Honduran-born Bella Sosa is a perfect fit for RSPO Latin America Smallholder Manager, having worked closely with the Latin American palm oil sector in developing strategies and inclusive business models for smallholders. Bella joins RSPO amidst an exciting moment for Latin America – a region seeing record growth in CSPO production, largely driven by smallholders who compose over half of its palm oil supply base.
“Working with smallholders requires a lot of empathy, patience and heart,” Bella shares. “We cannot just disengage smallholders from their cultural background; we need to understand their livelihoods and cultural context to be able to create strategies that support them.”
Bella merges her many years of experience working with different sectors of the sustainability ecosystem, including the Honduran government as Director of Land Planning at the National Planning Ministry, UN Environment and Dutch development organisation SNV, which built her expertise in local development, governance and natural resources management. Prior to joining RSPO, she worked for Proforest as a Senior Project Manager, supporting smallholders in the sustainable production of commodity crops. In her new role at RSPO, Bella takes the reins in supporting the inclusion of Latin American smallholders in the RSPO supply chain, in line with the RSPO Smallholder Strategy.
Could you tell us about some of your earliest experiences working with smallholders?
I was working for the Dutch organisation SNV, working with cocoa and coffee smallholders. The organisation then started to consider working with the palm sector. Honestly, because I’m an environmentalist, I was initially against it. But SNV conducted a deep analysis, and we dedicated a week to examining the global situation of palm oil. We then realised that despite the risks of deforestation, human rights and environmental pollution, there were not too many organisations working with the palm oil sector to bring in technology nor implement and enforce sustainable practices towards sustainable production.
When did your initial reluctance to work with the palm sector change?
It was when I started working with HONDUPALMA, the first company I became engaged with. It is formed by 540 smallholders, and they’re very successful; they’re one of the biggest companies in Honduras. When I started to visit the company, the one thing that struck me was that for them, the most important aspect of their benefits in this industry was improving the livelihoods of the communities where they were living in.
They were working with the communities to improve the potable water systems, roads, and educational level. They were fixing school infrastructure, paying for teachers, and giving scholarships to outstanding students who were the children of the farmers. They were also providing transportation support and food subsidies for the workers. I started to see that yes, they make a lot of money – it’s still a business after all – but they are also sharing these benefits with the communities.
This company was an inspiration for showing how you can have a positive impact where you are operating. I always use them as an example when I talk to smallholders because I tell them this company of smallholders went all the way to become one of the biggest companies in Honduras, but they didn’t forget where they came from. It gave me the reassurance that I could do a lot to this sector and also be committed to sustainability.
You join RSPO at an auspicious time for Latin America, which is breaking records in sustainable palm oil production but also facing its own unique challenges, what are the most critical challenges that must be prioritised?
Latin America has a diverse range of challenges, some are unique to specific countries, but largely these challenges can be found across the region. One big challenge common to almost all the palm producing countries is that the supply base of these countries is composed mostly of smallholders – about 50 to 60%.
Latin America is also home to half of the world’s remaining tropical forests. With the region’s growing market, and with the escalation of the prices at this moment due to the different situations worldwide including the war in Ukraine, we may start seeing new development of plantations, from both companies and smallholders. Our challenge is to preserve existing wildlife habits, prevent any further deforestation while supporting farmers to follow the best sustainable practices to enable an increase in yield, productivity levels and capacities, so they won’t expand in an unsustainable manner.
What would you say are the most critical areas of support needed for Latin American smallholders?
Smallholders have difficulties with financial support or credit at the local level. For palm producing smallholders specifically, most of the support they’ve received in the past has not been focused on improving their livelihoods. If we try to understand their livelihoods and their cultural context, that will give us more strategies on how to support them in reaching the market but also help them improve their lives.
We have smallholders who can hardly write and read, smallholders in their sixties and seventies, with very little support. In some small countries, there are very few or no government policies to support them. These common challenges could also be an opportunity for RSPO to develop a strategy and approach that can work, by adapting it to their context, and identifying different stakeholders at country level to develop a platform where they can be supported.
For some of these smallholders who are illiterate or elderly, or those who may not necessarily be acquainted with global issues such as climate change, how do you communicate the importance of sustainability and RSPO certification?
There is no one formula to do that. For example, they don’t see how the war in Ukraine is related to them; they see things on a daily basis. Many initially don’t trust how certification could improve their livelihoods. That’s why I think it’s important to understand the specific context of these smallholder groups and try to relate that. In the end, they’re engaged in this business because they want to have a living income, improve the lives of their children, enrol them in schools and universities, and build a home.
What is relevant to them is improving the way they produce. So instead of just having the goal of certification, we need to make them see what the advantages of sustainable management practices are and how these can add value to the businesses they are engaged in. For example, if they start using fertilisers, how can that improve the yield of production per hectare and how can that improve their income? That is something that they can easily relate to.
What are you looking forward to the most in this new chapter working for RSPO?
What always attracted me about RSPO was the passion I saw from its colleagues. I also feel there is a deep sense of humanity within RSPO that can relate to the different difficulties and challenges that people have in their daily lives. I feel very proud to be part of this team.
I was always working with smallholders from the palm oil sector and I thought I could do a lot from that side of the garden to support. This is about passion, and having the belief that I can do a lot; I can bring all my experience because I know the region, I know the different countries, I understand the context and I know the people. It gives me the opportunity to keep listening and understanding the perspective of the other stakeholders.