Oil palm expansion without enclosure: smallholders and environmental narratives

Oil palm expansion without enclosure: smallholders and environmental narratives


Oil palm expansion has been shown to cause deforestation and reduce land and resource availability for communities located near plantations. It has also been shown to have mixed impacts on local livelihoods. Some studies point to socially different impacts, with small and marginal farmers less likely to benefit from oil palm expansion while others find significant increases in incomes. This paper seeks to understand the factors that make smallholder farmers participate in oil palm expansion, and outline the varied narratives that are used by the proponents of oil palm expansion.

Research goals & methods

The authors study two regions where there has been rapid oil palm expansion in recent years, the southern Lacandon rainforest and the coastal Soconusco in Chiapas. Field work was carried out over 2011, 2012, and 2013 and consisted of interviews with producers, company employees, technical experts, environmentalists associated with NGOs, and government employees.

Conclusions & takeaways

The authors find that small holders did not loss their access to land even after oil palm plantations were created because of three context specific factors which allowed them more secure land tenure. These are: (i) state support to small holders through the free distribution of seedlings, (ii) a local form of land tenure system, ejidos, which prevented the dispossession of land, and (iii) opposition to large scale plantations by cattle ranchers, a locally powerful group. In the absence of dispossession, there is support from middle and small holder farmers for oil palm plantations, and demands for greater integration into the market. The authors suggest that this differs from the assumptions made by scholars that oil palm is against the economic and social interests of smallholders and there is resistance to it. According to them in the absence of land dispossession, other factors such as the role of the state, the social relations of production, and wider market changes are more important in shaping agrarian responses to oil palm plantations.


Castellanos-Navarrete A, Jansen K. Oil palm expansion without enclosure: smallholders and environmental narratives. The Journal of Peasant Studies. 2015;42(3-4):791 - 816. doi:10.1080/03066150.2015.1016920.


  • National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), CIMSUR (Chiapas)