Experimental Sustainable Palm Laboratory

The “palm laboratory,” run by Professor Rodolfo Dirzo, will evaluate two innovations in crop diversification and increased sustainability in oil palm plantations: the cultivation of epiphytes growing on the trunks of palms in mature plantations, and the impacts of intermingling other crops within the palm plantations.  This evaluation will take place on eight paired plantations of half a hectare each member of the pair, over the span of 8 years.

Epiphytes, including ferns, bromeliads, orchids and other ornamentals of potentially high value, thrive in mature palm plantations, reaching abundances that may even surpass those of native forest (Dirzo, 2014).  This component of the laboratory will evaluate the extent to which these plants can be cultivated to provide an additional revenue opportunity for farmers. It will also consider the impact that maintaining these plants within the palm plantation has on biodiversity—pollinators, among other animals..

In addition to the focus on epiphytes, the palm laboratory will also study the impacts of intermingling banana, cacao, and high-value timber trees within the oil palm trees. These plantations will be studied in order to compensate for the impoverished biodiversity of the plantation (Dirzo 2014), and to increase the potential for multiple economic benefits to the farmers from the increased diversity of crops while simultaneously addressing a latent, frightening risk to palm farmers: the devastating pathogen causing “flecha seca” disease—a disease that, at least in theory, should be diluted in diversified plantations. Once plantations are mature, after about four years, the cultivation of epiphytes could also be included in these plantations. 

Location of Research Plots


We wish to focus our report on one of the most salient aspects of our recent work: The First LAPA Summit. Embedded in the summit narrative are highlights pertaining some of the most recent LAPA research components.

On February 24th 2019, LAPA held its first ever summit. This activity gathered LAPA’s team (local coordinators Hansel Herrera and Diego Godinez, and Rodolfo Dirzo, head of the project), along with two collaborators from each experimental site. The summit took place in Piedras Blancas, at the site of one of LAPA’s plantations. The objectives were i) to re-affirm the local, regional and indeed global significance of the project for all local participants (why are we doing this?); ii) to exchange experiences among all participants of LAPA (what has/has not worked in which site, how to address challenges, and how can we learn from each other?); iii) to promote the bonding and engagement among all participants (how does our networking help develop a community of learning?). 

The summit started off with an introductory talk by Rodolfo Dirzo to remind the participants about the challenges and opportunities surrounding oil palm cultivation in the global and local contexts, and to thoroughly explain the rationale behind our investigation one more time. This set the ground for a rich discussion about the farmers’ experience both growing and selling palm oil, and actively participating in LAPA’s diversification experiment. With oil prices plummeting to less than $70 per ton early this year, and the risks of palm disease proliferation in monocultures, it was easy for farmers to appreciate the value of investigating the potential benefits of combining oil palm production with other food and cash crops—banana/plantain, cacao and timber. Following Rodolfo’s talk, local science coordinator Hansel Herrera presented a summary of the main studies carried out by LAPA. 

The participants were excited to learn that rodent abundance is reduced in diversified plantations, compared to oil palm monocultures. Farmers appreciated the significance of these findings, given that the parasites they carry can potentially transmit a number of diseases (e.g. plague, chagas, rickettsia, etc.) to humans. Therefore, not only were our local partners pleased to learn that diversified palm could be less prone to rodent damage, but also that the risk of rodent-borne zoonoses can be attenuated in enriched plantations. 

The farmers were also informed about the progress on other aspects of the study, intended to assess the ecosystem services provided by dung- and carrion-decomposing beetles, as well as the role of birds, bats and invertebrates in controlling the abundance of potentially damaging leaf-eating caterpillars. We are pleased to report that both the abundance of beetles and the rate of predation of potentially harmful caterpillars were higher in diversified plots, which highlights the potential advantages of diversified plantations.

The last part of the summit consisted on a practical demonstration of cacao pruning and grafting techniques. Guided by LAPA’s plantation manager Diego Garcia, we visited the Piedras Blancas experimental plot. Based on his mastery of these techniques, Diego explained the nuts and bolts of shaping and maintaining healthy and productive cacao trees. Participant farmers took turns in practicing the trimming and plant-canopy shaping to facilitate sunlight incidence and thus productivity of cacao trees via the stimulation of fruit production and reduction of harmful fungi attack. The farmers also learned to improve their cacao grafting protocols in the field. Diego also coordinated the wonderful catering of the event, an aspect that allowed us to eat together and further enhance or bonding and sense of community of friendship and work.

All in all, the objectives of this first LAPA summit were amply met, and we are delighted to report that our associated farmers left the meeting with a good sense of satisfaction, appreciation and renewed engagement in the project. We augur a productive and exciting new LAPA phase of generation of novel, informative results on this important aspect of INOGO’s work.