Espacios. Vol. 37 (Nº 06) Año 2016. Pág. 6

Oil palm contribution to brazilian biodiesel: reality and perspectives

Contribuición de la palma de aceite para el biodiesel brasileño: realidad y perspectivas

Aldara da Silva CÉSAR 1; Marco Antonio CONEJERO 2; Mário Otávio BATALHA 3

Recibido: 11/10/15 • Aprobado: 25/11/2015


1. Introduction

2. Methodology

3. Oil palm: an overview of the process and productive chain

4. Current Situation and Bottlenecks for oil palm cultivation in Brazil

5. Main challenges for oil palm cultivation to biodiesel chain

6. Final Remarks




Brazil's National Program for Production and Use of Biodiesel (PNPB) was launched in 2004. This program aims to promote social inclusion of family farming and also the diversification of feedstock sources. Due to palm cultivation potential in Brazil and its high oil content, this crop is an interesting alternative. However, oil palm production has contributed with small volumes to the biodiesel chain. The present study describes and analyzes the competitive drivers that favor or limit the oil palm plantation for biodiesel production in Brazil. Therefore, an exploratory and qualitative research was carried out. The data collection was through literature review, a documentary research and in-depth interviews with stakeholders. The high investments required implementing this crop, difficult to get hand labor specially in the field, lack of appropriated inputs and infrastructure, vertical integration tendency to the own palm plantations, lack of customized and accessible credit lines, scarcity of technical assistance are factors that render difficult this tier in the biodiesel chain.
Keywords: Brazil, biodiesel, oil palm, agriculture tier, competitiveness.


El Programa Nacional de Producción y Uso de Biodiesel (PNPB) de Brasil se puso en marcha en 2004. Este programa tiene como objetivo promover la inclusión social de la agricultura familiar y también la diversificación de las fuentes de materias primas. Debido al potencial de cultivo de palma en Brasil y su alto contenido de aceite, este cultivo es una alternativa interesante. Sin embargo, la producción de aceite de palma ha contribuido con pequeños volúmenes a la cadena de biodiesel. El presente estudio describe y analiza los conductores competitivos que favorecen o limitan la plantación de palma aceitera para la producción de biodiesel en Brasil. Por lo tanto, una investigación exploratoria y cualitativa se llevó a cabo. La recolección de datos fue a través de revisión de la literatura, una investigación documental y entrevistas en profundidad con las partes interesadas. Las altas inversiones requeridas aplicación de este cultivo, difícil de conseguir mano de obra, especialmente en el campo, la falta de insumos apropiados e infraestructura, la integración tendencia vertical para las plantaciones de palmeras propio, la falta de líneas de crédito personalizadas y accesibles, la escasez de asistencia técnica son factores que hacen difícil este nivel en la cadena de biodiesel.
Palabras clave: Brasil, biodiesel, aceite de palma, la agricultura de nivel, competitividad.

1. Introduction

Although the first references to the use of vegetable oils as fuels in Brazil date from 1920 (César and Batalha, 2010a), a new phase of the Brazilian biodiesel market has emerged since the National Program for Production and Use of Biodiesel (called PNPB in Brazil) was launched in 2004by the Brazilian government.

In Brazil, other initiatives like Prodiesel and ProOil (Plan on the Production of Vegetable Oils for Energetic Use) were launched in the 1970's and 1980's, with the objective to overcome the petroleum crises of 1973 and 1979, substituting partially the petroleum diesel for vegetable oils in mixtures up to 30% by volume (César and Batalha, 2010a). However the drop of the petroleum prices after 1986 caused the abandonment of these programs (Pousa et al., 2007). All around the world, a number of factors have contributed to returning the interest of countries around the production and use of biodiesel and in Brazil it is not different. Biofuels reduce greenhouse gas emissions in comparison with fossil fuel (Angarita et al.,2009; Duer and Christensen, 2009; Gnansounou, 2011).In this sense, countries view biofuels as an opportunity to achieve emissions reduction targets and increase security in their energy (Ajanovic, 2011; An et al., 2011; Dermibas, 2009;Gnansounou, 2011;Mekhilef et al., 2011). The price of oil and the possibility of commercializing carbon credits have also contributed to stimulating biofuel production systems worldwide (Conejero, 2006; Boons and Mendoza, 2010). Moreover, developing countries have the chance to promote regional and local development by creating or maintaining jobs in rural areas, through biofuels programs (Angarita et al.,2009;César, 2012; César and Batalha, 2013;Demirbas, 2007; Florinet al., 2012; Gnansounou, 2011;Lora et al., 2011; Pousaet al., 2007)

Following the global tendency, in 2002, the Brazilian government created the Research and Technological Development Network (Probiodiesel), aiming to promote the scientific and technological development of this biofuel originated from pure and/or residual vegetable oils (Brazil, 2002). The ministerial commission, installed in 2003, and coordinated by the Civil House, to define the basis for the (PNPB, followed that initiative (César and Batalha, 2010a).

