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5.3 Smallholders, oil palm cultivation in Surinam

(Description and suitability criteria for land qualities)

This qualitative current land suitability classification was set up to assist in the planning of agricultural development on land unused at present, on the basis of limited information from some pilot oil palm plantations. Together with a few parallel suitability classifications for other promising uses, it was applied to some areas considered for early development. Such relatively simple suitability classifications can be completed rapidly. This makes them useful for planning as well as for indicating which criteria are of particular importance and may need further study.

5.3.1 Description of Land Use (data and assumptions)

Oil palms are cultivated by smallholders on family farms. The farmers are independent and have long-term rights to the land. The produce is sold as bunches. Yields are of the order of 20 tonne bunches (4 tonne oil) per hectare of mature trees per year. Plant density is about 150 trees per hectare.

There is no irrigation and virtually no drainage. Fertilizing practices consist of a starter application (NPK and Mg) in the planting hole and applications around the trees in the first years, distributed in such a way that local concentrations remain below 100 g nutrient per square metre (avoiding narrow rings of fertilizer). Kudzu (Pueraria phaseoloides) is used as a cover crop, and fertilized with phosphate. From the third or fourth year, K is applied to compensate for the considerable loss of this element in the product. Plant protection measures are taken when needed.

Cultivation is partly mechanized. Sources of power are human, animal and/or light (e.g. two-wheeled) tractors. Machines used are small. Long distance transport of produce and fertilizers etc. is motorized and takes place on all-weather roads.

Any land clearing needed is done by machines, locally supplemented by manual labour. Where possible, land clearing is preceded by or combined with timber and wood extraction, for example for charcoal production.

5.3.2 Social and Economic Context

The people engaged in cultivation of oil palms on smallholdings spend most of their time and earn most of their money planting and maintaining oil palms and harvesting bunches. The incomes policy of the Surinam Ministry of Agriculture envisages a farmer's minimum income of around US$ 2 500 per year. A farm size of about 5-10 ha would be sufficient to achieve this aim with prices in the order of US$ 40 per tonne bunches, and yields as mentioned.

Farms need to be near a factory since the bunches should be pressed soon after harvest, preferably within 24 hours. Factories should be accessible on good all-weather roads and be within economic trucking distance from Paramaribo, the main harbour.

The farmer is dependent upon external marketing authorities but is poorly informed about marketing and management requirements of the oil palm. A strong advisory service and good organization of the farmers are needed to meet the requirements of quality of produce, plant protection and fertilizing, to finance the relatively high investments and to assist the farmers through the long period (4 years) from first planting to the start of production.

The Ministry's policy is to establish centres for services to the farmers. Concentration of agricultural and other development around a centre is viewed as an instrument for improvement of the living situation outside the towns. Consequently all services, including organizations serving production, are concentrated in centres, so that they may be optimally used. The centres are designed for a wider group than only farmers, or only employees of a single kind of enterprise.

5.3.3 Required Land Qualities

Some land qualities important for crop growth, management and land improvement for different uses in Surinam are listed in Table 5. Land qualities that influence the growth of the oil palm include availability of moisture, oxygen and nutrients. In Surinam there are no toxicities (salinity, acid sulphate) hindering the growth of oil palm on land that is suitable in other aspects for this land use.

Land qualities influencing management include trafficability and accessibility. The latter comprises ease of maintenance (and construction where needed) of farm or local roads. Location in relation to markets and supplies is considered only in the social and economic context, since this quality is virtually constant within given areas contemplated for development in Surinam. Resistance to erosion is generally sufficient for this land use on land that is suitable according to the trafficability criteria. The length of dry periods for harvest and maintenance is not relevant for oil palm. Compactness of holdings is not considered of great importance either for these small farms.

Of the land qualities influencing land improvement, only the ease of vegetation clearance has been considered. The existing vegetation in almost all areas suitable for oil palm is rain forest.


Land quality


With regard to crop growth:

Moisture availability


Oxygen availability in the root zone


Nutrient availability


Absence of toxicities


With regard to management:

Resistance to erosion


Trafficability and accessibility


Length of dry periods for harvest and land preparation

(climatic factors)


Freedom (and compactness) of parcelling


Resistance to compaction


With regard to land improvement:

Ease of levelling or land shaping


Ease of vegetation clearance


Ease of construction of water control works

(irrigation and drainage)


5.3.4 Composition of the Main Land Qualities

i. Moisture availability (Table 6) is largely determined by the moisture deficit. In climates with extremely dry months, possible damage to the palm is expected to aggravate the effect of a certain amount of moisture shortage. Therefore limitations due to moisture shortage for the crop are rated differently in climates with and without extremely dry months. The moisture deficit is estimated from the precipitation deficit in the dry period and the moisture holding capacity of the root zone. For generalized land suitability classifications the precipitation deficit may be derived from the climatic zones (Working
Group on Land Evaluation, 1975, A, Appendix 1). For suitability estimates in small areas, data from the nearest meteorological stations are more specific.
A rough estimate for the degree of moisture availability may be derived from the natural vegetation in combination with general climatic data.
Land under naturally wet conditions, e.g. due to shallow groundwater, is disregarded because this land is not suitable due to its defective oxygen supply.

