The difference between being a harvester and a farmer


Thanks to their privileged location in the northwestern range of the Andes mountain chain, the Ecuadorian towns of Monterrey, Santo Domingo, and La Concordia can harvest diverse agricultural crops year round.




The abundant water resources and fertile soils of this region have allowed it to provide nearly 60% of the palm oil—a product extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree—that the country exports. Palm oil has not always been the most prominent crop of the area, however. The inhabitants used to grow abacá, a plant whose fibers are the raw material for making tea bags, fabric, surgical gloves, rope, and even paper money.





Despite its many uses, a few years ago farmers began to find it difficult to commercialise this fiber in international markets. Discouraged about abacá, they turned to cultivating palm oil.





"You have to see which business is more beneficial. For us, the palm is more profitable and requires fewer workers," affirms Texa Macías, owner of a 25-hectare palm oil plantation a couple kilometers outside of La Concordia.




Doña Tex, as her acquaintances affectionately call her, is one of the smallholder members of the Association of Oil Palm Growers of Ecuador (ANCUPA). Together with Solidaridad and the Natural Habitats Group (NHG), ANCUPA seeks to improve the lives of small-scale palm growers by encouraging them to practice sustainable agriculture.


These organisations were brought together in 2012 by the Farmer Support Programme (FSP) that Solidaridad coordinates. This FSP intends to train palm oil producers on the eight principles outlined by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) standard, thus spurring socially and environmentally responsible practices in the palm oil industry.


ANCUPA has devoted efforts to raising awareness of sustainability issues, revealing to producers the benefits they can reap in terms of productivity. Fabián Paillacho, responsible for the area of ​​La Concordia, has sustainability on his agenda when he advises around 2,000 small-scale producers through training and farm visits. Paillacho calls this transition "a cultural change", since in order to adopt sustainable practices paradigms must be broken and new habits formed. Farmers have to evolve in their ways of thinking and acting.




Doña Tex, for her part, credits the training she has participated in for motivating her to make changes on the farm, such as improving workers' bathrooms and establishing adequate storage sheds for work equipment and supplies like fertiliers. Thanks to these training sessions, she has also come to recognise the importance of crafting a work plan that helps reduce agrochemical applications, understand the soil, and rely on nature to provide part of the nutrients the crops need.


Another important initiative of ANCUPA is investigation. The mission of the Palm Oil Research Center (CIPAL) is to identify and disseminate solutions that contribute to the productivity of oil palm growers.




Paillacho pointed out that, "about $480 is needed to effectively fertilize one hectare of palms, which is out of reach of most small-scale growers".


That's why CIPAL seeks to create alternative solutions with organic elements that do the same job as fertilisers. The organisation produces organic fertilisers and sells them to farmers at affordable prices.


Alejandro Veas Tenorio is another producer in the area benefited by this programme. Over 26 years ago he inherited the land his father had dedicated to growing oil palms. For him and his family, their approach to farming has shifted:


"We are moving from subsistence farming to one that is sustainable and profitable. Thanks to this training, I have learned to love plants. In this transition from subsistence to profit-making, discipline is fundamental."





Veas is very clear on the difference between being a harvester and being a farmer. He explains that a farmer keeps records, to clearly track expenses and income, and a farmer knows if the soil needs fertilisers, how much, and when is the most appropriate time to apply them. On the other hand, a harvester goes day to day without any planning, without knowledge, not knowing the land or even understanding the plants.


"We have to stop being harvesters and become farmers. Farmers care for their land and therefore invest in it."


Regarding the willingness to change, Roberto Burgos, Director of Technology and Transfer for CIPAL in Latin America, breaks down farmers into three types: proactive, followers, and reluctant. Those in the first group, the proactive, are not afraid of trying out new practices and believe that sustainability can improve their quality of life. The followers prefer to stand to the side, a bit fearful, to observe the proactive and see the results before they decide to act. The last group is not interested in modifying their practices. Texa Macías and Alejandro Veas are examples of a proactive farmer: someone who is not afraid of change, is interested in learning, and believes in sustainability. We hope that their example will spread to other farmers in this area of Ecuador, which is rich in resources and able to provide prosperity to those willing to treat it responsibly.




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