Documenting the social and environmental consequences of oil palm plantations in Nicaragua

Anne Tittor


Palm oil production is expanding in many tropical areas worldwide. The implications for the landscape, social relations and living conditions in the respective areas are the subject of a controversial debate. This article explores the social, economic, and environmental impacts caused by palm oil production in two places in south-eastern Nicaragua: Kukra Hill and Boca de Sábalos. From a theoretical perspective of political ecology, this article reflects on the opportunities and limitations of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and researchers in documenting social and environmental impacts of one crop within a process of agrarian change in a local setting. The study sheds light on the social and environmental consequences of oil palm cultivation in both places. The text departs from reports and documentation gathered by two Nicaraguan NGOs, Centro Humboldt and Fundación del Rio, who used participatory methods to gather information. Their documentation is complemented by interviews of additional actors involved and affected by oil palm, impressions of field work at both sites, as well as an analysis of newspaper articles. The findings of the analysis concern multiple topics. Firstly, the research suggests that large-scale oil palm plantations accelerate land use changes, contribute to deforestation, and decrease local food sovereignty. Secondly, with large-scale oil palm plantations, the overall use and contamination of water increases and pesticide use multiplies, which has severe impacts on human and animal health. Nevertheless, local authorities perceive themselves as facing a dilemma: they welcome the tax revenue and job creation, and therefore some ignore their citizens’ complaints, while others perceive that they themselves lack control mechanisms. Furthermore, bad working conditions, low safety standards, and ignorance of workers’ rights are subjects of conflict. 

Keywords: Oil palm, Monocultures, Nicaragua, political ecology, social consequences, NGOs

Data of the article

First received : 21 September 2017 | Last revision received : 10 December 2017
Accepted : 14 December 2017 | Published online : 29 December 2017
URN: nbn:de:hebis:34-2017112153837

Full Text:



Academia de Ciencias de Nicaragua (Ed.). (2014). El canal interoceánico por Nicaragua: aportes al debate. Managua: Academia de Ciencias de Nicaragua. Retrieved from

Alonso-Fradejas, A. (2013). Land control-grabbing in Guatemala: the political economy of contemporary agrarian change. Canadian Journal of Development Studies/ Revue canadienne d'études du développement, 33(4), 509–528.

Backhouse, M. (2015). Green grabbing: The case of palm oil expansion in so-called degraded areas in the eastern Brazilian Amazon. In K. Dietz, B. Engels, O. Pye, & A. Brunnengräber (Eds.), The Political Ecology of Agrofuels (pp. 167–185). London, NY: Routledge.

Backhouse, M. (2015b). Grüne Landnahme - Palmölexpansion und Landkonflikte in Amazonien. Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot Verlag.

Barin-Burgos, V. (2015). Social-environmental conflicts and agrofuel crops: The case of oil palm expansion in Colombia. In K. Dietz, B. Engels, O. Pye, & A. Brunnengräber (Eds.), The political ecology of agrofuels (pp. 148–166). London: Routledge.

Batterbury, S. (2015). Doing political ecology inside and outside the academy. In R. Bryant (Ed.), International handbook of political ecology. Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.

Bridge, G., McCarthy, J., & Perrault, T. (2015). Editors’ Introduction. In T. A. Perreault, G. Bridge, & J. McCarthy (Eds.), Routledge handbook of political ecology (pp. 3–18). London: Routledge.

Borras, S. M., Franco, J. C., Gómez, S., Kay, C. & Spoor, M. (2012). Land grabbing in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 39(3–4), 845–872.

Brockington, D., & Igoe, J. (2006). Eviction for conservation: A global overview. Conservation and Society, 4(3), 424–470.

Castellanos-Navarrete, A., & Jansen, K. (2013). The drive for accumulation: Environmental contestation and agrarian support to Mexico’s oil palm expansion. The Land Deal Politics Initiative, Working Paper 43. Retrieved from

Castellanos-Navarrete, A., & Jansen, K. (2015). Oil palm expansion without enclosure: Smallholders and environmental narratives. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 42(3-4), 791–816.

