University of Puerto Rico researcher show Latin American cattle pastures being converted to oil palm

February 16, 2017 |

In Puerto Rico, a new study published last week in the journal Environmental Research Letters by researchers at the University of Puerto Rico offers the first regional look at lands being converted to palm oil plantations in Latin America. Palm oil is a primary ingredient in processed foods, soaps, cosmetics, and biofuel. Growth of the palm oil industry has caused widespread deforestation in Southeast Asia, a concern among conservationists, the private sector, and consumers.

A previous global-scale remote sensing study had suggested a less pronounced role for forest conversion to palm oil in Latin America, but the authors identified the specific land uses being converted to palm oil. Using a custom web application called Landmapper, the researchers integrated MODIS satellite imagery with very high resolution Google Earth images to map palm oil plantations in 2014. They mapped over a half-million hectares of palm oil in 10 different countries throughout the region, the equivalent to more than half of the total FAO reported area for Latin America. They visualized these polygons in Google Earth to look back in time and see what the most recent land cover was before conversion to palm oil.

The results indicate the outsized role that cattle pastures play in the development of palm oil agriculture in Latin America—nearly 60 percent of expansion occurred on these lands. This is roughly equivalent to the proportion of forest loss associated with palm oil expansion in Southeast Asia. Pastures have long dominated the production landscapes of Latin America and open up the countryside to expanding palm oil by establishing important infrastructure (i.e. roads), clearing lands for planting, and driving up land prices where large-scale industrial agriculture is more competitive. Beyond pastures, croplands were also identified as a significant source of new plantations (18 percent), as well as banana plantations (4 percent), but only in select countries.

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Category: Research

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