Today’s oil palm plantations look pretty impressive after 20 years – tall, straight trunks; big leafy canopies shading the ground. Skilled workers use a “sickle pole” or a motorized limb saw to prune leaves and cut down heavy bunches of fruit. When the tree gets too tall, it dies – usually at the hands of a bulldozer, chainsaw, or more frequently a stiff injection of glyphosate.
That’s not how most oil palms lived and died in the past. Left to their own devices, oil palms get tall – really tall. They easily hit 25 or 30 meters, and some reports claimed to see specimens over 50 meters! Getting fruit from mature trees meant a long climb up the trunk.
Most climbers used a single-rope method, tying a rope or belt (often made of sturdy palm leaf fibers) around themselves and tree. The climber–always a man–leaned back against the rope with this feet on the trunk. By “jumping” the rope upwards, a man could climb to towering heights. The rope provided support while the climber hacked away leaves and the fruit itself.
Falling from a tree could be deadly. If a climber successfully grasped the trunk after slipping, they might slide all the way down, with sharp stubs left by old palm leaves tearing into their skin. A skilled climber could only manage 12 or 15 trees in single day.
The cost of hiring climbers was a major factor behind the development of the first oil palm plantations. So too was the fact that in Africa, most men weren’t interested in taking on this hard work (at least not at the wages offered by foreign companies). Today’s oil palms live fast and die young because it’s the cheapest way to harvest them.
Around the world many small-scale farmers are facing a serious conundrum: when, or if, to replant their oil palms. For many years, they could walk right up to their palms and cut fruit with an axe or machete. They switched to long, clumsy sickle poles as the palms grew taller. But palms planted in the 1980s and 1990s will soon be impossible to harvest from the ground. Outside of Africa and northeastern Brazil, no one climbs trees to harvest fruit. It’s too slow, too hard, and too dangerous. Researchers in Malaysia and Indonesia have tried ladders, boom-lifts, and even drones. None of these are as cost-effective as killing the tree and starting over.
For a plantation, replacing trees is a planned business expense, done on a rotating cycle. For a small farmer, replacing tall trees–with more oil palms, or anything else–means years of lost income while the new crop takes root. If palm oil prices stay low, few of these farmers will bother replacing their old trees with new oil palms when they could make more money with coffee, cocoa, rubber, and durian.