Cleanenergybrief. (2016, December 11). Nicaragua 3 plantas de biomasa de caña de azúcar y palma africana. Energia Limpia XXI. Retrieved from

Centro Humboldt, Diakonia, Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos, & CEDJUHCAN. (2012). Impacto socioambiental a causa del cultivo de palma africana y la extracción de aceite vegetal en la Región Autónoma del Atlántico Sur (RAAS). Managua: Centro Humboldt.

Cernea, M. M., & Schmidt-Soltau, K. (2006). Poverty risks and national parks: Policy issues in conservation and resettlement. World Development, 34(10), 1808–1830.

Cukra Development Corporation. (2014). ¿Quiénes somos? Retrieved September 9, 2014 from

Cukra Development Corporation. (2015, November 23). Letter to Karen Hudlet and Mauricio Lazala. Retrieved from 20CIEDH%20Cukra.pdf

Davis, D. K. (2015). Historical approaches to political ecology. In T. A. Perreault, G. Bridge, & J. McCarthy (Eds.), Routledge handbook of political ecology (pp. 263–275). London: Routledge.

Edelman, M., & León, A. (2013). Cycles of land grabbing in Central America: An argument for history and a case study in the Bajo Aguán, Honduras. Third World Quarterly, 34(9), 1697–1722.

Fairhead, J., Leach, M., & Scoone, I. (2012). Green grabbing: A new appropriation of nature? Journal of Peasant Studies, 39(2), 237–261.

Fandiño, M., & Ruiz, A. (Eds.). (2011). Impacto y propuesta de delimitación del cultivo de palma africana en el municipio de El Castillo. Managua: Edesa.

Fuchs, G., & Navas, G. (2016). El Canal de Nicaragua en clave regional. Ecología Política, 2016(51), 21–25.

Fundación del Rio. (2011). Impactos del Cultivo de Palma Africana en el Municipio de El Castillo. Managua: Edisa.

Fundación del Rio. (2013). Recorrido por áreas de nuevo vivero de Palma Africana 8 de marzo 2013. Retrieved from

Fundación del Rio (2014, February 19) Carta abierta a la opinión pública nacional e internacional. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Grandia, L. (2009). Silent spring in the land of eternal spring: The germination of a conservation conflict. Current Conservation, 3(3), 10–13.

Huete-Perez, J. A., Tundisi, J. G., & Alvarez, P. J. J. (2013). Will Nicaragua’s interoceanic canal result in an environmental catastrophe for Central America? Environmental Science & Technology, 47(23), 13217–13219. doi10.1021/es404840a

Instituto de Biodiversidad y Estudios Ambientales, Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University (IBEA-BICU). (2011). Estudio de caso: Proyecto validación de buenas prácticas agrícolas en el cultivo de Palma africana en Kukra Hill, RAAS, Nicaragua. Bluefields: Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University.

International Finance Corporation. (n.d.), Cukra Palm Oil. IFC Project Information Portal. Retrieved from

Igoe, J., Sullivan, S., & Brockington, D. (2009). Problematising neoliberal biodiversity conservation: Displaces and disobedient knowledge. Current Conservation, 3(3), 4–7.

Instituto Interamericano de Cooperación para la Agricultura. (2007). Atlas de la agroenergía y los biocombustibles en las Américas: I Ethanol. San José: Instituto Interamericano de Cooperación para la Agricultura.

Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos. (2003a).

Características de la Región Autónoma del Atlántico Sur (R.A.A.S.) 2001. Managua: Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos.

Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos. (2003b). III CENAGRO. Características del Departamento de Río San Juan 2001. Managua: Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos.

Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos. (2013). IV Censo Nacional Agropecuario CENAGRO 2012. Managua: Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos.

Jarquín, H. (2010, September 5). Denuncian contaminación del Rio Las Limas en Kukra Hill. El Nuevo Diario. Retrieved from

Leff, E. (2015). Political ecology: A Latin American Perspective. Desenvolv. Meio Ambiente, 35, 29–64.

