Using space tech to improve palm oil transparency in Colombia

  • Palm oil is one of Colombia’s biggest agricultural exports, but the commodity has been linked to environmental and social damage in tropical areas around the world.
  • Industry insiders say Colombian palm oil growers are underinsured as a group.
  • A new $5 million project sponsored by the UK Space Agency aims to use satellites and other technology to monitor the country’s oil palm plantations.
  • Project leaders say this could help solve some of the industry’s problems by providing more information to farmers and grower federations.

MEDELLIN, Colombia — Keeping an eye on what is going on out in the vast countryside of Colombia’s palm oil plantations is a challenge. But that may be about to change. Thanks to a combination of satellites, drones and the Internet of Things (IOT), farmers and scientists expect to be able to monitor palm oil yields months into the future, while keeping a real-time record of carbon emissions and biodiversity levels.

The cultivation of palm oil in Colombia dates back to the 1940s when the first plantation was established in the Magdalena department by United Fruit Company. Colombia now produces more palm oil than any other country in Latin America and is currently the fourth largest producer in the world. In 2017, national industry body FedePalma reported a record harvest of 1.6 million metric tons of crude palm oil – a 42 percent increase from the year before.

According to FedePalma, palm oil cultivation tripled in less than two decades – from 157,000 hectares in 2000 to 516,000 hectares in 2017 – even as FAO figures showed the area of arable land in Colombia dipped from 2.5 percent of total land in 2000 to 1.5 percent in 2015.

Palm oil is produced by pressing the fruit of oil palm trees. It’s used as a cooking oil and found in a multitude of products from toothpaste and cookies to cosmetics and shampoo.

But it appears this growth has not come without cost. In a 2008 study, Cartagena University Professor Camilo Sabogal conducted a spatial relationship study, which found that in municipalities with palm oil farming, the reported internal displacement rate of people fleeing conflict between 2002 and 2009 was double that compared to municipalities without a significant palm oil presence.

There are environmental concerns as well. In other tropical countries, palm oil has been responsible for widespread deforestation. For example, an estimated 43 percent of Tesso Nilo National Park in Indonesia, home to the endangered Sumatran tiger, is now thought to be taken up by illegal palm oil cultivation.

A flyover reveals widespread illegal deforestation in Tesso Nilo National Park.

Colombian authorities and industry bodies have taken pains to explain that Colombia has vast tracts of land already degraded by marginal cattle ranching that can be harnessed for palm oil plantations. To back up that up with action, in January 2018, FedePalma and 21 palm oil companies signed a zero deforestation agreement with the Ministry of Environment as part of Colombia’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

On top of everything else, industry insiders say a vast majority of farmers in Colombia, particularly those involved in the palm oil industry, are uninsured, making them financially vulnerable. In Colombian rice farming, for example, the most recent industry figures show only about 30 percent of rice farmers are insured, at premiums of $102 per hectare, depending on number of hectares and location.

In November 2015, a delegation of entrepreneurs from the UK’s space industry was introduced to representatives of the palm oil and rice industries in Colombia, according to Roelof Kramer, CEO of Agricompas Limited.

Ray Fielding, Head of International Space Programs at the UK Space Agency, said they were looking for ways to pursue new markets for their space sector and one avenue was to offer a competition to identify projects that could use space technology to meet developmental challenges.

Agricompas Limited, together with FedePalma and a consortium of NGOs and other private companies such as Elastacloud, Pixalytics and Rothamsted Research, put together a proposal for the development of a platform called Ecological Production Management Information System (EcoProMIS). Their proposal ultimately won £3.9m ($5 million) in initial funding from an overall £152m ($198.3 million) fund from the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme.

EcoProMIS is intended to be a data analytics platform driven by crop modelling, artificial intelligence and machine learning, allowing users to predict yield forecasts for oil palm so that growers can organize logistics and understand if their crops are performing well. Information from EcoProMIS will also allow insurance providers to offer better prices to palm growers, according to Jorge Torres León, leader of the Geomatics section of ​​Cenipalma, the research arm of FedePalma.

Overall, the main goals of the project include increasing the area of rice and palm oil crops insured in Colombia 25 percent by 2021 and the collective incomes of Colombian farmers and smallholders by $30 million annually by 2022.

