To commemorate Women’s Month in March, we spotlight an all-female senior team in Colombia supporting smallholders on their sustainability journey towards RSPO Certification.

In a rural area in the César region of northern Colombia, an all-female management team is spearheading the shift towards sustainable practices for a group of oil palm smallholders.

The four-woman team makes up the Change Management unit of Palmas del César, a Colombian company with over 62 years of experience in palm oil cultivation and extraction. The team was initially established in 2016 to support a group of smallholders, the Unión Temporal Entrepalmeros (“Entrepalmeros”), in meeting the rigorous sustainability standards within the Palmas del César supply chain.

Starting with 41 oil palm growers, the Entrepalmeros came together with the support of Palmas de César to apply good agronomic, environmental and social practices. With a cultivated area of nearly 900 hectares, the group’s objective was to enhance the labour and economic conditions of workers and their communities in the municipalities of San Alberto, San Martín, Sabana, and Rionegro in Colombia.

Cultural shift

Palmas del César has set an ambitious goal of certifying 100% of their smallholders by 2026. One of the main challenges for the company was to ensure that these smallholders continued to apply and internalise the knowledge they had acquired on sustainable practices while also promoting these practices amongst other growers. It was crucial for the smallholders to view oil palm cultivation not only as their primary source of income but as a valuable long-term business opportunity in environmentally-friendly crop management practices, with certification as a means towards improved quality of life and community development.

Enabling smallholders to evolve, improve their processes and be able to access new markets while inspiring change among other farmers required a “cultural shift” from their traditional methods.

To lead this cultural shift, an all-female management team was handpicked: Yudy Alarcon, Gloria Duarte, Viviana Dueñas and Karen Quintero. Entrusting these four women to lead the charge signalled strong recognition by Palmas del César of the vital role women play as agents of change.

“Working with smallholders has been a learning process for us as much as it has been for them,” shared Viviana Dueñas. “The process entails a cultural change, where we introduce sustainable actions in terms of formal labour, job and health security, document management, and good agricultural and environmental practices in palm cultivation.”

“Certification has improved my work, giving me access to ongoing training to better support smallholders,” said Yudy Alarcon.

The team has made significant strides, creating formal and secure employment for some 100 workers, implementing occupational health and safety management systems for all members of the Entrepalmeros, and providing training in areas such as emergency response, safe handling of pesticides, workplace safety, financial management, and documentation of cultivation practices.

Since adopting these best practices, the Entrepalmeros group is set to achieve Milestone B, the final phase in the Independent Smallholder Standard’s stepwise certification approach. A second group of 68 smallholders representing about 1000 hectares has likewise officially initiated the RSPO Certification process, aiming for certification by 2024.

Voices from the field

We spoke to Gloria, Karen, Viviana and Yudy to get their thoughts on leadership in a traditionally male-dominated sector:

Gloria Duarte

“My experience as a woman in the palm oil industry has been very enriching. Working with issues related to sustainable practices can oftentimes be met with resistance among smallholders, but little by little, we have been able to guide, orient and convince them of the benefits of good agricultural practices.”

Viviana Dueñas

“My experience in the oil palm agriculture sector has been very positive, especially in terms of inclusivity and gender equality. Women are able to access any job be it in operations, administration, or strategy. We have shown that we have all the capabilities and competencies to achieve change in the Colombian oil palm sector. My advice to all women is to be resilient in our professional lives, and to trust in our abilities and strengths as catalysts of transformation in the oil palm agriculture sector.”

Karen Quintero

“I would like to see more capacity development opportunities offered to women in agriculture, for example, growing home gardens – which will enable them to have additional income streams. Women, including those of us in the palm oil agriculture sector, are fighters. It is important to include us in leadership positions because we deserve these opportunities, and can handle the challenges that come with these roles”.

Yudy Alarcon

“My personal experience has been very gratifying. It has helped me grow as a person, both professionally and economically, as I have had stable work in the sector for 13 years. Women in the palm agriculture sector have the capacity to do any job or activity that the sector demands of us. Women are known for being more organised and creative, and these qualities help improve processes and generate results.”

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