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Open Access Sustainable Palm Oil? Insights from Material Flow and Land Use Analysis in Brazil’s Production Hotspot

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This article is Open Access under the terms of the Creative Commons CC BY licence.

Near-ubiquitous in global consumption, palm oil is increasingly connoted with the detrimental environmental and social impacts of its production. Focusing on the production hotspot Pará,, Brazil, our study questions the success of the Brazilian national program for sustainable palm oil production.

Negative impacts of plantation agriculture were widely recognized when the expansion of palm oil production began in Brazil. In 2010, president Lula da Silva initiated a program to foster socially and environmentally sustainable palm oil production. Our research in Brazil’s palm oil production hotspot Tomé-Açu, Para, leads us to question the success of this program. Based on data-driven analysis of material and land use and qualitative field research, we reveal unsustainable biophysical patterns and drivers of plantation expansion. In particular, we identify functional links between deforestation, pursuant use of land for cattle ranching, and (perceived) availability of plantation land. By considering the direct and indirect material and land use effects of palm oil production, we find that deforestation sustainability programs seek to avoid remains a prerequisite to plantation expansion. Material and land use patterns shape not only the biophysical but also the economic basis of rural livelihoods with implications for the environmental and the social sustainability of any further expansion of palm oil production.
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Keywords: Brazil; cassava; land use change; palm oil; regional material flow analysis; rural communities; sustainability

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2017

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  • GAIA is a peer-reviewed inter- and transdisciplinary journal for scientists and other interested parties concerned with the causes and analyses of environmental and sustainability problems and their solutions.

    Environmental problems cannot be solved by one academic discipline. The complex natures of these problems require cooperation across disciplinary boundaries. Since 1991, GAIA has offered a well-balanced and practice-oriented forum for transdisciplinary research. GAIA offers first-hand information on state of the art environmental research and on current solutions to environmental problems. Well-known editors, advisors, and authors work to ensure the high quality of the contributions found in GAIA and a unique transdisciplinary dialogue – in a comprehensible style.

    GAIA is an ISI-journal, listed in the Science Citation Index Expanded, Social Science Citation Index and in Current Contents/Social and Behavioral Sciences.

    All contributions undergo a double-blind peer review.

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