- Cultivation of oil palm has surged in Brazil’s northern state of Roraima over the last decade, fueled by an ambitious push towards biofuels.
- While palm oil companies operating in the area claim they do not deforest, critics say they are contributing to a surge in demand for cleared land in this region, driving cattle ranchers, soy farmers and land speculators deeper into the forest.
- As the demand for land increases, incursions near and into Indigenous lands that neighbor palm oil plantations are also on the rise.
- Indigenous rights activists say that in addition to the loss of forest, they’re worried about the pesticides that palm oil plantations are doused with and the runoff from processing mills, which frequently end up in soil and water sources, and that encroaching outsiders may introduce COVID-19 to vulnerable communities.
In a far-flung stretch of the Brazilian Amazon, the dense rainforest is slowly giving way to neat rows of oil palm that stretch for miles. Beyond the plantations, a narrow strip of forest – some of it already razed – separates the plantations from the Waimiri-Atroari Indigenous Territory.
There, in Brazil’s northern state of Roraima, cultivation of oil palm has surged over the last decade, fueled by an ambitious push towards biofuels. Plantations covered some 10,107 hectares across the municipalities of Rorainópolis, São João da Baliza, Caroebe and São Luiz in 2020, according to environmentalists studying the crop’s advance in the region.
But this push towards palm oil is coming at a cost, observers warn. While the industry claims it does not deforest, critics say it is contributing to a surge in demand for cleared land in this region. This is driving cattle ranchers, soy farmers and land speculators deeper into the forest, said Lucas Ferrante, a biologist and researcher with the National Institute for Research in Amazonia (INPA).
“Those cattle ranchers will earn a huge pile of money from [selling] this land and they will migrate to areas that haven’t been deforested yet,” said Ferrente, who is studying the impacts of palm oil in the Amazon. “And they will start deforesting all over again.”
For years, Roraima’s remote location helped it mostly dodge the rampant deforestation plaguing other Amazon states like Pará and Mato Grosso. Nearly 80% of Roraima’s rainforest is still intact, despite the rapid advance of agriculture and cattle ranching in recent years.
But the pressure on Roraima’s forests is growing. From 2008 to 2020, the state lost 850,000 hectares of tree cover, totaling 4.7% of its forests, according to satellite data from the University of Maryland (UMD) visualized on Global Forest Watch. The deforestation rate jumped 216% in 2019, hitting new heights with 61,700 hectares of forest lost.
In the four municipalities where palm oil is booming, clearing also appears to be surging. Since the start of the year, UMD recorded 46,881 tree cover loss alerts in this region – with 65% of these registered in the week of March 15 (it should be noted that these alerts may reflect canopy loss in tree plantations as well as clearing of natural forest). Deforestation is also now encroaching on nearby Indigenous territories like Waimiri-Atroari, Pirititi and Waiwai, threatening the communities that live there.
“These new crops like palm oil are forming a new cycle of deforestation in the region,” Ferrante said. “So that’s why we can’t dissociate production of biofuels in the Amazon from deforestation.”
Scramble for land
Brazil’s rush to plant oil palm began more than a decade ago, fueled by a federal scheme aimed at expanding sustainable palm oil production in the Amazon and the Brazilian northeast. The idea was that companies would transform degraded areas where cattle once grazed into palm oil plantations, providing small farmers with a sustainable income without the need to encroach on intact forests.
“It was marketed as a really positive thing,” said Paulo Barni, a professor of forest engineering in the State University of Roraima in Rorainópolis. “The discourse of these companies was all about capturing carbon and reversing environmental degradation. It was seen as a part of this new green…