Five hectares may not seem like much for a farmer to have. But that plot of land could provide a living and a future for a family like that of Luis Méndez Alba, a Chol indigenous man from Palenque who at the age of 54 still works as a day laborer and palm cutter. He has recently entered the business world and joined the Mundo Maya association, located in Catazajá, Chiapas.
The oil palm is such a noble crop that since it was first planted in 1999, its shrubs have continued to bear fruit despite the mistakes made previously due to lack of experience. Thanks to the Holistic Program which was co-created by PepsiCo, Oleopalma, Femexpalma, Nestlé, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Proforest, Luis and his colleagues are now on the road to achieving RSPO certification, which will help make their oil palms more sustainable, productive and profitable.
Today he acknowledges that his two decades of growing oil palm have enabled him to send four of his seven children to college. Alberto, the eldest, is a lawyer. Miguel, the next youngest, decided to pursue a career in criminology. Then there is Zenaida, who studied tourism, and Deysi, who became an agro-industrial engineer because of all Luis´ children she was the fondest of her father’s job.
“I don’t make them do anything, I just advise them. I’ve told them that whoever of them wants to study will get my support, and they should decide for themselves.” Three of his children are still in high school. “Whether a little or a lot, the oil palm always gives you a push forward. They are the ones who decide what they want.”
The certification process has transformed the way Luis manages his oil palm crop. He now keeps the areas between plants clean to facilitate fruit cutting. He has also improved cutting and pruning procedures, and he has started arranging cut leaves in a way that will turn them into natural compost.
Although his palm crop is near the end of its lifecycle, having been planted more than two decades ago, he still wants to make the most of its remaining years. That is why he is taking part in the Fertiahorro program, an initiative sponsored by Oleopalma that helps producers who are working on certification save for the purchase of fertilizers. “The oil palm doesn’t leave any room for complacency,” he says.
Luis is thinking of replanting in the near future, because he has seen that palm growing is a good business for his family. Despite his 54 years, the muscular tone of his body attests to his physical strength. He is an active person who, in addition to working his own plantation, helps out as a day laborer on other plantations. And as if that were not enough, he has a small garden where he grows corn for his family’s consumption.
Before saying goodbye in Chol, his indigenous language, Luis reminds us that his training process would not be the same without the specialists who are now helping him. Without their support he might not have learned that caring for the soil is just as important as caring for the oil palms growing in it.