Rice performance monitoring using a drone. Photo by Neil Palmer / CIAT

Project leaders say EcoProMIS will address many of the pain points for Colombia’s palm oil industry such as affordable insurance and financing options for growers, and environmental sustainability assurances for export markets.

“Climate change and diseases cause huge yield fluctuations and especially impact the smaller growers with less financial means,” Kramer said.

EcoProMIS plans to offer a subscription service that will provide insurance companies with information that would allow them to more accurately estimate the production risks of individual farmers.

Also planned is a “finance” module to help Colombia’s government support smallholders and other growers by properly assessing growers’ management capacity. This, the platform’s developers say, may help reduce the average loan interest rates for producers.

The final “module” is for oil palm processors in Colombia who want to export their oil at a premium to Europe or other countries that demand the palm oil they import be produced in a environmentally sustainable way.

Torres told Mongabay that EcoProMIS will use earth observation technologies (satellites and drones) together with environmental and agronomic data to investigate the impacts of crop and ecosystem management on biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions and productivity.

To obtain its information, EcoProMIS will use a large web of technology. According to Kramer, satellites will use radar and optical lenses to look at larger areas, and drones will zoom in on plantations to help detect diseases as well as growing problems associated with conditions like water or nutrient shortages.

Another collaborating organization, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), will install flux towers, which are structures that allow sensors to monitor the full profile of atmospheric conditions from the top of the canopy down to the ground. This will allow real-time measurement of greenhouse gas emissions.

A training session at CIAT on measuring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in real time using the eddy covariance system as part of the EcoProMIS project. Photo courtesy of CIAT

Kramer said that to assess ecological sustainability, camera traps will be installed in 10 oil palm and rice plantations to determine whether or not threatened species inhabit plantations. However, he said more research would be needed to figure out how many traps would be required. Forest could also be mapped and while detecting illegal deforestation isn’t a near-term goal of the project, Kramer said that the technology employed by EcoProMIS could be used to do so in the future.

“The satellite imaging could indeed be used to monitor expansion by non-participating plantations into forest,” Kramer said. “If there was interest from local authorities we would be willing to look into this but at the moment, we think that the focus should be on making existing production more sustainable and profitable rather than policing non-cooperative plantations.”

FedePalma represents 5,000 growers of differing size and EcoProMIS aims to eventually serve all growers who wish to participate. The platform will also use information provided by farmers and agricultural researchers.

“In addition to earth observation, emissions and weather data we also need grower specific data such as soil, inputs and management data,” Kramer said, “From federations [of growers] and research institutes we may need specific regional crop information.”

The plan is to feed this information back to extension services, allowing federations to inform growers with advice on how their crops compare and how to improve production. Similar services are already in practice in the country’s coffee industry.

Jaguars roam throughout much of Colombia. Research indicates that while they may venture into oil palm plantations, they’re not able to persist there for very long.

According to Kramer, the project officially started in February of 2018 and will continue until April 2021, with data collection starting in October and weather stations being rolled out in oil palm and rice trial fields in the regions of Los Llanos, La Carolina and Magdalena Fundación. The flux towers are expected to be erected in early November, and the camera traps installed later on.

FedePalma’s Torres says this plan makes sense in terms of financial and social gains for farmers.

“The stabilization of income will ensure greater social welfare for producers, helping to reduce production and social gaps,” he said.

According to John Crawford, head of the Integrated Solutions Lab at Rothamsted Research, the primary scientific research partner in the project, community engagement has proven to be a key factor in the success of projects he has spearheaded in Colombia and other countries.

“In America, the interaction between farmers and data companies was quite negative, the breach of trust that occurred in America initially set them back,” he said, ”With this project, we made sure that we had discussions with farmers about data and data ownership. Trust is a massive element of this.”

The partner in charge of the social side of the project is Solidaridad Network, which works with social and environmental sustainability in the palm oil industries of Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia. They had previously worked on projects in Colombia, that, according to the organization, resulted in 143 growers trained in sustainable practices and left 1,296 workers with better working conditions.

“Any crop is unsustainable if it is not farmed correctly,” Kramer said. “We aim to increase productivity and profitability for the grower while reducing greenhouse gasses, promoting biodiversity and improving the socio-economic conditions of the stakeholders.”


Banner image: A solar panel set-up as part of a training session at CIAT in measuring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in real time using the eddy covariance system as part of the EcoProMIS project. Photo courtesy of CIAT

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