Spread of palm oil threatens protected areas in Honduras

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

Toucan in Macaw Mountain Bird Park, Honduras. Photo by Lauri Väin/Flickr, used under the Creative Commons license

An investigation into palm oil plantations in Honduras has shown how growing demand for the crop combines with non-existent enforcement to incentivise illegal clearances in national parks.

Despite prohibitions on growing the crop in protected areas, there are at least 7,000 hectares of African palm planted in the country’s national parks, according to research by La Tierra Esclave, a project from the Spanish newspaper El Diario.

The investigation focused on the Blanca Jeanette Kawas National Park. at the edge of which  stands of the country’s largest palm oil processing plants. The Park covers 79,381 hectares, 3,478 hectares of which are seeded with African palm.

When Blanca Jeanette Kawas was created as a protected area in 1994, 157 exceptions were made for individuals who already had land in the area, allowing them to continue cultivating crops within its borders. However, the country’s Forestry Law also requires that land used for agriculture in protected areas is gradually recovered, a regulation that is not being followed.

“What is lacking is the regulation of individual usufruct contracts,” Nelbin Bustamante, a member of the Prolansate Foundation which co-manages the park, told La Tierra Esclave. He added that palm oil farmers should be told, “you have this plantation, but within this time period you can no longer plant it.” But the contracts are not regulated, and so plantation owners can expand their holdings with impunity.

Illegal attempts to establish new palm oil plantations in the park have caused forest fires. In March 2016, a fire destroyed 218 hectares of forest in the park. Authorities investigating the fire found fuel, machetes and freshly planted African palm. They concluded that someone had wanted to establish African palm in the park and, in order to create space, had attempted to burn a section of the forest.

More than half of Honduras’s palm oil is manufactured by two companies: the Dinant Corporation and the Jaremar Group. Although it is illegal for the firms to buy fruit produced on unlicensed land, the investigation traces a supply chain from an unlicensed producer within Blanca Jeanette Kawas National Park to Group Jaremar, which produces a quarter of Honduras’s palm oil.

The expansion of palm oil in Honduras has been encouraged by the country’s government. In 2001, it began providing loans to help entrepreneurs acquire African palm seeds. In 2004, it launched a framework agreement aimed at improving the industry’s competitiveness. Its policies have been successful: Honduras is now the world’s seventh biggest palm oil exporter. 122,000 hectares of the crop are planted across the country, 11 percent of its total seeded area.

La Tierra Esclave is an online project from the Spanish newspaper El Diario, investigating the coffee, sugar, banana and palm oil industries in four countries: Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and the Ivory Coast.