The PNPB envisions stimulating the domestic biodiesel market (Brazil, 2005; NAE,2005; IICA, 2007;) and international market contingent upon production levels, growth, and its consolidation (Costa et al., 2010; La Rovereet al., 2011). 

The federal program essentially focuses on organizing the biodiesel productive chain through public policies (Rosa, 2008). PNPB instituted the mandatory addition of biodiesel to petroleum diesel. It started with a blend of 2% of biodiesel to petro diesel in 2008 (Brazil, 2005), but since November 2014, it is already 7% (ANP, 2015)

Biodiesel production is constantly increasing in Brazil (Costa et al., 2010). Ten years after the implementation of PNPB, Brazil is the world's third largest biodiesel producer, with 3.42billion liters/year in 2014(ANP, 2015), and also has an industrial capacity able to double this production (ANP, 2015).

Different from the ethanol program, which is mainly based on large sugarcane producers, PNPB's specific goal is to promote social inclusion by including family farming into the biodiesel productive chain (ANP, 2012; La Rovere et al., 2011;Rosa, 2008, Wilkinson and Herrera, 2008).In order to focus efforts for the inclusion of small farmers into PNPB, a mechanism for agreements between small farmers and biodiesel producers was created with the Social Fuel Seal (SFS) (César and Batalha,2010; César and Batalha, 2010a;Garcez and Vianna, 2009;Pousa et al., 2007; Watanabe et al., 2012).

The Ministry of Agrarian Development (MDA, acronym in Portuguese) offers the SFS to the producers that want tax exemptions and access to the biodiesel auctions, i.e., the biodiesel market. In order to obtain this certification, the producer must buy part of the feedstock from small farmers and guarantee technical assistance to their production (César, 2009; César, 2012).

The preferred feedstock acquired from family farmers varies according to the region – oil palm in the North, castor bean in the Northeast, soybean and other oilseeds in the remaining regions (César and Batalha,2010a; César and Batalha,2010b).

Brazil is one of the world's largest agricultural producers and particularly recognized for its agricultural expansion potential (Visser et al., 2011). Due to its territorial extension, and climate conditions, it is one of the main countries for the use of biomass for feeding, chemical and energy purposes (Wilkinson and Herrera, 2008; Costa et al., 2010). Because of this, other important goal of the federal program is to promote the diversification of the feedstock sources by stimulating the use of different oleaginous plants (Garcez and Vianna, 2009; Boons and Mendoza, 2010; Brazil,2011; César andBatalha,2010a; César and Batalha, 2010b; Wilkinson and Herrera, 2010).

In Brazil, biodiesel can be produced from other types of animal fats, sewer grease, oils (new or recycled) from other sources such as castor bean, palm, sunflower and babassu palm(César and Batalha, 2010). However, other feed stocks have been  explored in the country, such as microalgae (Defanti et al., 2010), macauba palm (César et al., 2015), canola, crambe, radish and lupine, according to Cremonez et al.(2015).

The opportunity to diversify raw materials for biodiesel production favors Brazil, when compared to others countries, however it should be considered the technological restrictions for it (Demirbas, 2007;Costa et al., 2010).

The most regularly used raw material for biodiesel production in the country has been soybean. In 2014, soybean oil accounted for 66.54 % of the total raw materials used, while beef tallow and cottonseed oil accounted for 25.63% and 4.23%, respectively. Palm oil accounted for only 0.10% of the total feedstock for the biodiesel production, which is at odds with PNPB´s objectives (ANP, 2015).

Despite currently being a minor producer of palm oil, Brazil is possibly the country that holds the largest area appropriate for its cultivation (Villela et al., 2014). Palm oil has gained attention as a high-productivity oil crop and its contribution for to reduce the carbon payback time (Kamahara et al., 2010).Horst and Vermeylen (2011) also highlight others advantages of this crop as: prevention of soil erosion, possibility of intercropping, provision of animal fodder employee and rural development.

