Hondupalma is a medium-sized palm oil cooperative located about an hour away from San Pedro Sula, an industrial city in northern Honduras. If you follow a very long and bumpy dirt road, past brightly coloured cement houses, past wandering dogs, chickens, and mules pulling carts, past muddy streams where children splash to cool off in the 98-degree heat (36C), you’ll eventually come to the verdant, humid expanses of oil palms that make up part of Hondupalma’s 9500-hectare plantation.
Hondupalma is different from other palm oil plantations because it achieved Rainforest Alliance certification for sustainable palm oil production in October 2013 – the first-ever palm oil cooperative in the world to do this, and the first certified palm oil company in Honduras.
I spent two days last week visiting Hondupalma as a guest of Rainforest Alliance, to see firsthand what kind of work is being done to improve an industry that has a very bad global reputation, particularly when it comes to deforestation and environmental stewardship. I’m aware that it is inherently difficult to get a truly well rounded perspective on an issue when travelling on a sponsored trip, but I can honestly say that what I saw and learned about Hondupalma’s approach to palm oil farming did impress me.
Since 2011, Hondupalma as a whole has invested USD $2.5 million to achieve certification. This cost was divided among the 30 associations of farmers that make up the cooperative. Each of those associations varies in size from 5 to 40 members for a total of 588 members.
It took two years for the associations to meet the 10 principles necessary for certification. These include better safety gear and health care for workers, improved training in the reduced use of agrochemicals, better recycling and waste disposal systems, new infrastructure in the form of storage sheds and improved houses for workers, guaranteed protection for wildlife, forests, and waterways, reforestation and rainforest conservation projects.
Rainforest Alliance strives for three areas of improvement with its certification program – economic, social, and environmental – and I saw evidence for this in the conversations I had with association members and the parts of the plantation that I visited. By streamlining and improving agricultural practices, the cooperative has seen a 15-20 percent increase in crop yields, while saving money and making environmental gains by using fewer agrochemicals. They now see more wildlife and lush undergrowth within the plantations, and are not supposed to use any synthetic fertilizers near protected areas, such as waterways.
Workers receive a higher wage than they would at other palm oil plantations in the area, which is due more to Hondupalma being a socially minded cooperative that shares its increased profits with all members than to any requirements for the certification process. The fact that certified farms are not obligated to pay more than the national minimum wage for agricultural work surprised me, since minimum wage is so often less than what’s considered to be a ‘living’ wage. Fortunately, the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) and Rainforest Alliance say they are working together to address discrepancies between minimum and local wages, which I think is very important.
Workers receive a salary that guarantees a baseline income for slower seasons when piecework isn’t as lucrative. They now have new equipment that streamlines some of the farming process and makes it less labour-intensive, i.e. gas-powered grass cutters instead of machetes to clear the undergrowth around oil palms. They are required to wear safety gear, such as helmets, aprons, non-slip boots, and belts for lifting heavy fruit bunches.
Within the community, the association members’ houses have been renovated to meet the certification standard. Local children attend a government-owned school that, according to one teacher, is significantly enhanced by Hondupalma’s donations.
As one Rainforest Alliance guide explained to me, sustainable certification is an ongoing journey -- a continuous quest for improvement and better understanding of optimal agricultural practices. Hondupalma is a great example of what’s possible when a group of conscientious farmers, together with technical advisors and auditors, joins forces to effect lasting change on their land and in their community. They are evidence that certification standards, if not entirely flawless, really can benefit our planet and provide more traceable, ethical products for global markets.
There will be lots more to come about my visit to Hondupalma, so stay tuned!