Brazil's Environmental Council of Pará State (COEMA) is debating a resolution to the new Brazilian Forest Code that will help to define 'low-impact' land uses in legally designated areas of permanent protection (APPs). One proposal is that plantations of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), which are rapidly expanding in the eastern Amazon, might offer a sustainable option for restoring permanently protected areas. We have some concerns about this proposal.
Evidence from across the tropics (E. B. Fitzherbert et al. Trends Ecol. Evol. 23, 538–545; 2008) shows that oil-palm plantations have a considerable impact on the environment because they require substantial agrochemical inputs and host few native species. Therefore, oil-palm plantations must not be allowed to displace natural forest vegetation and should not count as a component of the legally required forest reserves on private land.
We suggest that any approval from the COEMA that officially designates oil palm as a low-impact crop should await a full investigation into the biological and social effects of oil-palm cultivation in APPs. This will ensure that the biological function of these ecologically sensitive regions is not compromised, as the law demands.
Several other areas in Brazil would be more suitable for oil palm — particularly degraded land, where the impact on biodiversity would be minimal.