In spite of all the problem and denigration campaign the industry of palm oil is facing, this culture stills a very important source of new income for many small growers around the world.
Thousands of small farming families in Pará, in the Amazon jungle in northeast Brazil, have turned to the African oil palm as a new source of income, through contracts with biofuel companies. Strange bedfellows, which poses cultural and economic challenges.
The small farm of Antônio de Oliveira smells like a mixture of oranges, black pepper and achiote or annatto (Bixa orellana), a shrub whose fruit is harvested for its seeds, which contain a natural dye that has coloured his farm red.
“I didn’t know anything about oil palm…it’s really different to work with, it’s a queer bird, and complicated,” said Oliveira, who signed a contract with the biofuel company Biopalma three years ago to plant African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), known as “dendê” in Brazil.
Biopalma belongs to the Vale mining company, and has 60,000 hectares of oil palm of its own. In addition, it buys the output of small farmers through its Family Agriculture programme.
The company plans to use palm oil to produce biodiesel to run the machinery and vehicles at its mines.
“I wasn’t prepared for dendê. I don’t like to have to count how many plants I have or to make a square neat plot to plant them. I planted them here and there,” the 65-year-old farmer tells IPS, explaining that he used to make a living selling black pepper, oranges and achiote.
Oliveira began to work at the age of 10 “from sunup to sundown” as a day labourer, and says he regrets that he received so little education. “When I write something, my wife tells me a lot of letters are missing,” he says, laughing.
He learned math out of necessity, and uses it to calculate his yield of fruit from the oil palm, for example, which takes five years to begin to fully produce.
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