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The impact of oil palm on rural livelihoods and tropical forest landscapes in Latin America

A. Castellanos-Navarrete, F. de Castro, P. Pacheco
Journal of rural studies 2021 v.81 pp. 294-304
Elaeis guineensis, industry, livelihood, markets, politics, rural poverty, tropical forests, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Latin America, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru
Does oil palm boost agricultural growth and reduce rural poverty, or is it a threat to rural livelihoods and tropical forest landscapes? This paper introduces a Special Issue on this question, focusing on Latin America. It reviews available literature and data for countries where oil palm either covers large areas (Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras) or has recently expanded (Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru), and presents evidence from nine case studies (including Nicaragua). Combining political economy with a livelihood approach, this article discusses how dissimilar policies supporting oil palm combined with contrasting agrarian change dynamics, market structures, and institutional arrangements driving rural inclusion (and exclusion) in oil palm production have resulted in a variety of expansion trajectories (ranging from smallholder-to plantation-based, plus mixed forms in between) and outcomes across the region. Main findings show that rural livelihoods and landscapes are most threatened where industrial plantations predominate, particularly in weakly governed forest frontiers, while oil palm is beneficial where policies guarantee land access and support smallholders. However, policies that are beneficial to smallholders do not preclude conflicts between oil palm smallholders (often migrant settlers) and forest-dependent (indigenous and Afro-descendant) communities opposing this industry.