that it produces abortive fruit branches.

The T has a lower percentage of pulp than the P but more than the D; it has a large kernel and a shell of medium thickness and it is not abortive. For these reasons its crude oil yield (20 to 25 per cent of the weight of the fruit) is considerably higher than that of the two subspecies from which it was derived.

The American palm is more resistant to certain plagues and diseases of the region than the “African palm”, but it has the disadvantage that it produces very little oil (2 to 8 per cent) because of the paucity of its mesocarp.

Species and Subspecies used by the CBCR

Since it started planting palm oil, CBCR has used the following crossbreeds:

(a) D × D: The subspecies dura was cultivated during the 1940s and 1950s, using seeds imported from Malaysia;

(b) D × T: Plantations developed through the 1960s; the period when it was still believed that the tra was another sub-species. These crossbreeds gave rise to genetic regression;

(c) D × P = tra: The witting cultivation of the hybrid began at the end of the 1960s and continues to the present day. Throughout these years considerable development has been achieved from selected seed stock, adapting the hybrid to the latitudes and new biological and cultivating practices;

(d) O × G or “inter-specific hybrid”: This was obtained by crossing the mother strain oleifera (O) and the father strain guineensis pisifera (G). This hybrid of two other species, while having a lower oil-yield than the tra, does have the advantage of resistance to the disease known as “lethal bud rot”, which in the past years had decimated plantations along the Atlantic seaboard. This increase in resistance is inherited from the mother strain oleifera which is a native of those latitudes. The O × G seeds are currently being used at the Sixaola plantation. The oil yield of this hybrid varies between 12 and 18 per cent of the fruit weight;

(e) “Compact”: This is a natural mutation which derives from a cross between O and G. The palm is of reduced stature (“dwarf palm”) but has a very high yield (greater than the T) because of the high number of fruit stems that it bears. The other advantages of this new plant are:

- the limited stature makes it easier to gather the stems;
- the leaves are broader but shorter than those of other palms, the greater breadth favouring photosynthesis and the lesser length allowing for denser sowing.

The CBCR has tried to reproduce this strain by crossing (O × G) × G, but has not managed to obtain this “compact”. For this reason, the company has started to investigate a sexual or clonal palm reproduction. If it succeeds, it will be in a position to reproduce the natural mutation as mentioned. We refer to this research and development work in greater detail below.


Since it was founded in 1969, the United Brands has been investigating the most appropriate conditions for reproduction of the African palm. Originally, the experimentation centre was located in Honduras but it was moved to Coto 47 in Costa Rica in the early 1970s.

Currently, the Palm Research Programme (PRP) comprises nine technicians and a number of assistants. The specialists come from various countries, namely, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras and the United States. Most of them enjoy a high international professional reputation.

The experimental station has 500 hectares under various species and subspecies of oil palms.

The success of the PRP has enabled the CBCR to export technology in the following forms: (a) by selling seeds of the tra variety; (b) by providing technical assistance and services to other countries of Latin American and the Caribbean (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Panama, Peru, Surinam, etc.); and (c) by giving international training courses in the cultivation of the oil palm.

1. Certain Characteristics of tra Cultivation

The development of a palm oil plantation is quite costly. The preparation and germination of the seed requires no less than 60 to 80 days. Then it is necessary to keep the plants in a nursery for an additional year before planting them out in their final location. In their third year, the tra variety developed by the CBCR produces between 8 and 10 metric tonnes of fruit per hectare yielding 9 per cent oil. Maximum yield (22 to 25 TM/FFB/GA1 which in turn provides 22 to 25 per cent oil), is reached in the ninth year and is maintained for five to six more years.2 An adult tra palm fruit branch produces the following results:


The tra is shown at a density of 143 plants per hectare. To guarantee this number of palms, the CBCR recommends sowing at the rate of 200 seeds per hectare as a net yield of 75 per cent is considered highly satisfactory.

However, there are other international companies that suggest using 250 seeds per hectare in order to guarantee proper final density. This practice is due to the lesser germinative potential of the seedstock. Consequently, producers incur much higher costs as it is customary to maintain nurseries of 100,000 plants (the equivalent of 500 hectares).

The African palm has a useful life of approximately 20 years; thereafter its yield begins to fall off rapidly.

2. Artificial Pollination

The palm oil plant has unisexual flowers on its foliate axils and the wind is its main natural pollination agent.

Artificial pollination is carried out by the CBCR by: (i) increasing the production of fruit on the young palm; and (ii) obtaining seeds with the desired genetic characteristics (volume of pulp, resistance to disease, size of plant, etc.). The following processes are used for this purpose.

