This month a group of eight cantaloupe and watermelon farms became the first to achieve Rainforest Alliance certification in Costa Rica. Here Susan Hoekstra, general manager of SFG Dulce S.A., for whom the farms produce their melons, shares what it was like to go through the process and to discover the “real objective” of certification.
Why did SFG Dulce decide to certify its cantaloupe and watermelon production?
We chose to certify the products that make up the majority of our production and sales. When done improperly, the production of cantaloupe and watermelon can cause irreversible damage to the environment, so it’s important to show our clients that we are working responsibly and to differentiate ourselves from the competition.
Why did the company choose Rainforest Alliance certification?
We looked for a certification that was compatible with our philosophy and our vision. We opted for Rainforest Alliance certification because it is globally recognized, especially in the European market, where our consumers are.
"As you start to understand the real objective of certification, the work turns into a commitment to the planet, its inhabitants and to yourself."Susan Hoekstra, general manager of SFG Dulce S.A.
Why is sustainability important to SFG Dulce?
We’ve established a win-win relationship with our farmers, but we also understand that their failures are our failures. They depend on their farms’ natural resources and on the human resources that perform the agricultural and packaging work, so it’s fundamental that they manage these resources responsibly.
What challenges did you encounter in achieving Rainforest Alliance certification?
Probably the main challenge was convincing producers that achieving certification was important. The improvements they had to make represented an additional cost, and even though we are totally convinced that they will receive a return on their investment, it still required a high level of trust.
The last thing we wanted, though, was to force producers to enter the process. We felt it should be the their decision. So we tried to show them that each improvement didn’t just fulfill certification requirements but also safeguarded surrounding ecosystems for the future.
What major advances in sustainability did they make?
All of the farms are situated in rural areas—near forests, rivers and beaches—and farmers now understand that they are part of these ecosystems and that their activity can have a negative or positive impact on them. Now, each task is analyzed to determine how the environment is impacted. We identify practices that minimize damage and plan ways of mitigating problems. The end goal is to arrive at a balance that tips in favor of the environment.
Among the other advances were the creation of natural barriers between farm operations and forested areas or water sources, and the installation of water-treatment systems.
How does the local community benefit from the work that SFG Dulce does?
Producers are taking responsibility for the natural resources that surround their farms, and the workers have better working conditions and guaranteed access to health services, emergency care and legal services.
Also, the local population has become aware of the importance of sustainability. Reforestation and garbage collection activities are held in conjunction with schools, and the community has been trained in the sustainability criteria that’s required to earn Rainforest Alliance certification.
How does the company feel about becoming the first in Costa Rica to receive the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal for this crop?
It feels great to set the tone—to be the leader—but it’s not easy, because now it’s on us to keep improving and maintain our position through perseverance and innovation.
Prior to the audits, we realized that we needed to implement new practices. At first you see everything as a task to complete. But as you start to understand the real objective of certification, the work turns into a commitment to the planet, its inhabitants and to yourself. It’s a way of life, which compels us to change the way we think and act on a daily basis. We know that our decision was the right one, and that other producers will follow our lead and seek certification.