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The oil palm boom: socio-economic implications for Q’eqchi’ households in the Polochic valley, Guatemala


Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) has become one of the most rapidly expanding crops in the world. Many countries have promoted its cultivation as part of a broader rural development strategy aimed at generating paid work and producing both export commodities and biofuels. However, oil palm expansion has often occurred at the expense of ecosystems and subsistence agriculture, and on lands riddled with tenure conflicts. In this article, we analyse the implications of the combined effect of labouring in oil palm plantations and land access on households, and we discuss how these implications affect human well-being in two indigenous communities of the Polochic valley, Guatemala. Combining participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and land-time budget analysis at household level, we reveal how oil palm cultivation increases incomes for plantation workers’ households, but decreases the productivity of maize cultivation, reduces the time that household members have available for other activities and, particularly, reduces women’s resting time. In contrast, households that focus more intensively on maize cultivation show higher degrees of food security and women can allocate more time to social activities. However, our results also show that maize consumption per capita has not decreased in households working in oil palm plantations since such crop is considered sacred by the Q’eqchi’ and plays a central role in their diet and culture. In conclusion, we argue that while working for an oil palm cultivation can increase specific elements of the basic material conditions for a good life, other aspects such as food security, health, freedom of choice, and social relationships can become deteriorated.

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  1. 1.

    General poverty lines calculated by an inter-institutional technical team of INE, Planning Secretariat of the Presidency (SEGEPLAN), with the assistance of World Bank.

  2. 2.

    Gini coefficient equal to 0 represents perfect equality, whereas a coefficient of 1 represents extreme inequality.

  3. 3.

    Ixcán (Quiché), Chisec, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (Alta Verapaz), and Sayaxché (Petén).

  4. 4.

    It involves using an accounting framework that uses human activity instead of per capita figures. Here, human activity is measured in hours (a person has a budget of 24 h per day to allocate to different activities). The main advantages of using hours to represent human activity are the following: it allows to keep track of the activities developed by the society; we can scale up and down indicators, i.e., aggregate them across scales; and they represent demographic and institutional information (e.g., workload).

  5. 5.

    According to Miller (1956), quoted in Bouyssou (1990), the number of indicators should not be higher than a dozen, due to human capacity to process information.


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This research was partially funded by the Agència Catalana de Cooperació al Desenvolupament, Generalitat de Catalunya, and the Latin American and Caribbean Environmental Economics Program. Sara Mingorría acknowledges the financial support from an MAE grant of the AECID associated with the PERT Program of San Carlos University of Guatemala. Esteve Corbera acknowledges the financial support of the Spanish Research, Development and Innovation Secretariat (RYC-2010-07183) and of a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant within the EC-FP7 (PCIG09-GA-2011-294234). We thank the communities of the Polochic valley for their active participation in the research and the research team Instituto de Estudios Agrarios y Rurales of the Coordinadora de ONGs y Cooperativas in Guatemala for their logistic support during fieldwork. We are grateful to Adrián Miguel for his help with the design of the agrarian calendar, to Suzette Paguirigan for proofreading early versions of this paper, to the Rural System Group at ICTA-UAB for insightful methodological comments, and to two anonymous reviewers for their very useful comments. The views expressed and any errors remain our own responsibility.

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Correspondence to Sara Mingorría.



See Table 9.

Table 9 The interviewee numbers indicating community case (Community A and Community B) and the interviewee within community case (second digit), interviewee role, topic, and her or his quote

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Mingorría, S., Gamboa, G., Martín-López, B. et al. The oil palm boom: socio-economic implications for Q’eqchi’ households in the Polochic valley, Guatemala. Environ Dev Sustain 16, 841–871 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-014-9530-0

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  • Palm oil
  • Gender
  • Guatemala
  • Indigenous communities
  • Societal metabolism
  • Well-being indicators