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In situ in Ecuador: perfect situation for palm oil


[03/16] The palm oil topic is an emotionally charged subject and in most cases rightly so. Devastating slash and burn clearing practices in Indonesia and other Asian regions seem to confirm scandalous media reports on palm cultivation: on the global scale, a socially- and ecologicaly-sound palm cultivation can for sure not be possible! But nowhere in the world? There are exceptions - for example two Rapunzel Naturkost HAND IN HAND projects that produce the palm oil that is used for the manufacturing of Rapunzel products. One of these projects is our Ecuadorian supplier Natural Habitats.      
Palm oil is recovered from the orange colored pulp
Palm oil is recovered from the orange colored pulp
Palm oil is recovered from the orange colored pulp

A visit to our fair, organic palm oil partner Natural Habitats


We are landing in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, located at an altitude of 2,800 m. The government administration in the Andes highlands includes many companies and office buildings and is the connection between Ecuador and the rest of the world. The palm, banana and papaya cultivation, however, is mostly located in the areas near the Pacific Ocean. Also our partner Natural Habitats has its headquarters in the city of Quito. The office in Quito coordinates the activities of seven agricultural engineers who advise local farmers in Ecuador. 

The drive to the palm oil project in the Esmeraldas region takes almost five hours and brings us through diverse and versatile forests and cultivated landscapes. Mr. Van den Heuvel is our driver. At Natural Habitats he is responsible for the operation of the oil mill and for the organization of the transport of the palm fruits from the farmers to the oil mill.   

Since high-quality palm oil must be processed shortly after harvest (maximum 24 hours later) due to the tropical temperatures, the farmers bring their daily harvest to the closest collection point. There, the palm fruits are collected and weighed. The purchasing price that is the same for every supplier and that includes the organic premium and the HAND IN HAND bonus is transparently displayed. As this purchase price significantly surpasses the buying price for conventional palm oil, the project is highly accepted in the region. From the collection point, company trucks transport the palm fruits to the oil mill. Arthuro, an experienced engineer runs the oil mill. 
Firmeneigene LKWs bringen die Palmfrüchte sofort nach der Ernte in die Ölmühle

Organic plus fair equals sustainable


En route, we stop in the town of La Concordia and visit an informational meeting of the National Agricultural Ministry on sustainable palm oil cultivation. One of the speakers is Mrs. Jessenia Angulo. The agricultural engineer works for Natural Habitats where she is responsbile for sustainability and rural community development. She lectures on the differences between the RSPO program (Round Table of Sustainable Palm) and the much more extensive criteria of the organic fair trade program of Natural Habitats. 

At this practical level everything becomes more tangible and clear: farmers and mill owners must be convinced with good arguments why they should favor the idea of organic agriculture. The critical audience appreciates the argument of Mrs. Angulo, a native Ecuadorian woman, who boils it down to the formula "Sustainable = organic +fair". 

Afterwards, we pay a visit to the oil mill in Viche, a village near the coast. About 100 organic farmers from within a 60 km radius deliver their palm fruits to the mill where the raw oil is produced. Nearly 60 employees process the palm fruits. The oil is extracted from the oil-containing pulp of the palm fruits. Palm fruit produce three times as much oil as canola. The kernels of the palm fruits are marketed for the production of palm kernel oil that is used in the cosmetics industry. The highly-viscous slurry from the pressing is collected in big catching tanks. In a biogas plant, the slurry is fermented and produces electricity. This power production together with the use of pressed palm tufts as heating material for the steam ovens makes the entire mill energy self-sufficient. 
Bäuerin Alessandra (Mitte) mit Beratern von Natural Habitats (Hans und Jessenia). Zur Düngung der Flächen werden Leguminosen untergesät.

The value stays in the country


After we had lunch with the employees in the oil mill cafeteria, we are visiting three palm farmers in the region. The size of their arable land ranges between 20 to 80 hectares and most of their land is cultivated with oil palms. In addition to the oil palms, they also grow passion fruit, bananas, manioc, coffee and top-quality cocoa. 

We are meeting confident, well-informed farmers who run their operations in the traditional way with rather low intensity. Since most farms are family-owned, they hire workers from the village as harvest hands. 

In order to fertilize the soil pursuant to organic standards, the palm oil farmers also grow legumes. The agricultural engineers also recommend to plant cocoa bushes as subculture. More and more farmers are following this advice.  

The relatively moderately-sized oil palm plantations ressemble coconut plantations in Sri Lanka. In this region in Ecuador, oil palms are cultivated since the 1960s. Before that time, predominantly bananas were grown here. The cutivation of palms and other crops guarantees the family farmers a sufficient income where most of the value added stays in the country. With respect to mineral oil, the story is totally different. Oil pipelines belonging to foreign companies transport the oil from all regions of the country to the seaports and the entire value added is also bypassed with the oil transport to other countries. 
Fußball für mehr Bildung: Profitrainer trainieren die Kinder, wenn sie regelmäßig die Schule besuchen

Fair trade supports social structures


Despite great social differences in Ecuador, the country has a progressive legislation for example with respect to compulsory schooling, environmental legislation or land titles for farmers. Nevertheless, many regions are as economically underdeveloped as the Viche community. Without private-sector initiatives communal structures would not be functioning. 

In walking distance of our partner's oil mill there is an elementary school for the village children. The highly-committed teacher would not have an adequate income with the meagre salary she gets from the state. A specifically contracted doctor examines the pupils and provides medical treatment once a month, a social worker attends to the families in their homes. This social committment is made possible through fair trade and provides support especially for the young generation in the region. Generally speaking, there are only very limited training opportunities for young people. Another problem for adolescent girls are teen pregnancies.

Despite all this, the zest for life and the enthusiasm of these people appears inexplicable for us. Everywhere we meet smiling, happy people and most of the time we are welcomed with songs and dancing. The people are proud of the few things they own. The oil of the palm fruits is a positive example for the sustainable, social and ecological benefits that organic agriculture can have in poor countries. In order to transport his notion, Rapunzel products that are made with palm oil are labelled with a green palm and the statement "fair organic palm oil - out of respect for people, animals and nature". 
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