Palm oil producers in Colombia share sustainability successes with Dutch parliamentarians

A delegation from the parliament of the Netherlands visited a smallholder palm oil plantation in María La Baja, Bolívar (Colombia) in May to understand how this crop benefits small producers and creates legitimate work in the Colombian countryside.

Catalina Zuñiga showing her plantation to be proud of – sustainable and certified.

Of the nearly 6,000 producers integrated into the palm oil sector of Colombia, around 80% maintain small plots for cultivation. This is the case for Catalina Zuñiga, an oil palm grower from the Montes de María region, who hosted the Dutch delegation together with Oleoflores during their trip to learn more about the contributions and challenges of farming in Colombia.

A widow with determination

Catalina, age 60, is the head of her household. She suffered the loss of her husband during the armed conflicts that once afflicted Colombia. When her children were very young, a group of militants executed her husband and she had to flee with her family and few belongings. When the conflicts subsided in Montes de María, she returned to work on the land she had sadly inherited, 10 hectares.

Compared to other agricultural sectors, palm oil generates 20% higher wages for producers, according to Fedesarrollo, an economic and social think tank in Colombia. For Catalina, the higher wages have allowed her to improve her living conditions.

My income has been excellent. I came displaced with one hand in front and another in the back. Thanks to God and the palm, I have a better life. Now I have a brick house and I bought two other plots of land in the town where I built houses for renting, generating more income for my family. – Catalina Zuñiga, palm oil producer

Small palm growers like Catalina receive technical assistance and business support. They engage in marketing contracts that guarantee the sale of their products. The regional palm growers guild also provides technical guidance for the design and financing of the plantations, which gives farmers access to credits and incentives.

Colombia is the only country that signed the Agreement on Zero-Deforestation.

A global source of sustainable palm oil 

Colombia is the fourth producer of palm oil in the world, the first in Latin America, and it's a safe bet for the European market in terms of sustainable practices. According to Colombia's Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (known as IDEAM in Spanish), only 0.25% of deforestation between 2011 and 2017 can be related to oil palm cultivation. In 2017, Colombia was the only country that signed the Agreement on Zero-Deforestation. Likewise, the rate of formalized jobs in the palm oil sector has risen to 83%.

While improvements are still needed to increase the production of sustainable palm oil, the sector has made significant strides. Progress in creating profitable, legitimate and healthy work in the region has been, in large part, due to the consistent and expert support from leaders in Dutch development cooperation.

International Sustainability & Carbon Certification

The overall share of certified palm oil increased from around 5% in 2014 to approximately 20% in 2018. Guidance from the well-known RSPO and Rainforest Alliance (RA) certifications has been in place for several years, but the first Colombian companies earned the International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC) in 2017. Although introduced later than other certifications, the share of ISCC-certified palm oil quickly grew to 8% of the national production in 2018, while RSPO and RA accounted for 13% and 3% respectively.

To increase the sustainable growth of small producers who can not yet be covered by these programmes, investment in physical and digital infrastructure, transparent environmental monitoring, inclusive formalization, and access to credit and training are needed.

Dutch representatives meet with Colombian palm oil producers on the plantation.

The value of a hands-on approach

In conclusion of his visit, Cees van der Staaij, spokesman for the delegation of Dutch parliamentarians, said:

Palm oil is a peace crop, and I think that is beautifully said – 'peace crop'. It is at peace with nature and with all people that have a fair share in the profits of the palm oil sector.

The Solidaridad Network regularly organizes international exchanges for investors, businesses and researchers who are working to improve agricultural sustainability. This trip was made possible with the support of Solidaridad's long-time partners in Colombia, Oleoflores and Fedepalma.

Learn more about sustainability for palm oil