World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works


Sustainable Success: RSPO Certified Company Preserves Local Resources

  • Date: 02 December 2014
  • Author: Sarah Ruggiero

Guatemala’s palm oil industry is growing—and fast. Landscapes that were once covered with cotton and sugar are now ripe with oil palm. Yet agricultural expansion often comes at the expense of critical ecosystems, many of which provide habitat for endangered species and freshwater for local communities. In some cases, rivers and streams carry agricultural run-off all the way to the Mesoamerican Reef—the largest transnational reef in the world—threatening the region and the species that live there.

WWF is working with the palm oil industry to promote sustainable agriculture practices so companies can minimize environmental risks as they look to expand their activities, reduce operating costs and increase top-line benefits. In fact, sustainable operations have helped Guatemalan palm oil company, Agrocaribe, reduce environmental degradation, improve effluent management and increase food security, proving that when operations are sustainably managed, they can improve production and preserve local resources.

Since implementing sustainable practices, Agrocaribe has become the first identity preserved company in Central America and the fourth in the world to become certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). WWF worked closely with Agrocaribe for two years, assisting them in their pursuit of RSPO certification. “Agrocaribe has not reached this point over night. It has taken quite some time,” explained José Vásquez, Agriculture and Aquaculture Program Manager for WWF Mesoamerican Reef. “We as WWF are happy with the work they have done and for achieving the certification. To us, this means they are doing things right.”

Best Practices 

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    Sustainable Certifications

    Agrocaribe is the first identity preserved palm oil company in Central America, the fifth in Latin America and the fourth in the world to become certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This industry-developed system aligns internal personnel towards sustainable practices and continuous long-term improvement while verifying each stage of the supply chain meets global standards for sustainable palm oil production.

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    Precision Agriculture

    Through the use of precision agriculture technology, Agrocaribe is able to conserve resources and reduce environmental impacts while optimizing returns. Tools like Geographic Information Systems (GIS) generate detailed harvest reports, fertility maps and genetic management zones which enable staff to predict crop inputs, compare harvest trends and determine production capabilities. These site-specific assessments help staff identity individual plant requirements rather than blanket treating crops, leading to more efficient land management and less environmental degradation.

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    Cover Crops

    Leguminous cover crops are planted alongside young oil palm trees to improve soil moisture, reduce runoff and slow the depletion of organic matter—all of which play a vital role in increasing soil fertility and protecting water resources. Cover crops provide natural weed control and increase soil nutrients through the addition of plant and leaf litter. These organic soil additions reduce the need for fertilizer and pesticide, preventing water contamination and reducing employee exposure, all while decreasing input costs.

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    Integrated Pest Management

    Pesticides threaten the quality of soil and water, as well as the health of biodiversity and water sources located downstream from fields. To reduce these impacts, Agrocaribe has implemented Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies to manage the pests and diseases that threaten healthy crops. This approach relies on biological and mechanical controls instead of chemical pesticides. Agrocaribe uses a snake hatchery to control rat populations. The company also plants yellow flowers to naturally deter pests and feed insects that eventually parasitize and eradicate dangerous larvae. When herbicides are needed, trained and protected employees spot-spray targeted areas with Rainforest Alliance certified products, reducing the amount of chemicals used and minimizing employee exposure.

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    Nutrient Recycling

    To avoid the use of chemicals that are harmful to both people and the environment, manufacturing by-products are composted and returned to the fields as natural fertilizer. Empty fruit bunches (EFB) and kernel shells are reused as culture mediums in the nursery to stimulate growth and increase yields. When fertilizer is needed, Rainforest Alliance certified products are applied to targeted areas. Fewer chemicals mean less water pollution, reducing all forms of contamination.

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    Soil Compaction

    By taking steps to reduce soil compaction, Agrocaribe has increased soil fertility, stimulated plant growth and protected water flow, all of which improve biodiversity and preserve local resources. Since soil compaction is intensified by heavy traffic moving across the plantation’s soft soil, Agrocaribe has eliminated the use of large machinery in the fields. Instead, water buffalo are used to transfer crops.

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    Wastewater Treatment

    For every ton of oil palm fruit processed, 1000 liters of wastewater, or Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME), is generated. Due to its high polluting properties, POME requires intense treatment before it can be discharged back into Agrocaribe’s watercourses and reused for irrigation and fertilization. Treatment occurs in effluent ponds where bacteria breaks down pollutants and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Through this system, water is cleansed and released with only 160 parts per million (ppm) of Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD)—less than Guatemala's regulation of 2,000 parts per million (ppm) and much less than the 40,000 parts per million water contains when brought into the facility for processing.

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    Renewable Energy

    In addition to maximizing energy efficiency through sustainable operations, Agrocaribe minimizes pollution from dirty electricity by generating its own energy. After mill effluent is sent to water treatment ponds, bacteria break down the oils in the wastewater. During this process, ponds are “tented” or covered by tarps designed to capture the methane emitted through the process. Tenting allows Agrocaribe to harness 2.5 MW of energy from their effluent ponds, much of which is used to generate electricity and fuel mill operations. Unused power is then sold back to Guatemala’s national grid.

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    Community Engagement

    When operations are sustainably managed, they can improve working conditions, preserve local resources and strengthen collaborations between sectors. Through a commitment to transparency, Agrocaribe has improved staff morale and community relations, reduced labor turnover and public social conflicts and strengthened local economies. The company also helps to educate employees and the local community about the importance of sustainable growing practices and contributes to local development and progress.