Of the various feedstock sources for biodiesel production, the Brazilian government has considered the oil palm as the ideal crop in the North of Brazil (Brazil, 2007a). In Brazil, oil palm is traditionally cultivated in consortium with the native forest of the Amazon region, what promotes local development, through the creation of jobs and wealth, and environmental preservation (Carioca et al., 2009). High-rainfall, which is well distributed throughout the year, and regular sunshine rates in this region create positive conditions to produce this crop (César, 2012; César and Batalha, 2013). An additional supporting argument in favor of oil palm is the prevention of soil erosion, the intercropping possibilities, the provision of animal fodder, the use of by-products for building materials, medicines and others (Horst and Vermeylen, 2011).

In Brazil, about 110,000 hectares are used for cultivating oil palm (IBGE/SIDRA, 2015). However, there are 31.8 million hectares available for planting this crop in the country (Brazil, 2010a; Brazil, 2010b). Given the potential in the country, and the high oil productivity index (3-6 thousand kg of oil/hectare), oil palm is pointed out by several authors (Furlan Junior et al., 2004; Veiga et al., 2005; Villela, 2009) as a very interesting choice for the production of biodiesel in Brazil.

However, the Brazilian government and private sector have faced key challenges to promote oil palm for biodiesel production, specially on the agriculture tier of this chain. The comprehension of the reasons that most contribute for low participation of palm oil on PNPB represents the objective of the study presented herein.

2. Methodology

The present study describes and analyzes the competitive drivers that favor or limit the oil palm for biodiesel production in Brazil, specially for the palm cultivation. Therefore, an exploratory and qualitative research was carried out.

In exploratory research, the goal is to approach the phenomenon or to achieve new understanding of it, in a way that future studies could formulate a more precise research problem or create new hypotheses (Hair Junioret al., 2005).

Exploratory research, be it pure or as an initial step of a larger research, descriptive or causal, appears as a central step to initiate the process of investigating a research problem. Despite the unique nature of this type of research, it must also be rigorously structured.

The qualitative research has an inductive character (from particular to general, from observations of specific examples to analytical generalizations), interpretive approach (looks for understanding and explaining the phenomena in the context that it is inserted) and validity (reached through analysis of the phenomena with different methods and data sources) (Ikeda, 2009).

The methods of data collection were limited to a literature review, a documentary research and in-depth interviews with experts and stakeholders.

The literature review is a method of study and analysis of the scientific documents, such as books, theoretical review and research articles. Therefore, it is a study of scientific sources that deal with the issue under study. The documentary research, in turn, characterizes itself by finding information in documents not received any scientific treatment as executive reports, articles from newspapers, magazines, letters, films, recordings, and other promotional materials (Oliveira, 2007).

The literature review refers to the contributions of different authors on the subject, focusing on secondary sources. The documentary research, on the other hand, uses materials not yet received analytical treatment, i.e., primary sources, and therefore deserve a more careful analysis of the researcher (Oliveira, 2007).

Other source of primary data is the in depth interviews, that were performed with representatives of several organizations in the palm business. To select and define the respondents, it is necessary to identify: i) firstly, which data were not found through the other data collection methods; ii) secondly, which agents can collaborate effectively. The interviewed representatives need to match some characteristics like: a) have access to the information and data of the phenomenon in study; b) have knowledge and experience about the business; c) be willing to collaborate with the research and establish a communication channel for future contacts; and, d) indicate other possible agents to contribute with more data.

The literature review was used as the basis for defining the indicators of oil palm plantation´s competitive analysis. The competitive drivers used in this study are: macroeconomic factors, sectorial policies, infrastructure, market and governance structure, technology and productive resources, and management and technical assistance (Silva and Souza, 2007; Batalha and Souza, 2009).

The documentary research and in depth interviews were used as the basis to qualify the indicators.

3. Oil palm: an overview of the process and productive chain

This topic is divided into two sections. The first presents the agricultural specificities of oil palm production in Brazil, while the second focus on particularities of industrial processing of this oilseed.

3.1. Agricultural tier of oil palm productive chain

Oil palm, also known as African-Palm (Elaeis guineensis), originated in Africa and is frequently grown in different countries, especially Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Colombia and Thailand (Silva, 2006).

