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A Brief History of African Palm Production in Costa Rica

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The African palm (elaeis guineensis) was introduced to this area by The United Fruit Company (Chiquita) as an experimental response to the Panama banana plight which was decimating crops during the 1940’s. In the two decades prior to the outbreak of the disease, the town of Quepos had firmly established itself as a significant banana port. Railways for the transport of fruit from more than 14,000 hectares of plantation (mostly in the Parrita valley) crisscrossed the land and eventually merged into tracks that paralleled the Quepos waterfront and came to an end at the dock. The United Fruit Company was heavily invested in local banana production/exportation and stood to lose a substantial amount if they didn’t come up with an alternative plan to counter the banana plight. To make a long success story short: United Fruit Company was able to make the transition from banana production to palm oil processing in so many brilliantly cost effective ways (example: they used disassembled rail tracks to make the bridges over the now necessary irrigation ditches) that by the time the Panama banana disease was fully eradicated some twenty years later, the African Palm fields were successfully entrenched and profitable.

By the 1970’s the African Palm oil industry was prospering in Quepos, Costa Rica. Consequently, because palm oil is easily transported overland by tanker truck, Quepos declined as a major shipping port. In 1995, the local African Palm business was sold to private investors (Palma Tica) and thus a very influential period in the history of modern day Quepos, United Fruit Company era, came to an end.

The African Palm

African Palms produce pods of palm oil kernels (also known as oil dates) that contain rich oil. Processed palm oil is used in a variety of products. Every day items such as lipstick, cosmetics, candies, margarines, industrial lubricants, and soaps are just a few of the many commercial goods that contain African Palm oil. The pods are harvested when the fruits are bright orange-red. A new African Palm will produce its first pods after about three years, and then regularly thereafter if properly maintained. The African Palm can live to be over 200 years old. After a couple of decades, non-hybrid African Palms grow to tall to be properly maintained by workers and therefore become much less productive. For this reason, non- hybrid trees are being systematically killed off and almost all of the African Palms being planted today are hybrid clones that produce shorter trees that are more easily maintained.

The Pods

Plantation fieldwork is specialized. One class of worker uses machetes and poison to keep the base of each tree clear so that snakes don’t interfere with the next group of workers who are responsible for keeping the leaves trimmed so that the following group of fruit cutters have easy access to the mature fruit. When a mature pod is cut it crashes to the ground and several individual “dates” may break loose and scatter. A different group of workers (usually women and children) are responsible to collect these individual dates in bushel bags. The strongest workers load the large pods onto oxcarts or tractor driven trailers that then ultimately transport them to a processing plant.

Palm oil

The pods are harvested when the fruits are a bright orange-red. A new African Palm will produce its first pods after about three years, and then regularly thereafter if properly maintained. African Palms can live to be over 200 years old. After a couple of decades, non- hybrid African Palms grow too tall to be properly maintained and therefore become much less productive. For this reason, non-hybrid African Palms being planted today are hybrid clones that produce shorter trees that are more easily maintained.

Eco Preservation Society thanks for permission to reprint this article.

Also see:
Costa Rica Rain Forest and Carbon Offsets
Saving Mono Titi – The Documentary

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Filed under: Carbon Offsets, Reforestation, Wildlife Conservation, , , , , , , ,

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