On my recent visit to Costa Rica I explored the two hundred miles of coastline from the northern Pacific area of Liberia, Guanacaste and the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano and National Park to the central Pacific area of Quepos, and the Manuel Antonio National Park. On the southern part of my travels, particularly around Quepos, I was impressed by boundless forests of palm trees extending for miles along the highway. Curiously, the trees appeared to be aligned diagonally with abundant undergrowth and a profusion of gorgeous ferns growing on the stipe.
On questioning the locals, I learned that these palm forests are actually plantations on the former sites of banana plantations. These vast plantations are African Palms introduced to the area by The United Fruit Company in response to the destruction of banana crops in the 1940’s by the Panama banana disease epidemic. The African Palms are cultivated for their oil, the world’s most consumed vegetable oil. Palm oil production is now one of Costa Rica’s largest agricultural industries. By the time the Panama banana disease was eradicated about twenty years later, the palm oil plantations were solidly established and quite profitable.
African Palms yield pods of palm oil kernels that contain the high quality oil. Once processed, palm oil is used in many products such as cosmetics, candles, cooking oil, margarine, candy, industrial lubricants and biofuels. When the fruits are a vivid orange-red in color, workers cut the pods from the trees. The huge pods can weigh as much as 130 kilograms. Work in the palm fields is specialized into different activities. One type of worker utilizes machetes and poison to clear underbrush to impede snakes that might interfere with the next group of workers. The trimmers cut excess leaves to provide easy access to the fruit. The next round of workers cut the mature pods from the trees. Sometimes when the pods crash to the ground the dates break up and another group of workers are responsible for gathering the scattered dates in big bags. The strongest laborers load the pods onto oxcarts or trailers for transport to the processing plant.
Oil palms are the only product that will grow in the toxic soil of the former diseased banana plantations. The cultivation of oil palms has increased the earnings and production of the territory. The consistent year round harvesting of fruit and the high yield of oil are major factors in the continued growth of oil palm plantations. Labor is considerably lower for oil palm than other crops and many smaller plantations are completely family operated. Demand for palm oil continues to be high.
The production of palm oil has been favorable to the farmers and has improved their communities, but there is concern about its effects on the environment. The palm plantations encroach on the rainforests and long term effects on the environment are not clear. The government of Costa Rica is serious about protecting its biodiversity. Costa Rica expects to be one of the first developing nations in the world, maybe the first, to complete its protected-areas goals under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity by 2015. Costa Rica has already set aside 26 percent of its total land area in national parks and protected areas. This is not astonishing since the goal of the Costa Rican government is to become the first carbon neutral country by 2021.