In Brazil, the main regions with favorable edaphoclimatic conditions for oil palm cultivation are: a narrow coastal strip in Bahia and in the Amazon region, mainly in the states of Pará and Amazonas. The areas for the commercial planting of oil palm are usually unique to this crop, but it can be produced in consortium with wood like teak, for example.

According to agroecological zoning - in effect since 2010, under the coordination of EMBRAPA (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation)- 232.8 million hectares have favorable soil and climatic conditions for oil palm plantation. However, with the restriction imposed by the Program for Sustainable Production of Palm Oil, the total amount available to be explored with the crop cultivation is of 31.8 million hectares (Brazil, 2010a; Brazil, 2010b). 

Given the exploitation potential of this crop, the planted area in Brazil is minimal. According to official data IBGE/SIDRA(2015), the area planted in 2013was 108,638hectares, with 50.15% located in the North and 49.50% in the Northeast of the country.

In Pará (state in the North of the country), the crops were introduced mainly in the following cities: Tailândia, Moju, Acará, Santa Bárbara do Pará, Igarapé-Açu, Santo Antônio do Tauá, Castanhal and Santa Izabel do Pará (Silva, 2006).

Due to the perennial nature and high investments required for this crop, the success of this venture depends on the recognized quality of this plantation, and from reliable agricultural inputs (EMBRAPA AMAZONIA OCIDENTAL, 2002). The seeds are selected from Research & Development (R&D) public institutions that have seed production fields.

The preparation of the material to be planted is divided into three stages, namely: seed acquisition (pre-germinated), pre-nursery and nursery (CPAA EMBRAPA, 2010). Soil preparation is vital for the permanent planting of seedlings. The use of disc harrows and land levelers are recommended since a soil rich in organic compounds is not required (CPAA EMBRAPA, 2010).

Commercial production starts at the end of the third year after planting, and reaches a peak at around seven years (CPAA EMBRAPA, 2010; EMBRAPA AMAZONIA OCIDENTAL, 2002). The production remains relatively stable until the 17/18th year, after which it begins to decrease. The end of the economically viable exploration occurs between 25 and 30 years, because of the high harvesting costs due to plant height and productivity decrease (Brazil, 2010c).

The harvesting process is performed in 7 to 10 days (Freitas et al., 1998). The harvesting is manually performed by workers, who after removing the oil palm bunches, place them in dump carts. The harvesting criterion is when the fruits are falling off the palm bunch. The large bunches are undesirable by the processing plant, due to the sterilization difficulty; therefore the bunch is left at rest to dissolve the fruit (Conejero and Lima Junior, 2010).

When they are deposited onto dump carts, located in the corridors, the smaller loads (capacity of 500 kg) are pulled by mules, while the larger loads (capacity of 700 kg) by buffalos (Figure 1A).

Although at first glance the use of buffalos represents greater productivity, given their high load transportation capacity, there is a performance variation between mules and buffalos. In the end, a mule works on average 80% more than a buffalo. The rationale is that a buffalo, despite being much stronger to work on soggy ground, requires longer rest intervals due to the strain (Conejero and Lima Junior, 2010).

Outside the corridors, bunches are transferred from the dump carts to a container with a total capacity of 12 tons (in large farms, two containers are carried at a time, totaling 24 tons) (Conejero and Lima Junior, 2010). These containers transport the palm bunches to the oil extraction producer (Freitas et al., 1998) (Figure 1 B).

Figure 1 and caption

Figure 1. (A) Buffalo pulling 700 kg wagon used in the corridors;
(B) 12 t container on the main roads. Source: Conerejo and Lima Junior (2010)

During harvesting, precaution and equipment are needed to minimize the loss of fruits, as well as yield loss during extraction. One precaution regards the time between harvesting and processing, which should be minimized due to the perishability of this raw material. A device used to minimize losses is a syphon, which sucks the fruits scattered on the ground, and separates the dirt (Freitas et al., 1998). However, it was verified in the field that workers usually collect the scattered fruits manually.

3.2. Industrial tier of oil palm productive chain

The palm fruit cannot be stored for long time, and should be processed within 24 hours to ensure the oil quality and its physicochemical properties. Therefore, it is necessary to associate the planting cycle with the schedule of the industrial processing unit (Brazil,2007a).

