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Natural Habitats: From the Seed of an Idea to Growing Ecologically Restorative Oil Palm in Ecuador

As we gear up to launch our new palm candle wax, we’re excited to introduce you to our incredible partners at Natural Habitats, the innovators behind the Palm Done Right movement.



In 2019, we traveled to North America’s biggest natural products show,
ExpoWest, in the hopes of finding some inspiring companies to learn from and work with. We were not disappointed. We learned about the work of one of Dr. Bronner’s key palm oil suppliers, Natural Habitats, and the growing movement towards regenerative farming practices. 

Natural Habitats help grow and produce organic oil palms in Ecuador. They do this through methods that transform previously deforested farmland into healthy forest ecosystems. Their oil palm has gained the most stringent certifications associated with healthy farming practices, from regenerative organic and fair trade to Non-GMO and Fair for Life. Unlike traditional large-scale monocrop plantations, Natural Habitats focuses on driving a future where oil palm farms help support the places, people, and environments they are surrounded by.


A verdant organic palm grove; Palm Done Right.

 

A New Dawn for Palm Farming 


Natural Habitats was founded in 2009 in response to the devastating impact conventional palm oil farming has on the environment, native species, and surrounding communities. Since its inception, Natural Habitats has focused on redirecting the course of the palm oil industry away from destructive practices and towards ecologically restorative, 100 percent organic, fully integrated, and transparent palm oil production.




Natural Habitats’ earliest palm oil farms took root in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, in 2011, where the country’s first Organic Producer Association subsequently formed. Natural Habitats have since grown to a large network of eighty five farms across the country, all providing organic palm oil via a fully traceable supply chain. Natural  Habitats’ holistic approach has been independently certified to uphold quality of life for farmers, ecological protection for nature, and restorative practices for local soil and environments.

In 2016, Natural Habitats initiated the Palm Done Right (PDR) movement to foster deeper awareness of oil palm’s potential. PDR sets out to showcase how beneficial organic palm oil can be when grown in a balanced relationship with local ecosystems. By educating both companies and consumers about socially equitable and wildlife-friendly palm oil plantations, the movement hopes to pave the way towards a broader adoption of restorative farming practices.


Hand-harvesting organic palm grove; Palm Done Right.

 

From The Ground Up


Behind these higher-level certifications and initiatives, Natural Habitats’ work is rooted in a place-based, highly local approach that respects the people and environments it interacts with. 

Natural Habitats’ agricultural ethos aids the transition of established oil palm farms from inorganic operations to certified-organic farms. Importantly, Natural Habitats’ farmers are at the helm of these agro-conversions, retaining ownership and self-governance while adopting  regenerative practices. Farmers also receive the benefits of training certification, market and consumer education, and joint improvement projects

Examples of the organic farming techniques promoted by Natural Habitats include the cultivation of diverse, commercial crops such as cocoa, plantain, maracuja, and bananas, and non-commercial crops that draw in helpful insects; the planting of leguminous crops to aid with nitrogen fixation; and the reuse palm leaves and cuttings for mulch, compost, and the enrichment of carbon content in the soil.

 


Intercropping with cacao.


Thanks to these rigorous organic approaches, converted farms gain a variety of valuable and world-renowned organic certifications, from the local
Ecuadorian National Regulation for Organic Agriculture to USDA Organic (and soon Regenerative Organic, too). Natural Habitats is also recognized by Fair for Life and the Non-GMO Project for the broader work they do to restore the social and environmental systems they touch. These bodies each carry out annual external audits to ensure Natural Habitats’ products’ fully adhere to their standards. In terms of traceability, Natural Habitats' offices in the U.S., Ecuador, and the Netherlands are further certified to guarantee the proper handling of materials  from farm to final products. 

Organic palm oil commands a premium price paid by Natural Habitats that directly supports the lives of the farmers and continued investment in regenerative practices for the long term. The result is palm oil production that supports ecological restoration through organic farming alongside sustainable livelihoods.


Animal transport is a natural opportunity to reduce fossil fuels; Palm Done Right.

 

Enhancing Biodiversity + Community


Beyond these regenerative farming practices, Natural Habitats takes good care of people and promotes
leadership, education, and empowerment at the local level. With palm-growing regions in Ecuador lacking much medical support, Natural Habitats has taken the opportunity to develop a medical center at their mill where mill-workers and locals have access to a doctor, necessary medicine and treatments. Counseling, checkups, and vaccines have also been made available to Natural Habitats’ network of farmers via a second doctor who visits farms directly. Natural Habitats also fosters cultural preservation in areas where they operate, with community football teams for boys and girls, and traditional dance schools [Editor's note: the dance schools are currently closed due to COVID-19 pending re-opening]. The result is meaningful improvements in quality of life for the farmers working with Natural Habitats.




Natural Habitat's soccer team in training for their next World Cup victory ⚽️.


The company also encourages the
reforestation of fragile areas like riparian zones (areas around bodies of water like streams, rivers and lakes) and steep slopes. Recently, Natural Habitats launched a remediation project to support farmers replanting riparian zones with indigenous trees. This helps preserve natural waterways and simultaneously supports the farms in times of drought. Native trees are also planted in buffer zones between other farms to avoid contamination of farming methods, with the benefit of creating natural habitats that encourage greater biodiversity. Soil health and carbon sequestration are carefully tended through cover cropping, on-site composting, and fertilizer sourced from empty palm fruit bunches gathered following the milling process

The lion’s share of farmers working in Natural Habitats’ supply chain are second- or third-generation palm cultivators. Yet they’ve quickly abandoned synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in favor of agroforestry practices on land formerly used for palm and cattle ranching. These dramatic shifts are proof that the healing of biodiverse ecosystems and sustainable farming practices go hand in hand.



Putting Palm into Practice

Becoming a Natural Habitats supplier requires the strict implementation of organic standards. All palm fruit supplied must be entirely organic to protect fruit against chemical contamination. Farms transitioning from conventional methods to certified organic practices are given a timeframe by which to complete the changeover. During this probationary period, any fruit the farm produces organically undergoes separate processing and usage from other fully certified products. Growers who choose to cultivate across multiple crops (maracuja or cocoa, for instance) in multiple operational areas may choose to transition some but not all crops to organic. However, this hybridized farming setup has proven to be the exception rather than the rule, as most farmers prefer to commit to fully regenerative protocols.





In a nation where few have yet to discover the possibility of sustainable palm oil, many Ecuadorian cultivators are still resistant to anything connected with palm oil farming. Yet as more farmers make the transition to Natural Habitats’ organic methods and see the benefits themselves, they’re opening up exciting conversations and catalyzing the movement towards large-scale adoption of these approaches.

A transformation for the oil palm industry — and the industrialized world at large — is already underway. We’re excited to begin using palm wax and to support the vision of Natural Habitats, the Palm Done Right movement, and the many people in the supply chain who  bring it all to life.


— The Keap Team

 


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