Commercial agriculture for food security? The case of oil palm development in northern Guatemala


Development practitioners and policymakers often posit that promoting cash crop expansion to generate rural employment has the potential to alleviate poverty and improve food security. Focusing upon the recent expansion of oil palm production in the northern lowlands of Guatemala, we critically evaluate this claim. To do so, we draw upon survey data collected in two neighbouring villages – one where oil palm is the main land use, another where maize and secondary forest are prevalent – to investigate how the expanding cultivation of the cash crop shapes local food access and rural livelihoods. We find that oil palm has improved food access for some households with oil palm employment. However, number of beneficiaries is relatively small and the practice does not lift them from the ranks of the food insecure. For most households in the village where oil palm is prevalent, the ability to access food has decreased, as the expansion of oil palm has displaced staple grain production and eliminated relatively more inclusive forms of agricultural employment. In contrast, households from the village where staple maize production remains predominant are notably more food secure. We conclude that, in the absence of deep changes that address the underlying causes of widespread vulnerability in Guatemala’s northern lowlands, the self-provisioning of maize and other staples will continue to serve as a cornerstone of food security, while the promotion of cash crops like oil palm will exacerbate inequalities in households’ ability to access food.

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  1. 1.

    In terms of actual oil palm fruit production, Guatemala ranks as the fourth largest producer in Latin America (FAO 2019).

  2. 2.

    Forests continue to be the primary source of firewood for cooking in the region. For some households, forests are also a source of edible and/or medicinal herbs, fruits, mushrooms, and game meat (Hervas 2019b).

  3. 3.

    As oil palm fruit is harvested every 15 days, it does provide a regular source of income for farm/plantation owners. However, as we discuss below, this is not the case for farm employees in our study, the majority of whom work on short contracts with no guarantee of continued employment.

  4. 4.

    Two palm growers stated that the price that they received was pegged to the price of petroleum. We are not certain whether some farmers in our study are compensated differently or if they were mistaken about how the price that they receive for their palm fruit is determined.

  5. 5.

    Personal communication with Alberto Alonso-Fradejas (September 2018).

  6. 6.

    While the components have remained virtually the same over time, the name of the conditional cash transfer program has changed with each successive presidential administration. When launched by the administration of Álvaro Colom in 2008, it was dubbed Mi Familia Progresa. The administration of Otto Pérez Molina changed the name to Mi Bono Seguro and that of his successor, Jimmy Morales, changed it to Bono Social.

  7. 7.

    All of the research team members received prior ethics training (including but not limited to free and informed consent and withdrawal, anonymity, protection of data, and sensitivity to the respondents), and both male and female research assistants and translators participated in the in-person survey distribution to foster inclusivity and receptiveness. In some instances, other household members were also present during the survey and contributed to responses.

  8. 8.

    When urban areas are considered, maize is the source of 65% of the carbohydrates and 71% of the protein in Guatemalan diets.

  9. 9.

    Males typically begin to work at age 10 in this region.

  10. 10.

    A caporal typically manages the work process and is in charge of worker recruitment on the plantation.

  11. 11.

    In one of the cases, the worker had a good relationship with the plantation owner who provided regular employment. In the second case the household had three work age males with oil palm employment with the assumption that at least one will have work at a given time.

  12. 12.

    Excludes farmers who grow maize in other communities. Some farmers rent land, often at high prices, in other communities in the ecoregion because they have richer soils.

  13. 13.

    The market price can fluctuate seasonally by approximately 20%.

  14. 14.

    Many elements affect land prices in the study region including land tenure status, ecological attributes, and circumstantial factors (e.g. if the seller is desperate for a quick sale and/or is taken advantage of by the buyer). However, our research indicates a steep upward trend in land prices, with a couple of land owners even strategically holding uncultivated land with the expectation of eventually selling to an oil palm grower at a higher price.

  15. 15.

    When wage labourers are also subsistence farmers, the net benefits are ambiguous.

  16. 16.

    Oil palm plantations also offer sporadic or occasional employment opportunities, usually lasting one to several days, for specific tasks such as preparing seedlings in the plant nursery or collecting seeds that have fallen on the ground during harvest. These occasional jobs are often taken by women, who sometimes bring their children or other family members to help if they get paid per task rather than per day. There is typically no guarantee for re-hiring for such jobs.

  17. 17.

    Some local oil palm labourers also complained of getting reprimanded for not finishing an arbitrarily assigned task/quota, being ‘too slow’ according to their team leader, and taking breaks. Some were also required to work overtime, and in some cases, not paid for the extra hours.

  18. 18.

    Some households also indicated that they must also now pay for firewood and for forest herbs that were available for free a before local forests were cut down.


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This research was supported by a Canada-Latin America and the Caribbean Research Exchange Grant (LACREG) from the International Development Research Council (IDRC) and Universities Canada. We would like to thank Carlos Avendaño, Oscar Rojas, Tania Montenegro, and Julio Morales for their invaluable assistance on this project. Though they must remain unnamed, we would also like to thank the leaders of the participant communities and all other research participants for welcoming us into their communities and sharing their time, insights, and homes with us. We are grateful for the instructive feedback provided by two anonymous reviewers and the editor-in-chief of Food Security, Serge Savary. Their careful reviews of our manuscript and constructive comments helped us to significantly improve the quality of this paper. Any remaining errors remain our own.

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Correspondence to S. Ryan Isakson.

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This research was approved by the University of Toronto’s Office of Research Ethics (protocol #31034). All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they had no conflict of interest.



Fig. 6

Maize production cost (Quetzals) per 1 quintal (46 kg) of grain (y-axis) in the two villages considered in the study. Note: The presented sample does not include cases where land is owned or rented in other parts of the region, or the households who did not provide complete information for the corresponding survey questions

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Hervas, A., Isakson, S.R. Commercial agriculture for food security? The case of oil palm development in northern Guatemala. Food Sec. 12, 517–535 (2020).

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  • Food access
  • Oil palm
  • Guatemala
  • Maize
  • Contract farming
  • Commercial agriculture