The processing of oil palm includes some stages, namely: sterilization, husking, digestion, pressing and clarification. These steps are to separate the fruit from the bunches, slow their oxidation, crush only the fruits, press and remove the palm oil and nuts, separate solid and fine impurities, and dry the cake and fiber by removing moisture (Freitas et al., 1998).

The oil palm fruit produces two types of oils. The palm oil is extracted from the palm mesocarp (known as crude palm oil in the international market), and this oil is considered extremely versatile due to its various applications; while palm kernel oil is extracted from almond or endosperm (CONAB, 2006). Thus, the products derived from oil palm processing are: palm oil (which corresponds to approximately 20% of all products generated), palm kernel oil (about 1.5%), palm kernel cake (3.5%), fibers (12%) and peels (5%) (Brazil, 2007b).

Palm oil, after refining, can be used in the manufacture of margarines, cookies, breads, ice cream and as cooking oil. Also, it is an ingredient in the preparation of soaps, detergents, candles, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and natural dyes, and diesel substitute. However, palm kernel oil, because of its quality and high levels of lauric and myristic acids, is used as raw material in the manufacturing of soaps, detergents, creams, mayonnaise, it can also used in the production of chocolate, substituting cocoa butter. Both oils can also be used to manufacture tinplates, paints, lubricants, plasticizers, polishes, resins and steel plates (Brazil,2007a).

The palm kernel cake - mixed with palm oil (whole or in its liquid fraction, olein) is used in animal feed (Brazil,2007a).

From palm oil biodiesel can be produced. The process of biodiesel production is simple and of public domain. It consists in putting together the animal tallow or vegetable oil with an alcohol in a catalyst to have the process of transesterification, after which oil is separated of glycerin (Lima et al., 2008; Sanches and Conejero, 2009).

It should be emphasized that in Brazil only one company has regularly produced biodiesel from residual palm oil. Known as palm diesel(Agropalma, 2014), this fuel began to be produced from palm oil refining residues using a production technology developed in partnership with an academic institution (Avzaradel, 2008). However, this method does not intend to meet the demand proposed by PNPB, which is based on crude palm oil.

Agropalma is Brazil's largest palm oil producer and one of the first to produce biodiesel for the domestic market. However, Agropalma currently uses its product for own consumption and experimental purposes only, once the company stopped selling biodiesel in 2011.

The social projects for palm biodiesel production under PNPB and the operationalization of SFS in this company is currently restricted to pilot projects (Brito, 2010; César, 2012; César and Batalha, 2013). The Ministry of Agrarian Development (MDA) should monitor the results before replicating the projects.

4. Current Situation and Bottlenecks for oil palm cultivation in Brazil

The factors that contribute most to limiting oil palm production to biodiesel chain are exposed in the following section.

4.1. Sectorial policies

Concerning sectorial policies, PNPB and other public policies show the interest to ensure the expansion of palm production combining environmental protection with restoration, investment flow with technological innovation, and finally social inclusion with income generation.

Several companies are mapping areas in the North to settle in. Some of these projects are cited by Villela et al. (2014). In parallel, the Program for Sustainable Production of Palm Oil is an initiative launched in 2010 by the Brazilian Federal government that aims to consolidate a set of actions to promote the production of palm oil in the Brazilian territory.

The oil palm program defines policies to demarcate the areas suitable for cultivation, restricts the production expansion only to disturbed areas (even in deforested areas), strictly prohibits the felling of native vegetation to plant oil palm, and guides expansion productivity actions for degraded areas (Brazil, 2010a; Brazil, 2010b).

Regionally, the government of Bahia (Northeast Brazilian state) also created the Development Program of Palm Cultivation in order to structure and modernize the production chain of oil palm in Bahia, through technological innovations. It will incorporate 12 thousand hectares of oil palm trees into the current cultivated areas (CONAB, 2006).

4.2. Macroeconomic factors

Oil prices and exchange rates limit the purchase of agricultural inputs needed for this crop.

Taxation was singled out as a major bottleneck for the development of the sector, mainly due to labor and payroll taxes. According to the respondents, taxation charges are roughly four times that of India, three times that of Indonesia and Malaysia and double the amount recorded in Colombia.

The cost of hand labor hired in the field is high and corresponds to about 50% to 62% of the total cost to produce oil palm. The employee usually receives a minimum salary (roughly US$ 300.00), plus social security rights, and an additional payment for production, accommodation, food etc.