(a) To obtain the pollen: when the male inflorescence reaches anthesis (the opening of the bud), it is disinfected and placed in a specially designed, hermetically sealed bag. After six days the inflorescence is cut from the stem and the pollen collected, filtered, dehydrated and bottled under strict asceptic conditions.

(b) To apply the pollen: before the female inflorescence reaches anthesis, it is disinfected and also covered with a hermetically-sealed bag similar to that mentioned above. Then the flowers are sprayed, through a hole in the bag, with a mixture of pollen and talc (the latter is used to ensure proper distribution of the pollen). The female inflorescence is then kept protected by the bag for a specific period in order to guarantee the desired fertilisation. The mature fruit is obtained within five months. The technicians at the CBCR are also working on the adaptation of an insect since they have discovered that the bee is not a good pollinating agent.

3. Sowing Procedure

Each branch is identified by means of a metal disc carrying a code once the artificial pollinisation has been performed. When the branch is mature it is sent to the seed-processing unit which performs the following processes:

(a) Genetic registration of each branch. This is essential in order, subsequently, to be able to assess the behaviour of the hybrid and its yield. However, many companies do not take this precaution. The “mixture of seedstocks” has the disadvantage of making it impossible, subsequently, to know the genetic origin of the new palms, which breaks the link between the phase where the species and varieties are investigated and the results obtained at the plantations (whether the plantations belong to the company itself or to third parties).

(b) Obtaining the seeds. The first step is to separate the fruits from the branch and to allow them to ferment for one week. Then the pulp is extracted from the fruits by centrifugal force. The seeds thus obtained (approximately 1,200 per branch) are dried and sorted. Those with a visible defect are disregarded.

(c) Storage. A sample of 20 seeds from each batch of seeds from a given branch is taken in order to determine their humidity content which has to be 18 per cent in order that the seeds may be stored without any subsequent negative effects. Fungicides are applied once the recommended humidity level is reached. The seeds are then placed in plastic bags which are hermetically sealed, coded for identification purposes and placed in a room with a controlled temperature ranging between 20 and 22 degrees Centigrade.

4. Germination

The oil palm seed requires “latent germination” which means that certain temperature and humidity conditions are necessary in order to ensure that it develops. The CBCR performs two procedures for this purpose:

(a) Dry germination. The bags containing the batches of seeds are kept in a room for 60 days at 39 degrees Centigrade to allow the seeds to germinate slowly. This method is better suited for the export of germinated seeds as damage is kept to a minimum. The percentage of humidity has to be increased to activate germination before planting seeds in the seed beds.

(b) Humid germination. The percentage of humidity is increased from 18 to 22 per cent and the seeds are kept at the local ambient temperature (of around 30 degrees Centigrade) for 60 to 80 days. This procedure produces a higher rate of germination (90 per cent as opposed to 85 per cent using the “preheated” or dry system) and a more rapid subsequent development, but it does have certain disadvantages for exports as the plants are damaged by handling. This method is used by the CBCR for the seeds planted in Costa Rica.

5. Palm Nursery and Seed Bed

After 20 days’ germination, the seeds are placed in black polythene bags with holes in the bottom and which contain earth (sand-clay) enriched with vegetable fertiliser. They are kept in these conditions for 12 months before being finally planted out. The way in which plants are treated in the nursery is of fundamental importance because good initial growth of the palm will ensure optimum future yields. The nursery has to be in a well-watered area so that plants may be irrigated. Other aspects which call for special care are: the fertilisation of the soil, proper drainage and control of disease and weeds.

After 12 months in the nursery, the plants are selected for transplanting into the fields. The height of the palm, the number of functional leaves, the diameter of the stem and the position in which the leaves grow, are some of the factors to be taken into account. The most propitious moment for planting out these young plants is the beginning of the rainy season.

The main work involved in looking after the crop involves: (a) thinning out during the first two years; (b) the sowing of a leguminous ground cover; (c) the cleaving of the soil; (d) fertilisation and phyto-sanitary care; (e) the plucking of the early buds; (f) pruning; and (g) assisted pollination.

6. Harvest

This is an activity of the utmost importance in order to obtain optimum oil-yields from the oil-bearing plants. The formation of oil in the pulp of each fruit takes about one month. However, this process does not take place at the same time in all fruits of a given branch as they mature progressively from the tip of the branch to the base. It takes about 17 days for the whole branch to mature.

