Ramón Cruz is a palm oil farmer who lives near El Progreso in northern Honduras. He is a member of the E.A.C. Liberación, a farmer-owned palm oil association. When I visited Liberación last week with a group of reporters and Rainforest Alliance guides, Ramón gave an enthusiastic account of why attaining sustainable certification has been beneficial for his association.
Liberación has 20 members and is one of 30 associations that make up Hondupalma, the world’s first sustainable palm oil cooperative certified by the Rainforest Alliance.
Ramón's story started at the beginning of the 20th century. That was the era of the so-called “banana republic,” when big fruit companies such as Chiquita, Cuyamel, Standard Fruit Co. (Dole), and La Tela purchased vast tracts of prime agricultural land by manipulating land ownership laws. In exchange for building a railway from the Caribbean to the Pacific coasts of Honduras, fruit companies received 500 hectares of land from the government per kilometer of track that was laid. This dispossessed the local villagers who had lived there for prior generations and forced them into the mountains. Without their own land to farm, they became low-wage employees for the fruit companies.
By the 1950s, however, the banana republic started to wane. Ramón described a big flood that destroyed many of the banana plantations and coincided with a general labour strike in 1954, thanks to a constitutional reform that finally gave workers permission to organize. These workers fought to reclaim their land from the now-floundering fruit companies, many of whose land leases were up. Their efforts were successful and 2,500 hectares were returned to small farmers.
Farmers started growing beans, rice, and corn. They planted their first oil palms in 1977, and Hondupalma was formed in 1982. Since then, Liberación has done very well. Oil palms have become a hugely successful crop, thanks to increasing worldwide demand, though it is also a highly controversial crop due to the vast tropical deforestation that occurs in order to make room for palm plantations.
When asked how Liberación has benefited from pursuing Rainforest Alliance certification, Ramón replied that it has totally changed the farmers’ mindset:
“We humans think we do everything the best way, but now we realize our way [of farming] wasn’t the best.”
The association was obliged to reassess its agricultural practices. They made major changes to the chemicals they use -- no synthetic pesticides, only fertilizers, which can’t be applied near water. They implemented safety gear for workers; built storage sheds to organize supplies and equipment; and renovated workers’ homes to meet the standard. They also set aside 86 hectares of rainforest (almost 50 percent of Liberación’s total holding) for conservation. Labour rights are now enforced; workers receive extra training; members have access to health care; and families with children receive an extra salary to cover education costs.
Since making these changes, the association’s yields have increased. They have gained a competitive edge in the global market for their product, as more consumers are starting to seek out sustainably certified palm oil.
Ramón’s story is hopeful, and it does seem that his association is working hard to implement sustainable agricultural practices; but it’s important to keep in mind that certified sustainable palm oil represents a very small portion of the global palm oil market. The industry has such an atrocious ecological track record, from slashing primal forests to killing orangutans in Indonesia and Malaysia, that it’s going to take a lot more than just a few caring farmers to change the industry.