The palm oil sector in Mexico has grown exponentially since the crop was introduced in the early 1950s, partly due to government programmes that incentivised farmers to plant African palm in the 1990s. To date, there are around 120,000 hectares of oil palm plantations in the southeastern region distributed into four states: Veracruz, Tabasco, Campeche, and Chiapas, with Chiapas having the largest area under cultivation.

Although the palm oil area cultivated is relatively small compared to other crops such as corn (+7 million hectares) or sugarcane (+700,000 hectares), it is anticipated that oil palm production will continue to increase in Mexico due to various factors, primarily the rise in the price of palm oil globally. Most of the plantations are owned by small producers, who cultivate no more than 10 hectares, and often intercrop with banana and cacao.

Source: FEMEXPALMA & Global Forest Watch.

Fantastic forests with lifelong benefits to Mexican society and culture

The Mayan Forest is also found in southeastern Mexico. It is the most extensive tropical forest in Mesoamerica which stretches across Belize, northern Guatemala and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Home to iconic species such as the jaguar and tapir, its ecosystems provide essential functions by maintaining water flow and landscape connectivity. The region also has rich cultural diversity and outstanding archaeological sites.

The integrity of the Mayan Forest is crucial for the subsistence of local communities and indigenous peoples in the region. While cultivation of oil palm contributes to rural development in the region, without technical support to small producers and strategic planning based on environmental and social criteria, it can lead to unregulated forest conversion and degradation of ecosystems.

Imagen: Crisoforo Gaspar Hernandez/Unsplash

Though expansion of palm oil production is part of Mexico’s National Agriculture Plan 2030, Mexican producers must pay attention to international regulatory measures in order to comply with production requirements established by the European Union. Helping producers understand and manage these requirements are voluntary sustainability standards, like certification for oil palm by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

As an example, the EU regulation on deforestation-free products (EUDR) will require companies that sell products produced with palm oil, soy and beef, among others, to ensure they are deforestation-free before either entering the European market or being exported from the EU.

Using the HCV Approach to plan for deforestation free production

With global markets working harder to achieve sustainability and avoid irreparable damage to essential natural resources, the High Conservation Value (HCV) Approach methodology is an excellent starting point to support Mexican palm oil producers as they transition to sustainable deforestation-free practices.

Identification of what HCVs are present - and planning to ensure that oil palm and other crops are not grown at the expense of supportive ecosystems like forests - becomes an excellent building block and guide for responsible land-use planning and landscape management. Getting to this big picture, where impacts and dependencies are well understood, is only possible through close collaboration with the palm oil producers themselves, communities, local governments, civil society organisations, and technical institutions.

Collaborating for positive impact through the Latin American HCV Working Group

In 2022, to promote this approach and support producers with their sustainability challenges, the Mexican Federation of Oil Palm (FEMEXPALMA) and the HCV Network signed a five-year cooperation agreement to promote sustainable practices of palm oil production through conservation, capacity building and outreach.

FEMEXPALMA was the first oil palm federation to sign a cooperation agreement with the HCV Network. Through this agreement, FEMEXPALMA producers show their commitment to produce palm oil sustainably in Mexico. Since the agreement was signed, FEMEXPALMA and the HCV Network have collaborated in outreach projects and joint fundraising.

One of the most exciting outcomes has been the creation in 2023 of the Latin American HCV Working Group, a platform coordinated by the HCV Network, where a range of stakeholders can share their experiences of implementing the HCV Approach in the region and jointly develop ideas for improvement and cross-collaboration.

Oil palm producers becoming the custodians of HCVs

Working with HCVN and its members, including Proforest and RSPO, FEMEXPALMA has been pushing for sustainable development of the Mexican palm oil sector through various fronts. One is through the Holistic Programme, an initiative that started in 2017 with companies PepsiCo, Nestlé, Cargill, Oleofinos, and Oleopalma. The initiative has evolved into five pillars, focused around enhancing the technical capacities of Mexican mills, promoting small-scale producers’ inclusion, and promoting forest conservation and restoration. Through the Holistic Programme, 117 small-scale producers and 6 mills achieved the first eligibility milestone in RSPO certification and have learned about the importance of identifying and protecting HCVs in and around their plantations, and sharing the same message with their community and workers.

They have become custodians of HCVs.

“Seeing wildlife in our plantations is really nice. They’ve given us courses about High Conservation Values and we are instilling our workers the need to care for the environment in that way”. Luis Alberto Lopez, small-scale producer.
Images from Holistic Programme video (Oleopalma).

Planning oil palm cultivation while maintaining ecosystems and livelihoods

Since 2019, the Earthworm Foundation through the "Chiapas Landscape" Project has been working on planning oil palm cultivation with small producers, strengthening their capacities on the sustainable management of natural resources and managing agricultural lands through Integrated Farm Plans. Through these, an action plan for productive, social, and environmental management of farmers' productive areas is carried out. Since 2023, Earthworm-Mexico has implemented the HCV Approach through Integrated Farm Plans to promote the conservation of priority connectivity areas between ecosystems in the influence areas of the La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve; the restoration and protection of riparian areas with actions that reduce the dispersal of oil palm seeds in mangrove ecosystems; and compliance with the Reserve Management Program for producers within the Protected Area, ensuring the resilience of families while protecting ecosystems.

Images captured with camera traps inside palm oil plantations. These were part of a monitoring study done in collaboration with Universidad Juárez Autónoma de Tabasco and with support from NGO Panthera.

Bringing the sector onto a more sustainable path is essential if responsible business is to become mainstream in a country where poor land-use planning is putting critical natural, social, and cultural values at risk.

This work is just starting but we are excited to see how it transforms and grows. Through our collaboration with FEMEXPALMA, Earthworm Foundation and other partners and Members, we will continue to advocate for the protection of HCVs in Mexico and other countries in the region, and create lasting positive impacts for nature and people.