The oil palm is a tropical plant that grows in warm climates at altitudes below 500 meters above sea level. It comes from the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, which explains its scientific name, Elaeis guineensis Jacq. and its popular name, the African oil palm.
Its introduction to tropical America is attributed to Portuguese colonizers and slave traders, who used it as part of the diet for their slaves in Brazil.
In 1932, Florentino Claes introduced the African oil palm in Colombia and it was grown as a decorative plant at the Agricultural Station in Palmira (Valle del Cauca). But commercial cultivation only began in 1945 when the United Fruit Company established a plantation in the banana growing zone in the Department of Magdalena.
In Colombia it has undergone sustained growth. By the mid 1960s, there were 18,000 hectares in production and today there are more than 350,000 hectares in 96 municipalities of the country, distributed in four productive zones:
Northern - Magdalena, Northern Cesar, Atlántico and La Guajira Departments
Central - Santander, Norte de Santander, Southern Cesar and Bolívar Departments
Eastern - Meta, Cundinamarca, Casanare and Caquetá Departments
Western - Nariño Department
The departments with the largest areas planted with oil palm are, in order of importance: Meta (1), Cesar (2), Santander (3), Magdalena (4), Nariño (5), Casanare (6), Bolívar (7), Cundinamarca (8) and Norte de Santander (9).
Colombia is Latin America’s most important oil palm producer and the fourth most important in the world. One of its strengths is a trade association with solid institutions, which was created in 1962 by the National Federation of Oil Palm Growers (Federación Nacional de Cultivadores de Palma de Aceite, Fedepalma.
The oil palm has bright male and female flowers, from which come thousands of spherical, oval or elongated branches that make up compact bunches weighing between 10 and 40 kilograms. Before taking on a bright reddish orange color from the tropical sun when they mature, the fruit is dark purple, almost black. Inside, they have one single seed, the almond or kernel, which is protected by the stone, a woody endocarp surrounded by a fleshy pulp. Both the kernel and the pulp provide abundant oil. The former produces kernel oil while the latter provides the palm oil itself.
The stalk of this queen of the oleaginous plants is erect and has the form of an inverted cone. When it is young it is rough, because of the stalk bases that cover it. When it is mature, even though it is smooth, it looks segmented because of the scars left by its approximately 40 leaves when they wither and fall off.
In middle age, the leaves extend nearly parallel to the soil for 3 to 7 meters. Each is composed of some 250 linear leaflets, which grow out of the sides of the stalk, but in an irregular manner. The disorderly appearance of the leaves is one of the specie’s characteristic features.
The oil palm's productive life can last as long as 50 years; however after 20 or 25 years its stalk reaches a height that makes it difficult to harvest and it is thus necessary to begin to renew it in commercial plantations.
The oil palm is a perennial crop with long-lasting yields, because its productive life can last longer than 50 years; however after 25 years harvesting becomes difficult due to the height of the stalk.
Processing of the oil palm's fruits is done at the oil mill or extracting plant. That is where the process of extracting crude oil from the palm and from the palm kernel is carried out.
The process consists of sterilizing the fruit, separating the palm kernels, crushing them, extracting the palm oil from the pulp, clarifying it and recovering the palm kernels from the resulting husks.
Two products are obtained from the kernels: palm kernel oil and palm kernel cake, which serves as animal feed.
By fractionating the palm oil, two products result: palm olein and palm stearin. The first is liquid in hot climates and can be mixed with any type of vegetable oil. The second is the most solid fraction and is used to make fats, mainly margarines and soaps. The properties of each part of the palm oil explain their versatility as well as their numerous applications.
Because of its physical composition, palm oil can be used in diverse preparations without the need for hydrogenation, a process in which trans fats, which are undesirable fatty acids that cause illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease among others, are formed.
It is currently the world's second most highly consumed oil and is used for making bread, pastry, candy, ice cream, instant soups, sauces, diverse frozen and dehydrated foods as well as nondairy creamers for use with coffee.
Palm oil and palm kernel oil are also used specifically for the manufacture of oleochemical products such as fatty acids, fatty esters, fatty alcohols and nitrogen fat and glycerol compounds, which are essential elements for making soaps, detergents, lubricants for paint, varnishes, gums and ink.
It has recently come to be used as biofuel. Biodiesel is now a new alternative for the use of palm oil as a raw material for other products.
Oil palm: an ecological crop
Adult oil palms are veritable forest landscapes where numerous species of flora and fauna coexist. They create favorable microclimates and environments for sustainability of the crops and for the well-being of people who live nearby.
Because they fix considerable quantities of carbonic gas through photosynthesis, the oil palm helps to mitigate global warning. Every part is used, so there is no waste or contamination.
The oil palm is the most efficient oleaginous seed crop in terms of energy conversion and its seed prevents erosion.
In Colombia the oil palm is planted without the need to cut down native forests, because it occupies territories that were previously used for other agricultural and livestock raising activities. To avoid the use of chemical pesticides, diverse biological control techniques have been implemented. By doing so, Colombian palm growers make a commitment to the environment, adopting good practices to ensure competitiveness while maintaining international standards and working to sustain the planet.
The social palm
The oil palm has been peacefully and sustainably spreading over the national territory.