León, S. (2011, March 7). Contaminación en Kukra Hill. La Prensa. Retrieved from

Madriz Paladino, M. (2011). Impacto ambiental y social a causa del cultivo de palma africana y la extracción de aceite vegetal en la Región Autónoma del Atlántico Sur (RAAS). Managua: Centro Humboldt.

Martí i Puig, S., & Baumeister, E. (2017). Agrarian policies in Nicaragua: From revolution to the revival of agro-exports, 1979-2015. Journal of Agrarian Change, 17, 381–396.

Merten, J., Röll, A., Guillaume, T., Meijide, A., Tarigan, S., Agusta, H., & Hölscher, D. (2016). Water scarcity and oil palm expansion: Social views and environmental processes. Ecology and Society, 21(2).

Mingorance Cruz, F. (2009). Las consecuencias sociales de la explotación de recursos renovables: El cultivo de la palma aceitera en Colombia. In D. Franik (Ed.), Biokraftstoffe und Lateinamerika: Globale Zusammenhänge und regionale Auswirkungen (pp. 277–287, Vol. 5 of Lateinamerika im Fokus). Berlin: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Berlin.

Ministerio del Trabajo. (2011, August 13). Acuerdo Ministerial JCHG-08-08-10. Managua: Ministerio del Trabajo. Retrieved from

Nuesiri, E. (2018). Strengths and limitations of conservation NGOs in meeting local needs. In P. B. Larsen & D. Brockington (Eds.), The anthropology of conservation NGOs: Rethinking the boundaries (pp. 203–225). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Nygren, A. (2000). Environmental narratives on protection and production: Nature-based conflicts in Río San Juan, Nicaragua. Development and Change, 31(4), 807–830.

Nygren, A. (2004). Competing claims on disputed lands: The complexity of resource tenure in the Nicaraguan interior. Latin American Research Review, 39(1), 123–153.

Ocampo Valencia, S. (2009). Agroindustria y conflicto armado: El caso de la palma de aceite. Colombia International, 70 (julio-diciembre), 169–190. Retrieved from

Palmares del Castillo S.A. (2013, June 7). Gestión Socio-Ambiental, 2012-2013. Retrieved from

Palmares del Castillo S.A. (2012, November 12). Seguimiento a las Recomendaciones por UNIQUE. Retrieved from

Palmares del Castillo S.A. (2014). Comunicado oficial. Retrieved from:; last access 13.4.16.

Pichler, M. (2015). Legal dispossession: State strategies and selectivities in the expansion of Indonesian palm oil and agrofuel production. Development and Change, 46(3), 508–533.

Pye, O. (2014). Transnational space and workers´ struggles: Reshaping the palm oil industry in Malaysia. In K. Dietz (Ed.), The political ecology of agrofuels (pp. 186–201). Abington: Routledge.

Robbins, P. (2012). Political ecology: A critical introduction (2. ed.). Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley.

Ruiz, A. (Ed.). (2010). Palma africana: Pan para hoy y miseria para mañana. Impactos sociales y ambientales del monocultivo en el municipio de El Castillo. Managua: Edisa.

Ruiz, A. (Ed.). (2012). Agua bebemos, calidad no sabemos: Cuidar el agua es querer a tu familia. Managua: Edisa.

Sáenz Mejia, L. E. (2006). Cultivo de la Palma Africana: Guía Técnica. Instituto Interamericano de Cooperación para la agricultura. Retrieved from

Spivak, G. C. (1993). Can the subaltern speak? In P. Williams (Ed.), Colonial discourse and post-colonial theory: A reader (pp. 66–111). New York, NY: Harvester Wheatsheaf (Original work published 1988).

Utting, P. (1993). Trees, people, and power: Social dimensions of deforestation and forest protection in Central America. London: Earthscan Publications.

van der Veen, L. (2008). Biofuels in Nicaragua. Managua: Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

West, P., Igoe, J., & Brockington, D. (2006). Parks and peoples: The Social Impact of Protected Areas. Annual Review of Anthropology, 35, 251–277.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Comments on this article

View all comments




 Google Scholar H5 index 5 


The contributions of the peer reviewers for the journal are acknowledged in the 


Sponsoring Organisations

Logo Agrarekologie Uni Kassel