The narrative around palm oil has long been extremely negative. For many, the commodity is inextricably connected with deforestation and habitat destruction, especially in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. It is however an incredibly useful and efficient oil crop. As such, most involved in the oil palm sector argue that we shouldn’t be trying to get rid of it, but rather to find ways to grow it sustainably. Leading the way in this effort is the Netherlands-based company Natural Habitats. It was set up in 2009 with the aim of proving that palm oil can be produced in a manner that helps rather than harms the environment, and also benefits local communities. The company started its work in Ecuador on South America’s northwest coast. It currently has 79 small-scale suppliers in the country, all of whom it has helped gain certification under a wide range of organic and sustainable standards. It’s an inspiring initiative, but is Natural Habitats doing everything it says it’s doing? Is it really possible to produce palm oil sustainably? And can such a small company set an example that the rest of the industry can realistically follow?
Juan Bosco, organic oil palm farmer, Manabí province
Monique van Wijnbergen, sustainability & corporate communication director, Natural Habitats Group
Washington Eduardo Santamaria Jimenez, former Natural Habitats employee
Producer and host: Lise Josefsen Hermann
Commissioning editor: Lizi Hesling
Sound design: Alyssa Moxley
Art work: Nahal Sheikh
Interview dubs: Joe Coroneo-Seaman, Charlie Goodson, Lizi Hesling
Thanks to: Blanca Moncada, Josie Phillips, Jessica Aldred
Juan Bosco: Here on the farm, I have a variety of plants: the African palm, bananas, a little bit of coffee.
Lise Josefsen Hermann: This is Juan Bosco. He’s a farmer in Ecuador’s coastal Manabí province. I’ve been here before to report on conventional banana production and the use of illegal pesticides. But Juan is growing something different. He calls it the African palm. Elsewhere in the world, it’s called the oil palm.
What makes Juan stand out is that he farms organically. He also grows a diverse range of plants and practises a system of mixed cropping. When I visited his farm, among the oil palms, we saw an anteater with its pups climbing around. Living proof that his way of farming is kind to wildlife and the environment.
Lise: Juan started converting his land to organic [in 2010], and then he joined an oil palm growers’ association, which is how he came across the company Natural Habitats.
Lise: Natural Habitats was founded in 2009 by the businessman Alfons van der Aa, from the Netherlands. He wanted to show that palm oil could be produced sustainably. The journey began here in Ecuador, where he had personal connections and owned some land.
Today there are 79 producers here supplying the company with oil palm fruit. They are all certified under the European and United States’ organic standards, as well as by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, otherwise known as the RSPO.
To find out more, I spoke with Monique van Wijnbergen, the company’s sustainability and corporate communication director.
Monique points out palm oil isn’t something we can simply get rid of. It’s far too useful, as we’ll find out in episode three of this series. It’s also much more efficient than other oils. Oil palms produce over four times more per hectare than other oil crops like coconut, sunflower or rapeseed.
Monique van Wijnbergen: If we look at the growing world population, if we look at consumption [in the] rising middle classes, we know that the consumption of vegetable oils worldwide will grow somewhere between 45-50% [by] the year 2050. If you want to make sure that we have enough oil and we can feed all the people, we need palm oil as an important vegetable oil source. So, it is there to stay.
Lise: I left Juan’s farm with a sense of inspiration and hope. It might really be possible to do things better, to get “Palm Done Right”.
But it seems things aren’t as rosy as they first appear. It was only after my visit to Juan’s farm that I was able to interview a woman from an Ecuadorian environmental organisation.
Carla: The expansion of oil palm in Ecuador has mainly been in places that were covered by native forest. These palms have meant that thousands of hectares of native forest have been cut down and lost. And in addition to this, the territories of indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian peoples have been occupied.
Lise: This is true in some parts of Ecuador, but in other areas – like Manabí province – oil palms are being planted on land that has been agricultural for years.
Carla: What also happens is that one small producer is right next to another one. So, there’ll be 10 hectares of oil palm belonging to one farmer next to another producer with another 10 hectares. Nature doesn’t care if it belongs to Pepito, to Juan or to Teresa. For nature, it’s still a monoculture crop.