Extensive labor and social security laws govern employer-employee relations in Brazil. The labor laws make no distinction between skilled and unskilled workers or between those engaged in manual, office or professional work. Employers are entitled to monthly salary, which may be increased by overtime, night shift and additional payment to compensate unhealthy work condition, among others (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2010).

In addition to the amounts paid to employees as salary, any other amounts which are paid on a regular basis are, for all legal purposes, considered as part of the employee's salary and are, in general, taken into account in the calculation of paid vacation annually, 13th salary (Christmas bonus) and the amount that must be deposited in the Employee's Severance Guarantee Fund (FGTS, acronym in Portuguese), as well as termination payments (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2010).

Then, labor law compliance is one of the most important aspects. Transportation to the work site, sanitary facilities (toilets), appropriate meal places in the field are only few examples of what must be provided by the processing companies.

In addition, the traditional bank credit has not proved to be adequate for small farmers of oil palm in Brazil (Veiga et al., 2005). Before the borrower's credit is approved, the farmer must have fully complied, and be up to date, with previous debts, the current environmental and water use laws, rural land property registration, and rural land tax payments. Many farmers do not have access to this financing due to previous bank loans still unpaid or the lack of land property documentation to claim the financing lines.

Because of it, most of the plantations are financed by capital from the processing company. It is expected that this difficulty can be overcome by specific credit lines made available by the Program for Sustainable Production of Palm Oil in Brazil.

4.3. Infrastructure

The shortage and high-cost of suitable farm machinery and equipment compromises the potential gains from oil palm production in the North of Brazil.

Overall, processing companies vertically integrated until the crops use their own machinery. However, in some areas the soil is quite moist and prevents the use of tractors, resulting in the load to be transported in dump carts pulled by donkeys and buffaloes. These carts are also employed on family farms, which also rent small tractors for harvesting bunches.

The perishability and short distances between the agricultural production and the processing units discard the need for storage warehouses. However, the precarious roads of northern Brazil hinder even small-scale transportation.

4.4. Market and governance structure

The agricultural costs are considered the most important in the biodiesel production chain. They come from the high input costs (seedlings and fertilizers) and labor costs (those mentioned earlier). It is estimated that the average cost of production over the cycle life of oil palm (considering 25 years) is of R$ 252,00/ ton of Fresh Fruit Bunch (FFB) (FNP, 2015). At the same time, the high perishability of oil palm makes its agricultural production to be concentrated near the processing plants (in a radius of up to 100km).

Because of it, there is a vertical integration tendency regarding the palm plantations, making the inclusion of family farmers only a marginal portion of the business. Even so, this movement creates employment and income opportunities for farmers participating in this chain.

The few initiatives to promote local productions based on oil palm, involving independent smallholders, have not found the desired success, which renders difficult achieving the minimum percentages, imposed by SFS, acquired from family farming.

According to family farmers and the technicians interviewed, the collective purchase actions are managed by the processing company, which promotes social arrangements. It is up to the company to negotiate the inputs purchased for the plantations. However, there is an obvious need to promote the formation of organizations (associations or cooperatives) to represent small farmers, since they could organize certain activities that are currently led by processing companies, such as machinery leases, collective purchase and bunches transportation actions.

An unfavorable aspect to the oil palm business regards the entry and exit barriers, which are considered high when compared to those of annual crops. It is estimated that one hectare of oil palm plantation requires initially US$ 4.000,00 to US$ 7.000,00, which includes seed acquisitions and land preparation, up to the first grinding, first oil processing (CPAA EMBRAPA, 2010). If the costs do not include the industrial extraction facilities, the value per hectare of plantation requires investments of US$ 1.500,00 to US$ 2.000,00 (Veiga et al., 2005).

A fact that should be emphasized is that as oil palm is a permanent crop (approximately 25 years), it does not require much management expenditures, so in the long run it ceases to be a costly crop (CPAA EMBRAPA, 2010). However, Brazilian farmers tend to choose crops that have shorter paybacks, due to serious administrative and financial difficulties to invest in perennial crops (Veiga et al., 2005).

4.5. Technology and productive resources

The current level of technology in the production of oil palm could undermine the prospects to expand this crop.

The cultivars available in the Brazilian market are sufficient for expanding cultivation in the demarcated areas by the Agroecological Zoning. However, the genetic base of this crop needs to be increased, with characteristics such as: higher tolerance to pests and diseases, low trunk growth rate, better oil quality and greater adaptability to different ecological cultivation conditions (Barcelos et al., 2001).

