Sunday, March 24, 2013

So much farmland, so little food

Photo: Rainforest Rescue 
I came home from our recent trip to the Moskitia feeling unsettled by the vast, eerie mono-cultures of African palm trees that dominate the coastal landscape of Honduras as you move east toward the Nicaraguan border. A Google search on the phenomenon provided me with this 2013 quote about the plantations from a web site that tracks Central American business trends:
Investments of $35 million allowed an increase in planted areas of 17,000 hectares, which are added to the 135,000 already cultivated with oil palm," notes the Business to Business site. "Crude palm oil has been increasing steadily, influenced by an increase in prices in response to increased global demand for the oil from the bio-diesel industry.”
We're all familiar by now with the global dream to create a sustainable plant-based fuel that might end our dependency on dwindling fossil fuels. Honduras even has a law around bio-fuel production, which allows the country's big palm-oil producers to enjoy tax holidays, special treatment and all kinds of international financial support to encourage them in their work.
Ah, but palm oil is more like snake oil when you dig into just how much of the crop in Honduras is actually being used for bio-fuel. Efforts to use Honduras's massive palm plantations for that purpose have stalled out. Companies simply make a lot more money selling palm oil for use in snack foods and cosmetics than they do producing bio-fuel.
Five of Honduras's 11 palm oil-processing plants have the ability to convert the oil into bio-fuel, and could be producing 66,100 gallons of it every day.
However, the plants are currently not producing bio-fuel,” notes the United States Department of Agriculture in a 2012 report. “The cost of bio-fuel production in Honduras is affected by a higher international price obtained with the sale of African palm oil. The main obstacle for the industry is deciding what is more profitable: to sell the oil for food and other types of processing, or to make bio-fuel``
Not that there's anything wrong with companies opting to sell their goods into whatever market looks the most promising. That's what companies do.
But African palm plantations are now spread out over almost 152,000 hectares of prime growing land along the Caribbean coast of Honduras, with plans to increase that to 200,000. It's time to get honest about what those palm trees are being used for. “Bio-fuel” has the ring of something that's saving the planet, but the global growth in African palm oil is in fact just more evidence of the developed world's insatiable appetite for processed food.
Palm oil is an ingredient in a long, long list of foods and cosmetics ranging from power bars and instant noodles to mouth wash, soap and anti-ageing cream. I'll leave it to others to posit on the health hazards of palm-oil consumption, which is high in saturated fats. What bothered me as we drove through a massive plantation east of Tocoa was just seeing all those palms stretching out as far as the eye could see, producing non-essential ingredient for the developed world without adding so much as a bean to poor Hondurans' plates.
Well, that's an exaggeration – a hectare of African palms creates one direct job and two indirect ones, says the USDA. The country needs those jobs, even if they don't pay well. (Pickers account for the bulk of the 152,000 direct jobs and earn about $7 a day during harvest.)
But even so, we're still talking about good land in a country where the malnutrition rate is above 50 per cent in some regions - land being put to use to produce something unnecessary for overfed people in the lands of plenty. There's just something wrong about that.
The only way to get from Tocoa into the Moskitia by land is to stuff yourself into a private truck crammed with people and goods, fork over $25, and tough it out for four or five long, crazy hours. It was during one such trip earlier this month that our driver took a detour through a big palm plantation, giving me my first glimpse from within of these silent, unnatural forests. (The bloody Bajo Aguan land conflict is also taking place on these lands.)
The land was once used to grow bananas. But the money is in palm oil now. Honduras produces almost 400,000 metric tonnes of it a year. And unlike the country's coffee industry, which remains largely in the hands of small producers, palm oil belongs to the big guys – the ones with plenty of money for acquiring huge tracts of land.
You'd think that any forest would be visually appealing, because green is green. But somehow, the big palm plantations feel devoid of life. I was puzzled by the number of dying trees we saw, their big palm fronds a sickly grey and their shrivelled trunks drooping from the top. I later learned that the trees are poisoned by the companies when they get too tall for easy harvest. You could almost feel the sorrow in those woods.
As noted, there's good and bad to all of it. The industry produces jobs, and it could produce significant tax revenue as well for the country if it wasn't getting quite so many breaks. If the oil really was being used for bio-fuel, that would take the discussion to a whole other level.
But it's not. There's no saving of the planet going on in those big plantations. Don’t bother to cue the angel choir for these spooky forests, because the only thing you hear amid the palms is the sound of money being made. 

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