Sarah Sax: Oily Politics in Peru

palm oil billboard
July 6, 2016

Pucallpa is a pretty charmless city, as far as Peruvian cities go. Unlike Cusco with its cobbled streets and Andean charm, or Iquitos with its crumbling architecture and lush green surroundings, Pucallpa seems dusty and plain. It is a city in the midst of being created, with wooden houses on stilts next to shiny new shopping malls and more mud roads than cement ones. Built along the banks of the mighty Ucayali River, which connects the southern Amazon Basin to the Amazon River further north, Pucallpa was created essentially as a way to easily exploit the resources of the Amazon. It has a notorious history of being the center for all kinds of illicit trade: forced indigenous laborers for the rubber boom in the early 20th century, illegal timber thereafter, and most recently, cocaine. It is also set, if Peruvian government projections are anything to go by, to become one of the leading producers of palm oil.

Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) cultivation is relatively new in Peru. Over 80% of palm oil is still produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, but as the returns from palm oil diminish after ever cycle (around 25 years) and forest land becomes increasingly unavailable, new investments are being made, especially in the Amazon Basin. It is here that the oil palm, like its native palm cousin, Elaeis oleifera, grows exceptionally well. It grows so well, in fact, that the Peruvian government recently declared palm oil a national economic interest and vowed to increase production tenfold from 110,000 ha to 1.4 million ha. It is also here, in an environment of insecure land rights, a lengthy process of decentralization, and the implementation of a new forestry law, that palm oil expansion is able to continue despite facing multiple legal complaints for human and environmental rights abuses.  On the ground, conflicting demands and interests confront me. The local indigenous federation has filed a legal complaint against the Palm Oil Plantation and the regional government. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has temporarily suspended the activities of the plantation in order to further investigate the accusations. Most recently, the company has put up the plantation for auction on the Indonesian market. For Peru, this legal case will set a precedent for the future of corporate compliance with national forestry laws. 

dusty road

Throughout all this, and despite all of this, palm oil production continues. It is this contrast that interests me most. Who bears the social and environmental impacts of palm oil expansion and what are they exactly? What measures are in place, if any, to offset those impacts? What historical, global, and social processes contribute to the unfolding example of environmental injustice? My research focuses on the processes by which oil palm is being introduced and contested in Peru. Using a political ecology framework, I am attempting to shed light on the social and environmental changes that take place at the local level and their connection to larger political and economic processes within Peru and globally. For me, there seems like no better place to be stationed than in this dusty town at the convergence of the Amazon Basin and the Sierras - and the convergence of high modernist dreams and alternative indigenous realities.

-Sarah Sax, 2016 TRI Fellow

See below for a short documentary produced in part by the organization with whom Sarah is partnering.

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