Lise: This is a good point. But smallholdings can often be more diversified than large plantations. Carla is also worried about the impact the next step in the process of producing palm oil is having: the extraction of oil from the oil palm fruits.
Carla: This is really a very complex moment where large quantities of toxic waste is generated and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are emitted into the atmosphere. It makes it impossible to be near an oil mill when it’s processing because the air is really nauseating.
Lise: Another problem, according to Carla, are the pools used to treat the waste created when the oil is extracted.
Carla: Unfortunately, what happens is that the contents of these pools is released directly into waterways, causing great contamination of the rivers that flow near these mills.
Lise: Now back to Natural Habitats. They have their own palm oil mill. It’s just north of the small town of Viche on the Esmeraldas River, near most of their suppliers.
With help from Carla, I made contact with [a] former Natural Habitats employee who used to work at their Viche mill. His name is Washington Eduardo Santamaria Jimenez, but most people just call him Eduardo.
Eduardo: I started to discover things. I always went to visit the treatment pools. One day, I remember, there had been a serious flood. During the rainy season, the pools often overflow, and oil-contaminated water goes directly to the population.
They have five pools. Only two have a geomembrane. The rest have no membrane, which means that groundwater gets contaminated. The filtration is also not adequate. And the waste that’s filtered out is dumped directly into the Esmeraldas River. In other words, it is direct contamination.
Lise: I found two official reports directly related to the Viche mill. The first was from 2015 and found that Natural Habitats had contaminated the water used by the small community of Chaupara, but was “willing to remediate for the damage caused”.
The second was from 2016, and more serious. It said that Natural Habitats had failed to test the quality of the water they were discharging, and was also operating illegally, without the compulsory environmental permits. The company was fined over US$16,000 for this.
Monique: So, what happened was actually that the ponds were flooded due to very heavy rainfall. These very heavy rains we cannot control. So, since we are 100% organic, there are no chemicals, there are no dangerous or hazardous substances, but the oily surface of the ponds made a spilling and actually created dirt. And it’s an oily substance. So of course that is something we don’t want to have in the rivers. So that is why we needed to clean that.
Lise: But this isn’t the only thing that’s gone wrong for the company. Let’s get back to Eduardo… When he started noticing problems with the mill, he spoke to management about it. But they told Eduardo it wasn’t any of his business, and he should stop making trouble. That’s when things went from bad to worse for Eduardo.
Eduardo: Well, one day they caught hold of me and took me to the treatment pools. “Eduardo, your life is at risk,” he said. Directly “your life is at risk”. “These other people in the company, they don’t work in a clean way. They are trying to get you to resign, but you won’t. So, what we have to do is kick you out.”
Lise: In the end, Eduardo says he was fired. I did another background check on all of this and found a case of unfair dismissal from 2019. It was settled out of court, with Natural Habitats paying US$2,800.
While the case was being heard, Eduardo says he actually received threats to his life, and was attacked by two people on a motorbike. Although he reported these incidents to the authorities, he no longer felt safe.
Eduardo and his family escaped to another country, which he prefers not to reveal, and then claimed asylum there. Their application was approved a year ago. I asked Monique for her response to all this.
Monique: Since these are quite heavy allegations, I of course took quite some time to dig into this. Well, first of all, he’s never been threatened by the management, so that’s not true. So that is in fact a false claim. And also, his claim that he was fired is incorrect.
So what happened actually is that he asked for a day of not being in the company because one of his children was sick, so he had to take one of his children to the doctor. So he was of course given that permission to bring his child to the doctor, and then he never reported back to his work. So, he actually never showed up again. So then there were of course calls, but he didn’t answer his phone, and then one or two days later, we received a sue – he was suing us for improper firing. But in fact, we never fired him.
Lise: This podcast has been quite a journey for me. At first, I thought I’d be able to tell a positive story about Ecuador and show that there is hope for palm oil. But producing palm oil sustainably seems to be really hard, especially in the kinds of countries where it is grown. So, I must admit I’ve been left with a bitter taste in my mouth. Natural Habitats is, at least on paper, one of the most ambitious sustainable palm oil companies out there. If even they can’t get this right, what hope is there for the wider industry?
This podcast is part of our ongoing editorial series on palm oil. Explore all the articles here.