ii. Oxygen availability in the root zone (Table 7) is assumed to be dependent upon the absence of water saturation only. The length of uninterrupted periods with reducing conditions in the root zone due to water saturation is used as a basic measure for limitations in oxygen availability. A redox potential (Eh) below 200 mV is taken as a criterion for reducing conditions. Corresponding, but increasingly less direct, criteria for oxygen availability are periods of water saturation of the topsoil, colour and mottling of the soil, drainage class and the natural vegetation.

iii. Nutrient availability (Table 8) is determined in part by the natural fertility level of the soil, at the low level of fertilization assumed for this land use. The nutrient availability is also influenced by the buffering capacity for fertilizers. Trace element availability or phosphate fixation are not considered since oil palm, being a deep-rooting perennial, has relatively low requirements with regard to nutrient activity. Total K2O and P2O5 contents or exchangeable K and P (Bray) are used as indicative criteria for the natural fertility level, since more data are not available. The effective C.E.C. (cation exchange capacity measured at the pH of the soil) is used as a criterion for the buffering capacity for fertilizers. The natural fertility level and the buffering capacity do not strongly interact in their influence on the crop and are treated as separate components of the land quality.

iv. Trafficability and accessibility (Table 9) may be considered as separate land qualities with little interaction. The trafficability of the planted area for people and small tract ore mainly depends upon slopes and drainage conditions. Drainage conditions are estimated from the soil drainage class or from the natural vegetation. Accessibility, or the ease of constructing and maintaining a network of farm roads, is mainly determined by the slopes and the proportion of marsh or swamp land (strips along creeks, for example).


Criterion 1/

Moisture shortage for crop in drought period

Climatic zone 2/ and moisture holding capacity in the root zone (0-150 cm)

Climatic zone and natural vegetation

in climates without extremely dry months 3/

in climates with extremely dry months 3/

Degree of limitation

none to slight

< 200 mm

< 150 mm

Northern Surinam: > 100 mm
Southern Surinam: >250 mm

Northern Surinam:
dryland rain forest with (moderately) coarse canopy


200 - 400 mm

150 - 300 mm

Coastal Strip: >200 mm
Northern Surinam: <100 mm
Southern Surinam: 100 - 250 mm

All of Southern Surinam.
Northern Surinam:
dryland rain forest with fine canopy and 'dryer' vegetations


400 - 600 mm

300 - 450 mm

Coastal Strip: <200 mm
Southern Surinam: <100 mm

Coastal Strip

1/ Moisture shortage is the basic criterion. The alternative criteria: moisture holding capacity and natural vegetation, both within given climatic zones, are less direct and successively more generalized.
2/ The Coastal Strip is about 10 km wide; Northern and Southern Surinam are separated by a line roughly 430' North latitude. The Coastal Strip has an annual precipitation deficit of about 600 mm; Northern and Southern Surinam about 300 and 400 mm, respectively.
3/ Only Southern Surinam has extremely dry months.


Criterion 1/

Continuous periods with Eh < 200 mV in the topsoil (0-50 cm) weeks

Continuous periods of water saturation in the topsoil (0-50 cm) weeks

Colour and mottling of the soil apart from the humus topsoil

Soil drainage

Natural vegetation

Degree of limitation

none to slight

< 1

< 3

no reduction 2/ colours within 120 cm depth and no clear 3/ mottles within 50 cm depth

at least moderately well drained

dryland vegetation


1 - 2

3 - 4

no reduction colours within 50 cm depth

imperfectly drained


2 - 4

4 - 6

reduction colours within 50 cm depth

poorly drained

marsh vegetation

very severe

4 - 8

6 - 10

predominantly reduction colours within 50 cm depth


> 8

> 10;
or 2 weeks flooded

completely reduced within 50 cm depth

very poorly drained

swamp vegetation

1/ Criteria become less specific and successively more generalized from left to right.
2/ Colours with chrome 2 or less due to reduction.
3/ Sum of differences in hue, value and chrome between mottles and matrix colour >2.


Component of land quality

Natural fertility level

Buffering capacity for nutrients


total of K2O

total of P2O5

exch. K

P (Bray)

effective C.E.C. in upper horizons



meq/100 g


(0-50 cm)

Degree of limitations 1/

none to slight

> 0.5

> 0.125

> 0.06

> 3

> meq/100 g soil


< 0.5

< 0.125

< 0.06

< 3

1-3 meq/100 g soil






< 1 meq/100 g soil

1/ The lowest rating for any criterion determines the degree of limitation of the land quality. Data for either total K2O and P2O5, or exchangeable K and P - Bray may be used.


Land quality:


Accessibility (ease of constructing and maintaining farm roads)

Criterion 1/

slope %

soil drainage

slope %

proportion of marsh or wetter land

Degree of limitation

none to slight

< 15

(moderately good)

< 15



15 - 30


15 - 30 or (not both)

20 - 50


< 30


15 - 30 and

20 - 50

very severe

> 30


> 30

> 50



very poor



1/ The lowest rating for any criterion determines the degree of limitation of a land quality, except as noted under accessibility for moderate and severe limitations.

5.3.5 Land Suitability Classification

The suitability of different kinds of land for smallholders, oil palm cultivation is estimated with the aid of the listed criteria for the land qualities. The degree of the most serious limitation in a land quality normally determines the suitability class, and the nature of this land quality determines the subclass. The distinction between severe and very severe limitations is used to determine the Suitable (S) or Not Suitable (N) Order.

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