Palms of Destruction

Roberto Gandinni

History repeats itself, both comically and tragically. Now, Miguel Ángel Asturias’ Banana Trilogy has been brought to life as the African Palm Trilogy, a story of the arrival of monoculture, capital magnates, and the death of our people. The felling of trees, mass contamination of rivers, erosion, and lack of development in our communities are some of the effects that can be attributed to the African palm industry.

An example of this tragicomedy is the recent presentation—with full fanfare—of the first satellite report on the African palm, regrettably with information manipulated to yield conclusions that only benefit the producers of this monocrop. Data are the best proof of this manipulation: in recent years 2,502,963 hectares of forest were lost. Of those, 180,614 were converted for use by the palm industry. It must also be highlighted that 22,967 hectares of land used for palm cultivation are in protected areas.

Despite these facts, the report tries to deflect responsibility for deforestation and pollution away from the African palm industry by blaming low levels of carbon in the soil and prior livestock production. It attempts to send the message that the livestock industry was the cause of deforestation (an issue we can analyze in a future article). The very director of Satelligence (an organization that monitors world agriculture production) makes this argument, showing how the manipulation of real facts leads to erroneous conclusions.

The smokescreen obscuring the truth of the matter is so big that Grepalm (Guild of Palm Producers) has founded an interinstitutional roundtable, made up in its majority of defenders of palm cultivation, to paint a false picture of reality. In 2019, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) issued an agreement outlining a new strict schedule of projects and industrial activity. This reclassified the palm industry as having a lower risk to the environment, despite the fact that it has a high level of environmental impact. Even the Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources justified the planting of African palm, noting that there is a taboo surrounding its effect on the environment.

These examples of manipulation of the true effects of the oil palm (or African palm) show the trauma that many are causing in order to justify the cultivation of such a harmful crop that has caused so much damage to the environment and communities involved. All of this shows that we are facing confabulation at the hands of different sectors seeking to benefit Grepalm, which goes against the most basic tenets of environmental preservation.

It is important to remember the following facts in order to root ourselves in the reality of the oil/African palm industry: The plant has a productive lifespan of 25 years, and after that period of time it has to be uprooted, the soil must be fertilized, and new seeds need to be planted. However, this practice is costly, so companies leave the ground barren and look for new tracts of land to deforest and fill with new palms. What was once forest is left behind as desert. 

The environmental damage caused by the replacement of forests with palms is irreversible and has no cure. Native species could disappear completely from the face of the Earth, and when the whole ecological system is compromised, biodiversity disappears. Furthermore, because of the way they are, other plants cannot grow close to palms. This leads to a so-called “green desert” upon the completion of the growth cycle. The soil will take years to recover, and other types of vegetation will not easily establish themselves in place of the palms.

Under this prospect, a web of shady deals has been woven to justify a crop that has caused so much suffering to the people and environment of Guatemala (and other countries around the world). Government agreements have been issued in favor of the palm industry because its producers have supported political campaigns, benefitting in turn the Government itself, and leaving the needs of Guatemala’s communities behind as they continue to lack education, health, and nutrition (today, childhood malnutrition has reached 50%).

Though work in the countryside is not the best way to create jobs, the cultivation of oil palms does not paint an encouraging panorama either: there is only one worker for every 4 hectares of palms. As such, it is not a reliable source of employment. The ratio between jobs created and land use is low.

Guatemala is an eminently forested country. It is important to restore the land through forest management. We need to stop and change plans: large tracts of land that are today used for the palm industry need to be reforested to allow biodiversity to develop and bring with it food and sustainable production for communities.

Our country will get ahead if we rectify the erroneous practices that we have employed until now, and if the economy focuses on local, regional, and global development. Only then will we be able to work towards a better society that combines care for the environment with the social and economic development of all Guatemalans.

The above article was originally published in gaZeta, a vast digital not-for-profit communication site open to all opinions and judgements, lay and partisan.


Cover photo by David Peña available on flickr