LA CONCORDIA, ECUADOR – Jorge Jurado has been farming oil palm on Ecuador’s coast for almost 20 years, and has seen the industry go through many changes. But over the last few years, he and hundreds of other small-scale farmers have been hit by two major plagues: abnormally low market prices for palm oil over the past five years, and a deadly disease that has killed thousands of hectares of oil palm crops in the country.
“Those who carry all the weight is the farmer,” said Jurado, who in addition to farming oil palm also works another a full-time job in a neighboring city as an English tutor in order to provide for his family.
Palm oil is one of the most common vegetable oils in the world, found in everything from cosmetics, certain fabrics, and almost 50 percent of everything in your local grocery store. Ecuador is the second-largest producer of palm oil in Latin America (only behind Colombia), and sixth largest in the world – although its output doesn’t reach anywhere near that of top producers Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce around 85 percent of the world’s palm oil supply.
Oil palm is an important part of Ecuador’s agricultural economy, particularly in the La Concordia portion of the province of Santo Domingo de Los Tsáchilas, where Jurado lives. The region has long been known as the heart of Ecuador’s palm industry, since it was here that the first seeds were planted over 60 years ago.
Today in La Concordia, for miles around in all directions, all you can see are oil palm trees. Recently, external factors have made it hard for small farmers in the region to make a living, but it continues to be an important hub for Ecuadorean palm oil production, and much of the local economy is involved either directly or indirectly in the industry.
The heart of Ecuador’s palm oil industry
Although palm oil production contributes a relatively small portion to Ecuador’s overall GDP, it is an important part of the country’s agricultural sector. In 2013, palm oil represented some 15 percent of the country’s agricultural GDP, and generated more than 165,000 jobs in both the agriculture and industry sectors that same year, according to research cited by labor advocacy organization Verite.
The swath of land from the city of Santo Domingo to La Concordia up to Quininde was always one of the most productive oil palm production regions of Ecuador. The areas comprising La Concordia, Santo Domingo, Puerto Quito and Quininde comprise 46 percent of all oil palm cropland in the country – a combined 118,562 hectares out of a total 257,120 hectares, according to the last major census released in March 2018. The census indicates there has been a significant reduction in oil palm cropland in La Concordia and Santo Domingo compared to the previous census published in 2005. However, it continues to be a central hub for the industry.
One reason behind this development can be explained by the region’s climate, which is highly suitable for oil palms trees, with stable temperatures between 25-28 degrees Celsius, regular rainfall and abundant sunlight, But government policies in place since the 1950s that have promoted colonization of the region has also played a major role. This includes the Pilot Plan for the Colonization of Santo Domingo adopted in 1958, which offered credit and low-interest loans for land in wild, primary forest areas, with the specific goal of expanding Ecuador’s agricultural sector. Some 109 plots were sold when this plan was introduced, most destined for small-scale cultivation.
Small farmers continue to be numerous in the region today, as 40 percent (101,589 hectares total) of all land cultivated with oil palm in Ecuador consists of small properties 50 hectares in size or less. This represents some 89 percent of all farmers in the country, according to the 2017 census.
The colonial policies put in place in the 1950s didn’t simply promote agricultural development, they also required that colonizers chop down 60 percent of the forest on their properties in order to receive land titles. By 1970, the area had been transformed from primary rainforest with ecosystems similar to the Amazon, to pastureland and plantations.
“Back in those days, there was no concept of ‘conservation’,” said Jason Crespo, a local agricultural engineer, who currently lives on the only tract of primary forest still left in La Concordia – a 250-hectare nature reserve known as La Perla Protective Forest.