Although oil palm is recommended for oil production due to its high productivity, it is susceptible to the disease "Fatal Yellowing Disorder" (FYD) (Barcelos et al., 2001; Trindade et al., 2005). According to the respondents, the biggest technical challenge to expanding oil palm cultivation is developing cultivars resistant to this anomaly. This situation affects all of Latin America.

Several studies have been conducted in order to determine the cause or agent of oil palm FYD. However thus far, no correlation with insects, physiological, soil and pathogen problems has been found (Boari, 2008).

At the same time, it should be noted that most of the work of planting, harvesting, and post harvesting is manual. The need to mechanize part of these activities because of the economical and social cost, especially those related to harvesting, is a consensus among the experts of the sector.

The Program for Sustainable Production of Palm Oil intends to invest resources in technology research for the sector. This program will provide about US$ 25 million to invest in studies related to that crop up to 2015.

The EMBRAPA (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation) units currently developing projects for the Program are: Eastern Amazon, Western Amazon, Mato Grosso, Agroenergy, Genetic Resources and Biotechnology, and Technology Transfer (EMBRAPA, 2010). These projects will be implemented in public-private partnerships in order to achieve: genetic improvement, infrastructure improvements to produce plant matrixes, expansion and improvement in the production of seeds and seedlings, establish international partnerships with centers of excellence in the subject, adding value to residues and by-products of the oil palm, and solve FYD problem (Brazil, 2010a; EMBRAPA, 2010).

It is expected that these initiatives will help the country to become self-sufficient in palm oil, and contribute to mitigate the technological problems of the sector.

The productive resources are also the bottlenecks of this chain. The seed suppliers are unable to meet the domestic demand, forcing companies to resort to importing. The import process faces serious bureaucratic obstacles, which sometimes, lead to considerable losses when the cargo stays retained in the customs.

Hybrid varieties from other countries, such as Cuari, present high oil yield (4t/ha against 2t/ha of common hybrids). However, the Brazilian government restricts palm seed imports. The importing process of such seeds to Brazil can last up to three years (Conejero and Lima Junior, 2010). Explain the reasons for late process.

Oil palm crops depend heavily on the use of fertilizers (ammonium sulfate, urea and kizerite) and herbicides (glyphosate) for the crowns. The fertilizer is costly to production, since one hectare requires of 1.5to 7 kg/year of fertilizer, depending on the age of the crops. In general, it is perceived that using fertilizers is not only desirable, but its lack impairs production over time. Thus, the control of applying fertilizers is accurately performed, even in PNPB social projects. The use of pesticides is very small, because the pest control is mainly carried out by biological control (Tinôco, 2008).

Soil characteristics for cultivation were not identified as limiting factors to the development of this chain in Brazil. Possible soil limitations can be easily remedied by the use of fertilizers.

Oil palm is heavily dependent on water. For the plant to develop normally, the average annual rainfall recommended should be close to 2.000mm/ year, evenly distributed throughout the year and without water deficit (Silva, 2006). This characteristic excludes the production of oil palm in much of the Northeast of Brazil. Irrigation was not proved to be feasible for this cultivation until now. A solution to these drier areas would be to genetically improve a plantation to become more tolerant to droughts, as in Cambodia. Nevertheless, vast land availability, where oil palm is traditionally cultivated, is one of the advantages to the expansion of this crop in Brazil.

On the other hand, hand labor could become an obstacle to expanding the cultivation of this crop in some regions of the country (Veiga et al., 2005). Hand labor in the main producing regions, particularly in Pará, is relatively scarce.

It should be emphasized that oil palm cultivation requires intensive hand labor, which is characterized by exhausting and arduous work. The cutting and harvesting of oil palm requires giving attention to the palm straw (which has many 10cm thorns), to the bunch (weighing about 40kg and harvested at a height of about 10m), to the very sharp blade of the scythe used for harvesting, etc. These particularities are responsible for many accidents, hence an activity characterized by high worker absenteeism rates.

Complaints involving labor problems are common in this productive chain (ONG Reporter Brasil, 2010). However, complaints involving palm crops are not exclusive to Brazil. In general, palm cultivations are constantly questioned due to human rights violations and serious natural resource depletion, as documented by several NGOs and other organizations in South East Asia (Conejero, 2006; Duer and Christensen, 2009; Janssen and Rutz, 2011; Kamaharaaet al., 2011). These problems impact negatively the image of the enterprises (Brito, 2006).