Today it is found in 96 municipalities in half the departments of Colombia, where it generates around 80,000 jobs that benefit thousands of families and contributes to regional development.
The palm agro-industry involves small growers, agricultural workers, administrative personnel, technicians and professionals from diverse disciplines along with rural entrepreneurs and industrialists, a varied human team who share a strong working and entrepreneurial vocation.
In the palm regions of Colombia, medium-sized and large scale entrepreneurs work alongside small producers through strategic alliances in which their knowledge, cultures and energy converge on behalf of progress.
The oil palm in human health
Palm oil has a 1:1 proportion between saturated and unsaturated fats, and is also an important source of natural antioxidants such as tocopherols, tocotrienols and carotenes. A number of studies have been made on the effects of consumption of palm oil on human health, mainly associated with lipid profile, serum retinol (vitamin A), arterial thrombosis and cancer, which show that:
It has a high concentration of monounsaturated fact, in the form of oleic acid.
Diets rich in monounsaturated fatty acids help to reduce blood cholesterol, lowering one of the main risk factors for coronary diseases.
Some studies have shown that the effect of palmitic acid on blood cholesterol is comparable to that of stearic acid, which is considered neutral.
It is a natural source of vitamin E, in the form of tocopherols and tocotrienols. The latter protect against aging of the cells, arteriosclerosis, cancer and certain neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s.
Unrefined palm oil is the richest natural source of beta-carotene (provitamin A). Its consumption has been shown to be highly effective in preventing and treating vitamin A deficiency among populations at risk.
In human and animal subjects, it has been observed that consumption of palm olein does not significantly alter blood cholesterol levels, lowers oxidation of LDL and the incidence of malignant tumors, increases blood retinol and prevents the formation of thrombus. For more information, contact:
Fedepalma: Carrera 10A N° 69 A - 44. Tel.: 313 8600. Fax: 211 3508. Bogotá, D.C., Colombia. Web Page: www.fedepalma.org | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The palm, a social fruit
Palm activity is a tangible example of a productive chain in which growers, processors and exporters work together under the principle that none can prosper unless all prosper.
It is well known that one of the main problems in Colombia is the lack of productive activities within the agricultural frontier to permanently generate employment and income. Numerous experts have associated this problem with the generation of illicit crops. That is why the Executive President of the National Federation of Palm Oil Growers (Federación Nacional de Cultivadores de Palma de Aceite - Fedepalma), Jens Mesa Dishington, has stated that the importance of the evolution of palm oil cultivation over the last two decades must be recognized.
“That Colombia now has a productive field that generates regional development through the palm is something we must recognize. Over the last 20 years, this has become a genuine productive option in the Middle Magdalena region, the Eastern Plains, the savannas of the Atlantic coast and in Tumaco, and has thus become a source that promotes the presence of the state as well as a factor for generating well-being”.
Palm plantations are now found in 96 municipalities in 16 departments, covering around 350,000 hectares, involve more than 7,000 producers and generate more than 100,000 direct and indirect jobs.
And even though this trade association leader acknowledges that the oil palm is not a panacea for solving the country's social and economic problems, he emphasized that this activity has been and will continue to be synonymous with the generation of stable economic activity and income within the agricultural frontier.
“It is not the solution for all of our problems, but it is a factor that helps us to face them. For example, it decreases the pressure to plant illicit crops that destroy natural reserves beyond that agricultural frontier”, he said.
He went on to say that the palm is a development option that satisfies industry demand for oils, margarines, balanced feeds for animals, soaps, cosmetics and paints, while he also cited recent developments in the production of biodiesel, among others.
Playing a leading role on the international market
Just as it has been a leader in the national context, the palm has also had an impact in the international sphere. According to the President of the Federation, it has achieved growing market share, to the point where in 2007 430,000 tons were traded on the domestic market while 340,900 tons were exported, generating 233 million dollars in foreign exchange.
One demonstration of this scope is the generation in recent years of the so-called Strategic Productive Alliances with small organized producers, a system that was promoted in the late 1990s and is now a distinctive feature of this agro-industry. There are currently more than 109 such Alliances that include around 5,288 small producers who cultivate more than 61,104 hectares, 18% of the total existing area of palm in the country.
With palm, everyone benefits
Finally, Mesa Dishington stated that palm activity is a tangible example of a productive chain in which the grower, the processor and the exporter work together under the principle that: “no component can prosper unless all of the other components prosper”. That is how the companies and producers involved in this agro-industry have progressively developed an intense commitment to the workers and communities around them.
Regarding salary levels, he said that “the palm oil sector in Colombia is one of the few that ensures compliance with the payment of established legal benefits. We must point out the results of studies that indicate that remuneration in this sector in Colombia is 1.7 times the legally-in-effect minimum wage; in fact, these workers are paid to or three times what they are paid in Malaysia and five or six times as much as in Indonesia, the main producer countries of this oil”, which obviously generates quality of life for all who work in this sector.
One last important factor is that the palm sector has developed various programs and actions to protect the environment. Colombian palm growers and entrepreneurs work within the framework of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), on the National Interpretation of the Principles and Criteria that have been established by the worldwide palm community in which Fedepalma has played an important role. This was evident at the first Latin American meeting of the RSPO, where the palm growers and entrepreneurs made a commitment to continue to carry out their activity within the context of competitiveness and sustainability.