Colombia palm: So many issues at once

Nick Miroff has a great article in tomorrow’s Washington Post about palm oil in Colombia:

…the palm industry’s rapid expansion is yielding new evidence of a boom that benefited from the displacement of small farmers, indigenous groups and others by the armed conflict. Several of the regions where palm has spread during the past decade are places notorious for paramilitary violence and rural terror, like the north coast outside Cartagena, the Venezuela border region and the southeastern plains of the Meta department, where Mapiripan is located.

As the government and the country’s largest rebel group, the FARC, now attempt to reach a peace accord to end the fighting, Colombia faces the painstaking task of trying to sort out what happened in Mapiripan and other places like it, and how to move forward.

Central to the dispute is a clashing vision of rural development, between the traditional model that has been partly destroyed by the violence and an agribusiness vision that promises growth, jobs and modernization through the spread of commodity crops like African palm.

I have visited Meta, Colombia a couple times myself, and picked up a few interesting tidbits on the palm industry. I need to report all this out one of these days, but in the meantime, here you go, yours at no extra charge.

Workers in the palm plantations, as Miroff reports, get about $25 a day, which doesn’t sound like much. But they work 30-day shifts, without a day off, so in fact they get about $750 a month — as much as a schoolteacher with a doctorate degree. Many are migrant laborers, traveling 20 hours or more from poor, remote areas to get to the plantations and later returning home with their pockets full.

Palm has become one of the big threats to monkey habitats. Colombia has some of the world’s greatest monkey diversity. Sadly, their protection is weak.

New palm plantations in petroleum-producing areas are being irrigated with produced water from oil wells. This could be a brilliant water disposal method or an absolutely horrible dispersal of carcinogens into the environment (and into the workplaces of those migrant laborers). We’ll know soon enough, I suppose.

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9 thoughts on “Colombia palm: So many issues at once

  1. Erik

    “This could be a brilliant water disposal method or an absolutely horrible dispersal of carcinogens into the environment (and into the workplaces of those migrant laborers). We’ll know soon enough, I suppose.”

    Come on man. You want us to take you seriously, you will have to do better than that.

    Fer cryin’ out loud.

  2. Sven

    Regarding the “irrigated with produced water from oil wells”, well water(frequently 90%+ of an oil well’s production) is usually too salty for irrigation. It usually has nothing to do with any real or perceived “carcinogens.”

      1. Sven

        It’s not sarcasti-quotes, it is that some issues are easily misinterpreted. Benzenes (benzene, toluene and xylene) are probably the most carcinogenic component of oil and make up to 5% of crude but are highly volatile and evaporate away quickly. The other 95% includes the tar and other crap that can stick around for a long time, unless you have the oil-hungry organisms that live in the Gulf of Mexico and other places. Derivatives of crude and related compounds are sometimes carcinogenic/harmful/nasty (PCB, MTBE, tetraethyl lead, TCA, etc etc) but are not part of crude. I would argue that to say that crude is bad BECAUSE it is a carcinogen is mostly incorrect and distracts from the real contamination issues related to crude.

        1. Steven/Setty Post author

          Great, fair point. Sorry for my hostile reading there. In any case I think we can all agree that it would be wise to test carefully as a company starts to spray huge quantities of produced onto the llanos. I am sure that no one wants to pollute, but I also know that the companies pushing this stuff have a big incentive to be biased.

  3. Erik

    Then stop being so lazy and do some research before you come out with the gratuitous slurs.

    Or post a blog on why you are anti-evidence based and do not believe in science.

    No wonder some companies will not return your phone calls. Seriously.

    All this said, there are potential issues with large irrigation projects regardless of clean the processed water might be.

    1. Erik

      Meant to say: All this said, there are potential issues with large irrigation projects regardless of how clean the processed water might be.

      But that would require a nuanced discussion.

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