Noemí has 21 years with her oil palm plantation in the ejido community of Miguel Hidalgo II, in Palenque, Chiapas. A little over a year ago, when she was told that her plantations had to be certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Smallholder Standard, she was among the producers who opposed the measure. “Because of laziness, to tell you the truth. I didn’t want to have meetings or sign up to form an association,” she says. “Actually, I was mistaken. Certification has helped us a lot. I wish I had more land on which to plant more palms.” She is now president of the palm growers’ association in her community.
Her full name is Noemí de la Cruz Paniagua, and professionally she traded in her nurse cap for a machete. This 72-year-old woman used to work as a nurse in the city of Palenque. Two decades ago, when a government program offered subsidies for oil palm planting, she put away her nurse’s cap and syringes and rolled up her sleeves and started working in the fields.
But things did not go that well at first. “We cut bunches early on. There was no industry and no one who’d buy from you.” She says that fruit rotted in the fields because no one wanted to buy it in the area near her palm grove, and she had to go to the city (350 Km away) to sell it. The price was approximately USD 15 per ton. “Because the oil palms produced a lot due to abundant rainfall, it was worth traveling to sell it,” she says. Now things are different. In January 2020, the per-ton fruit price stood at around USD 95 and the industry now has a complete production chain that keeps her from having to spend so much on things like transporting the fruit to the city. She now sells her fruit to the Oleopalma mill close to her palm grove.
Noemí often reflects on and even laughs at the realization that she had been mistaken. Thanks to the certification process, one of the Holistic Program’s main objectives, she knows that her neighbors are not her competitors but rather her partners. “I had my own palm grove for 21 years and had never met with my neighbors all together”. A smallholder association was founded, and she is the President. There is also a surveillance committee for which Miguel Ruiz, her neighbor, is the secretary. Together they consider the future of the association, and every month they meet to discuss a range of topics. Meanwhile, the certification process is requiring them to get training.
They now know, for example, that they must give their employees tools with which to create a safe work environment. They also understand the importance of keeping their palm groves neat and clean. “I go to my grove every day and can see when the crop needs to be tidied up.”
The former nurse now spends her afternoons walking through her plantations. If she could, she would teach her children Rolando and Rosy everything she has learned from the certification process. She would tell them, for example, that a clean crop is a better managed crop. Her children would thus learn what their mother’s job was: identifying which sections of the palm grove are ready for cutting.
They would also be able to recognize which plants might be infested with pests. Noemí says that cleaning even improves her view of her employees. A clean field is synonymous with higher yields.
Noemí blushes when she remembers how, thinking her palms were old, she started cutting down shrubs. But based on the soil and foliar studies conducted as part of the program, the technical specialists recommended to keep the palms and fertilize instead. Today, she and her colleagues have started to save collectively in order to begin fertilizing their fields. This could lengthen the lifecycle of their groves – adding a few more years of productivity and profitability before replanting has to be done.