If the crop is not harvested in time the quantity of oil drops off and the oil which remains acidifies. When the branch is cut the acidification process accelerates. For this reason, it is essential that the harvest be processed within 24 hours.

The CBCR uses mules to move the harvested branches from the interior of the plantations to the access lanes, thus avoiding damage to the surface roots of the palms and any disease to the crop.


Conventional vegetative propagation methods cannot be used with the oil palm (grafting, shooting, staking, etc.) so that there is no alternative but to resort to seed reproduction in vitro. The main advantages of clonal reproduction are: (a) the plants obtained are genetically identical to the mother plant, (b) reproduction time is reduced, and (c) plantation yield is increased.

The CBCR began its biotechnological investigations at the end of 1980 and has managed to reproduce the “compact palm”. If the compact palm proves a success, its economic impact will be of considerable importance as this palm has much higher fruit and oil-yields than the varieties currently being exploited throughout the world.

In broad outline, the process for the tissue cultivation is as follows:

(a) Tissues are taken from leaf laminae, root meristems, lateral meristems, apical meristems and embryos, all of which are superficially sterilised in the laboratory. Technicians prefer to work with embryos as they are less prone to contamination;

(b) Various culture media are prepared with different substances (nutrients, hormones, vitamins and other components);

(c) The sterilised tissues are “sown” in flasks or test-tubes containing the culture media;

(d) After a certain time, the tissues begin to develop “modular calluses” (tissues which present a certain variation among the cells). The calluses are then removed and implanted into other culture media at which stage it is necessary to effect very delicate hormonal adjustments in order to ensure organogensis;

(e) Embryoids are obtained if the experiment is successful. Then the above-ground part of the embryoid is developed, followed by the roots.

(f) The plants are then transplanted into pots;

The CBCR technicians are working intensively to determine the most appropriate culture media for the oil palm. For this purpose, they have adapted the technology used for clonally reproducing the date palm.

To date, experiments have been conducted with traditional varieties of palm. Once the results are satisfactory, an attempt will be made to reproduce the “compact palm”.

The principal difficulty encountered by the technicians is that most of the tissues used are contaminated which, in many cases, dooms their efforts to failure after many months of laboratory work.

The investigators consider that once they have obtained the appropriate culture media, a two-year period will be necessary in order to develop an experimental nursery.


As the biotechnological investigations being carried out by the CBCR to clonally reproduce the palm are in their early stages, it is impossible to assess the impact that this research and development (R and D) work would have if it were to succeed. At this stage, it can only be conjectured that, if the reproduction of the “compact or dwarf palm” proves satisfactory, crop expansion programmes will be expanded to enjoy considerable advantages on the international market.

One can foresee the consequences similar to those resulting from the policy of the CBCR in replacing its banana plantations by genetically improved tra varieties. These are:

(a) Labour requirements for palm cultivation are one-third of that required for bananas over an equal cultivated area. It was estimated that at least 1,600 workers will be laid off in 1983 as a result of the substitution of palm for the banana crops in the Valle de Coto. If the 6,000 hectares of banana plantations which the CBCR still possesses are replaced, unemployment over the coming years could reach more than 10,000. It would be difficult for the displaced labour to find any alternative employment since there are few other sources of work in the area.

(b) Crude oil production has increased by 33 per cent over the past four years. This increased volume of oil extraction and the technical changes brought about in the refining processes of the Compania Numar have enabled the company to replace cotton oil imports by olein (fractionated palm oil) in the preparation of various foodstuffs (margarines, liquid oils, etc.).

(c) Since 1981, the Compania Numar began exporting to Central America increasing quantities of margarine, “parafan” and ice cream, all of which are products obtained from palm oil.

(d) Foreign sales of selected and germinated seedstock and technical assistants and services have increased to such an extent that they have led to the creation of an International Division (in the Company) responsible for such matters.

Apart from the head of the biotechnological division and his assistants, who are Costa Rican, all of the remaining R and D personnel are foreign.

There are no organic links between the CBCR and the local scientific and technological community. Domestic institutions seem to show a total lack of interest in the case of the palm, as they did in the case of bananas. This implies that the local learning effects of any biotechnology applications are not likely to be great and the local technological capacity will take a long time to develop.


1. TM/FFB/HA means metric tonnes of fresh fruit branch per hectare. The acronym FFB (fresh fruit branch) is normally employed in this context.

2. These yield figures are those of the new CBCR plantations. The average for the company is much lower (2.9 metric tonnes of oil per hectare), owing mainly to the existence of very old plantations which continue to produce varieties of palm with very low yield.