Because of it, sustainability aspects are already incorporated into the competition standards in force in the international palm oil market, which in turn limits the exploitation of hand labor by Brazilian companies. In order to decrease the negative aspects of the sector and respond to the urgent and pressing global calling for sustainably produced palm oil, the players of the international palm oil industry created, in 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) (RSPO,2012). According to this not-for-profit association, RSPO promotes the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards and the engagement of stakeholders (Brito, 2006).

4.6. Management and technical assistance to producers

The large companies that integrate oil palm production use computational tools to support decision-making. They define compliance standards to classify the harvested bunches and try identify possible deviations of the palm oil marketable standard. This classification enables to quantify the green, swollen, overripe bunches and the undesirable presence of stems.

On the other hand, the low education level of farmers and the lack of managerial capacitating, especially among small and medium producers, are aspects that could harm the development of this crop.

Overall, in this chain, technical assistance offered by processing companies is continuous and includes training, monitoring and control of production, transportation support (trucks), logistical support (roads, tools, supplies) etc. In the field, the company that promotes family farming pilot projects (for PNPB) also provides social support (education and healthcare infrastructure).

Although professionals of the sector consider the number of governmental technicians, available to the agricultural extension, small, it is sufficient to meet the current sector's demand. However, the studies directed to agriculture and processing of crude palm oil render difficult developing investment projects in the sector due to a lack of technicians (Veiga et al., 2005).

In the future scenario, the number of technicians to meet the expected growth projections for the segment is still considered low. However, MDA (Ministry of Agrarian Development), MAPA (Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply), EMBRAPA (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation), other state entities in the technical assistance area and producers have been strive to increase the number of technicians (Brazil, 2010a). In 2010, 160 field technicians were hired and trained. According to the representatives interviewed, these agents are central in this process, as they can transmit productive strategies to the farmer, and their relationship to rural development.

5. Main challenges for oil palm cultivation to biodiesel chain

Table 1 summarizes some problems reported in the previous session, and also lists measures that have been taken or proposed to mitigate the barriers in order to increasing the oil palm production in Brazil for biodiesel chain.

6. Final Remarks

The possibility to increase oil palm production in Brazil to promote obtaining biodiesel is evident. The interest of private and public initiatives, the existence of available lands and suitable for high productivity cultivation and planting enables the possibility of increased palm oil production, sufficient for the oil supply continuity for the food industry, as well as for biodiesel production.

Currently, the food industry pays better to palm oil than the biodiesel production sector. However, palm production increase can lower their production costs, making them compatible with the cost and price structure of biodiesel. Moreover, several other strategic advantages for the country to increase the production of oil palm for biodiesel production should be emphasized. Among these is mitigating fuel supply problems in many isolated localities in the North of Brazil.

However, palm business grows more slowly due to the high investments required to implement this crop, since in most cases the plantations are integrated to the processing of the palm bunches. The long time between seed germination and the first harvest makes the return on investment time high. Bureaucratic limitations (such as seed imports and landowner conflicts) and the lack of infrastructure (not only roads, but also social facilities such as schools, entertainment centers etc.) render difficult the companies' production process.

Thus, despite the problems and difficulties reported in this study, the use of palm oil as feedstock for biodiesel production is a viable medium-term possibility for Brazil. There is a real possibility that palm oil can consolidate an entire production chain focused on bioenergy and decisively assist in the social and productive inclusion of small family farmers.

One should recall that since 2009 the number of family farmers integrated into the biodiesel production chain has risen yearly. However, this is not the reality for the North of the country. This inclusion has come mainly from soybean's small producers located in the south of Brazil. Within the scope of PNPB, social programs with oil palm are at the beginning, but are viewed as success cases in the sector.


We are grateful to the financial support provided by FAPESP (The State of São Paulo Research Foundation) and FAPERJ (The State of Rio de Janeiro Research Foundation) . We thank all the professionals that contributed with their opinion about the competitiveness, oil palm and biodiesel sectors.


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1. Fluminense Federal University Agribusiness Engineering Department GASA - Grupo de Análise e Sistemas Agroindustriais. Corresponding author information:

2. FACAMP Business School

3. Federal University of São Carlos

Vol. 37 (Nº 06) Año 2016


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