Women in Palm

Published on: March 9, 2023

Today, on International Women’s Day, I am delighted to highlight powerful women in palm. Female farmers in Ecuador are making their mark in the agricultural community — but its not easy. Agriculture remains a male-dominated profession, and women have a lot to prove. To show how Ecuadorian women are improving their communities and protecting the environment, we sat down with Maria Angulo, Farmers Affairs and Special Projects Manager at Natural Habitats.

Inspiring Female-Led Organic Agriculture

76-year-old Dora Arellano has owned her 38-hectare farm for 35 years. But it wasn’t always organic. Until 16 years ago, she grew mainly cocoa and cattle feed. But the cocoa trees didn’t produce much, and growing cattle feed required a lot of chemicals. When her cousin suggested that she switch to growing oil palms, she planted a couple hectares to give it a try. They worked out so well, that she allocated more land to growing oil palms.

Arellano was often concerned about the health impacts on her family and workers from using the toxic pesticide, Glyphosate. When she learned that oil palms could be grown successfully without using pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers, she set about learning how to farm organically. Arellano got her organic certification 5 years ago, but it wasn’t easy. Her collaboration with one company didn’t go well. But since working with Natural Habitats for the last two years, things have improved. Now, she can get technical advice on organic growing methods, and support to meet the strict organic requirements of bodies such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

When Arellano’s neighbour decided to create a conventional cocoa farm, Natural Habitats was there to advise her on how to prevent toxic chemicals from wafting over and contaminating her organic crops. Arellano planted a buffer zone of gorgeous hibiscus between the two properties. Bonus: the lush vegetation feeds local hummingbirds.

Natural Habitats has assisted Arellano to implement several organic agriculture practices which reduce water use, improve soil quality and provide valuable habitat for wildlife. Trucks and tractors are used to harvest the palm fruit. But heavy vehicle wheels can compress soil, which means that less air, nutrients and water can get into the soil, limiting root growth and reducing plant health. Arellano has a dedicated heavy vehicle pathway to ensure that soil is not compacted throughout her farm.

Chemical fertilizers can easily enter soil and waterways. The unnaturally high amount of nutrients puts water plants and algae into growth overdrive, suffocating fish and other aquatic life, and creating dead zones. Arellano leaves palm leaves on the ground, where they can break down and nourish the soil. This natural fertilizer protects delicate oil palm roots and keeps more water in the soil, thus reducing water use. To further contribute to soil health and prevent erosion, Arellano avoids tilling her soil.

In the process, Arellano is creating jobs in her community. “She helps people who live in the community to work on her farm,” says Angulo. “They all have the opportunity to work there.”

Although it is challenging for younger women to gain respect in the agricultural field, Arellano has experience on her side. “What has really helped her, is that she has always been in the agriculture industry,” explains Angulo. “She knows how to treat people and manage their work.”

Arellano provides a strong role model for local women trying to break into organic agriculture. “She follows the organic certification rules, doesn’t contaminate the river with chemicals, and does so much good for the environment,” says Angulo. “Her example encourages women to manage their own farms and get into organic agriculture.

Next Gen Female Farmers Demand Respect

For 26-year-old Camilla Marcillas, farming is a family affair. The Marcillas family owns three farms in Ecuador across over 150 hectares. Her father Wilfrido is the General Manager, her mother is the President, and she is the Administrative Manager.

Wilfrido is also the President of the Quevedo Organic Farmer’s Association. With such a strong agricultural pedigree, Camilla should be a highly respected member of the farming community. But thanks to machismo in the agricultural sector, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

“In Ecuador, and generally across Latin American, women have to deal with a lot of machismo,” Angulo explains. “Now, women are trying to get more into agriculture. But agriculture here was made for men. This is the challenge they’re facing.”

The fact that Camilla has a degree in Hospitality Management doesn’t automatically translate to respect. “When she tries to talk to the workers, they hardly pay attention to her,” says Angulo. “That’s because her dad has always been there giving directions.”

But there is change on the horizon — Camilla will likely take over the family farms when her father retires. “Its not common for women to take over family farms. But in this case, she is the only child,” Angulo explains. “There are other producers who have their daughters working in administration also, but that’s because they studied finances and administration related to agriculture.” If Camilla had a brother, her career trajectory may have been quite different.

Although Camilla is not often out in the field, she is making a strong contribution to environmental sustainability behind the scenes. “When your farm is organic, you have to work with complex regulations,” says Angulo. “Camilla does a lot of paperwork and makes sure that they follow all the rules.”

When Wilfrido has to travel for business, Camilla is in charge. Angulo hopes that as time passes, the workers will come to take her seriously, and give her the respect that she so richly deserves.

Women like Dora and Camilla are building female power in Ecuador’s agricultural sector and driving change. But there is still work to be done. “Only 20% of agriculture students in Ecuador are women,” says Angulo. “Women have so much to offer, yet we have a lot to prove to men and the community.” Angulo looks forward to seeing how female farmers can move the needle on organic farming. “It will be interesting to see what happens when everyone learns that its good for the environment.”

This article was realised in collaboration with Anna-Liza Badaloo, writer & program consultant at Daylighting Copywriting.

Why You Should Get Involved
with Palm Done Right

Palm can be grown for good, bringing benefits to:

  • Our planet, due to palm oil’s land efficiency.
  • Local communities, due to the economic development oil palm production creates.
  • Our market, due to palm oil’s versatility and functionality as an ingredient, lifting product quality and performance.

Together, we can influence change for:

  • Manufacturers that are still using conflict palm oil for their products.
  • Retailers that are still listing products that contain conflict palm oil.
  • Brokers and distributors that are still supplying their customers with products that contain conflict palm oil.
  • Shoppers that have the power to vote with their dollar.

Get Involved

    Are you already using Palm Done Right Oil?