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Farc out Palm In. What lies ahead for Columbia.

January 10, 2018

I remember watching a documentary about the women of the revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, better known as ‘The FARC’ some time ago.  Over its latter years of operation women made up around 40% of the rebel force and watching these women take the lead in battle, living in the forest and taking on their government felt conflicting and unleashed a torrent of different emotions within me. I was both awe inspired and saddened that for these women, guerrilla warfare was a better, safer option offering greater life opportunities than their regular life.  How coddled and lucky I felt sitting at home in my comfortable home with my university education and my independent income.

I didn’t know much about the FARC then and still don’t really but what I do know is that since 1964 the rural areas and jungles of Columbia have been FARC territory and as such big business and government has been locked out.  But all of that changed in 2016 with the signing of a truce and now, 18 months on, the forests are open for business which begs the question, ‘will it be a case of FARC out, palm in’ I wonder……

Columbia has a the right climate for palm, well, at least much of it does, and as such it is already the largest Palm Producer in South America and is currently the fourth largest supplier globally behind Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.   According to this article on Mongo Bay there is currently 466,000 hectares of palm plantations in operation, some of which have been there for fifty or more years.  However, now with the FARC gone the is thought to be as much as 16 million hectares of land suitable for palm!  If that’s true the current palm production of Columbia is less than 3% of total capacity so what’s being grown there now and how will this change things?

This article here acknowledges that land-clearing slowed in Columbia since the 1960’s, most likely because of the FARC influence I’m guessing but I’m sure there were other issues too.  While land clearing slowed under The FARC, it didn’t stop. Now this isn’t entirely surprising as while the FARC had some influence and control they didn’t cover all of the land but even some of the land they did cover was cleared and it is probably this land that is most likely to be evaluated for palm first.

The Coca Habit.

This report here suggests that  Coca production grew by 18% between 2015 and 2016 to 188,000 hectares.  Now this is still tiny when you consider how much land is said to be suitable for palm but if turned over to palm it would increase the palm production of the country by 34% which is huge really.

Coca crop was favoured by the FARC as a means to fund their activities.  Coca can be turned into Cocaine and sold on for ready cash and other goods via what you could call an ‘alternative’  or ‘unofficial’ economy typical of such guerrilla groups.  While there is no doubt more cash to be made in Cocaine versus Palm oil it is unlikely that the farmers on the ground saw much of that and that’s something the Columbian government is now using to its advantage as it seeks to bring this farmland under its control.   While I support a move away from Coca (and certainly cocaine) to Palm or at least another legal crop it has to be mentioned that this crop swap will not be without impact.   An unofficial Coca plantation that you are largely trying to keep ‘invisible’ is a very different beast to that of an organised palm plantation where you want the crop to move and be processed quickly and cost-effectively.  I’m thinking less fly-in-fly-out as we saw in the film American Made and more super-highway-through-the-forest plus oil processing factory and effluent.   So, it is likely that this 34% increase in the Palm production capacity of Columbia may well represent a much bigger deforestation footprint than one might first imagine.


Columbia’s more official ‘cash cow’ was indeed a cow and as such much of the non-urban deforestation of the country was to make room for massive cattle ranches. Not just because of our global (and growing) appetite for beef but also for the leather and other bi-products.   Here is a PDF file outlining the environmental impacts of cattle ranching in South America.  It is likely that, just like our cattle running ground here in Australia, the land turned over to cow raising is significantly degraded versus that still under forest or other crop and as such it may not be as high yielding as other land if turned over to palm.  Additionally, land used for ranching may be less well suited for palm anyway depending on its location, climate and soil type.  This may well end up to be a double whammy for Columbia now that the FARC influence over the countryside has gone.  If the country becomes richer it is likely the demand for meat will increase and so more land will be needed for cattle and with it more clearing.   If the land is changed from cattle to palm and it is degraded, it is likely that more land will be needed to produce the same yield as could be got in more pristine soil.  This will also lead to more clearing.  Maybe going veggie and sticking to the Cocoa would be more environmentally friendly if not a little erratic.

Population Growth.

I don’t know what the political changes of Columbia will do the its population but if the country does become safer and better funded (through official channels) it seems reasonable that its population will start to climb or at least thrive.   It doesn’t take much imagination to work out that increasing the population increases demands on the land and could easily lead to greater levels of deforestation both directly and indirectly but that’s pretty much what’s been happening everywhere I guess.

So what will  become of Columbia?

I really don’t know, of course I don’t know. I have never been there and have only fleetingly met citizens of that nation through work so I can’t really comment.  But what I can say is that it is likely that Palm Oil will play an increasing role in the country’s future, just as it has played a minor role in the countries present and past.  How that grows and the price we all pay because of it is yet to be fully realised but one thing is for sure, we have to wake up to the value of this and all natural crops as good soil quality and suitable land does not come without consequences and while I wouldn’t exactly say that the FARC can add ‘forest saviours’ on their resumes, it is probable that they did play a part, however unintentional in keeping the wild jungles of Columbia just that.  Now if only we could put our heads together and find a better, more peaceful way I’d be happy.


Amanda x

PS: If you follow this link you will see that there are many outside forces with interest in the Columbian Palm industry including German company Henkel. Now that didn’t take long…..

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