Interview with Natural Habitats' Sebastian Rojas: On Palm Oil and the Environment

Through working with Serendipalm and Natural Habitats in Ecuador, we here at Traidcraft developed FairPalm – the world’s only fair trade, organic palm oil, that protects the environment while supporting smallholder growers.

Today, we're speaking to Natural Habitats' Sebastian Rojas, on all things climate change and organic.

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Traidcraft: Hi Sebastian, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak to us. Can you start by explaining a little bit about what a farmer’s daily routine looks like?

Sebastian: No problem. Every day farmers work in their farm to care for their crops and work on anything that is required that day; pruning, weeding and harvesting, with the help of their families and/or workers. There is always something to do on the farm.

Traidcraft: Sounds like the farmers never have a spare moment! How are the fruits harvested?

Sebastian: When the fruit is ripe, workers harvest by hand, either by using a scythe fit onto a long pole or by shimmying up the tree and using a machete to cut down the bunches. Once the bunches are harvested, the farmers cart them to a central point for transport to or pick up for the mill. They either use donkeys, horses, oxen or small trucks for this.

Palm oil being loaded onto truck quote

Traidcraft: When in the year is the harvest for palm oil?

Sebastian: Fresh fruit bunches ripen in 20 weeks and are harvested throughout the year. Farmers need to monitor their plantation daily for ripe fruit that can be harvested. Since the fruit is harvested all year long, palm oil farming ensures a steady flow of work and income. Yet, high season is during the rainy season, which, in Ecuador, is from December until May. Farmers save money from this period in order
to maintain their farm and families during the year. Many farmers diversify their production as a way to have an alternative source of income during the low season.

Traidcraft: At Traidcraft, we believe in looking after people and planet, which is why we place such high importance on organic. How does growing organically make a difference in the palm oil field?

Sebastian: Organic makes a difference because chemicals are not allowed – farmers
don’t use synthetic fertiliser, herbicides or pest control. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are also not allowed. Instead cover crops and organic fertilization is used tokeep the soil healthy and provide for the necessary nutrients. And natural solutions are used for pest control.

Read more about sustainable palm oil

: Interesting! You mentioned the natural solutions for pest control – can you tell us a little more about that?

Sebastian: Since our operations are 100% organic, eco-friendly techniques are used. The most common technique is to set traps made of containers filled with raw sugar cane, pineapple and water in order to attract the insect Rhynchophorus Palmarum (a.k.a. the South American palm weevil), a vector of many diseases. In the case of leaf cutter insects, farmers collect these insects manually as a way to reduce their population.

Traidcraft: Are there any water saving processes you use?

Sebastian: Most of the farmers are water efficient by default, as they don't have irrigation. They use the natural technique of cover crops, which helps to store water in the soil to overcome the dry season.

Traidcraft: As intercropping is something that is important to you, apart from palm oil, what else do the farmers grow?

Intercropping palm oil quote

: Many of our farmers grow different crops in their plantation. Common crops that are cultivated are cocoa, plantain, bananas and passion fruit. Some farmers also cultivate other fruits, but also pepper. The different crops are not necessarily intercropped with oil palm, as this is considered inefficient for managing the land and harvesting the crop. We mostly see a mosaic type plantation with the different crops planted in specific areas of the farm.

Traidcraft: Is climate change affecting the farmers? If yes, how have
they adapted?

Sebastian: Yes. There are more severe droughts during the dry season. And droughts affect yield. Reforestation of the river shores has contributed to protecting the rivers from drying out during this period to ensure the availability of local water sources.

Palm oil isn't bad quote from Natural Habitats' Sebastian Rojas

: We are aware of the misconception that all palm oil is bad and that we should avoid it at all costs. How is your palm oil sustainable? 

Sebastian: Palm oil isn’t bad. In fact, it’s the most efficient vegetable oil crop and such a good and sustainable vegetable oil source. The way it is grown in certain places where it is grown is what brings the critique. What differentiates our palm oil (which goes into FairPalm) from the bulk conventional palm oil, is that it is 100% organic, deforestation-free, wildlife friendly, fair and social palm oil, sourced from independent farms in Ecuador. All Palm Done Right palm oil- and palm kernel oil-based ingredients are fully traceable to the original source (palm oil mill; palm kernel oil crusher) and the farmers that delivered the fresh fruit bunches.

We take the challenges facing palm oil very seriously in our production landscapes. We refrain from deforestation, exploitation, and we controls GHG emissions in our production landscapes through the strict adherence to organic and sustainable production practices. We do not compromise. Any farmer disregarding our policies will be cut from the supply network.

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We operate a strict Land Use Policy that serves to prevent any conflict in relation to land use and preserve the associated rights of the local inhabitants. We operate a strict Forest Conservation Policy that prohibits the conversion of primary and secondary forests into agricultural production areas,tree plantations,or other degrading land uses. The Forest Conservation Policy stipulates the necessary precautionary actions for forest preservation and zero burning practices.

Our values are the foundations that govern our palm oil operations. Our approach sets the standard for organic production, empowerment and collaboration. These three parts are essential components of our approach and need to be provided together. Without empowerment, organic agriculture will not bring maximum benefits to yields, livelihoods, soils and ecosystems. Without value chain collaboration, organic production will not receive the market reward, investment and scale, crucial to its viability. Without innovating organic production, Natural Habitats will not succeed to bring quality, health and sustainability solutions to its customers, partners and farmers.

Our operations are Organic (National Organic Program), Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Fair for Life (FFL) and Rainforest Alliance (RFA) certified, which verifies our commitment our policies, values and approach.

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Traidcraft: Palm oil has been a hotly debated topic in the media of late, highlighting the unsustainable element, has this had any effect on you? More demand for sustainable palm oil?

Sebastian: Palm oil’s bad reputation has an effect on us in a way that we receive many questions, and we need to go to great lengths explaining why palm oil is an important crop, that brings many benefits, both socially and environmentally. When we explain how we approach palm oil production, many people see how palm oil has a lot to offer. Still, some people rather stick to their believes that it is better to avoid palm oil altogether. Occasionally this leads to customers reformulating their product away from using palm oil, and, for use, losing that customers.

Yet, we are seeing traction in the market for sustainable palm oil, with the majority of people understanding that the solution to the problems in the sector is the transition to sustainable practices. We see demand rising for our approach to offer fully traceable, 100% organic, deforestation-free, wildlife friendly, fair and social palm oil. We gain interest from small, medium and large manufacturers. They all see how their reward for sustainably produced palm oil positively impacts the transition of the sector towards sustainable practices.

Traidcraft: Thanks Sebastian! This has been an extremely insightful interview and we hope it helps people to understand why seeking products containing sustianably sourced palm oil, rather than avoiding palm oil altogether, is so important. Best wishes for the future - until the next time!

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Published at: 19-05-2021
Tags: FairPalm Sustainable Palm Oil Meet the Producer