We recently interviewed Sendy Nathalia, INOBU Field Assistant who dedicates her efforts to understanding the oil palm growers of Indonesia. Sendy is part of a team of INOBU field experts based in Pangkalan Tiga, a village of Kotawaringin Barat district, Central Kalimantan.
What was your view about palm oil before starting your field work?
The first time I set foot in Central Kalimantan, my only thought was that palm oil simply needed to be eradicated from the earth. However, after working and interacting directly with palm oil farmers, I have experienced a paradigm shift changes from my previously held notions about palm to looking at it as a plant that just calls for better management in its cultivation and product life-cycle.
What have you learned about oil palm farmers and how does this shape your new perspective?
Oil palm plants get a negative name and are deemed to be harmful to the environment. Oil palm is considered a plant whose water requirements are very high and requires intensive use of chemical sprays to kill weeds such that oil palm ultimately contributes to a reduction in the environmental carrying capacity. Excessive use of chemical fertilizers directly impacts the quality of the soil. Oil palm trees are often planted in forest areas, causing significant deforestation and releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. If you look at the environmental damage caused by oil palm, it is justifiable that that plant is regarded as an enemy of the environment.
However, fighting oil palm is not easy thing. In the past three years, crude palm oil has been the cheapest vegetable oil commodity in the global market compared with olive oil and sunflower seed oil. The most sensible option for eradicating the oil palm plantation would be to motivate consumers to stop using basic necessities that are made from palm oil such as soaps, cosmetics and even food – it would take a complete societal shift, for example, to move from products such as cooking oil to those that are not made from palm oil.
What are the challenges on the ground to seeing a shift from oil palm in Central Kalimantan?
Through INOBU’s work in Central Kalimantan province, we meet the people who grow oil palm trees. One cannot just simply replace these trees with more environmentally friendly plants–as demonstrated by the strong objections I heard from farmers. To succeed in palm cultivation, a farmer must essentially go through a “fasting” period for approximately three years before he sees any financial benefit from his harvest. During that period, the farmers must finance the maintenance of the garden without any income from the garden itself. Once the palm orchard farmers begins to produce fresh fruit bunches (FFB), many of their family members depend on the the plantation’s income. The question farmers asked regarding abandoning palm oil was how to replace the income generated? This activity is critical to the livelihood of their families. The most logical consequence for a stranger such as myself suggesting abandoning oil palm is to be expelled from the village. I would be very lucky if I wasn’t expelled by angry, machete-wielding farmers and their families!
There is a disconnect between theory and field experience, then.
Yes. Conservation theory is that it is disconnected from the people that are its subject, at least from what I encounter in the field. After long conversations and discussions, it becomes evident that the public is also familiar with all of the environmental changes that have emerged since the switch of focus from commodity crops and herbs to oil palm. They understand that the environment is endangered. Communities care about preservation of the environment. But they don’t know how and all their time and energy is focused on reaping a harvest adequate to sustain their families.
What is the solution? How does farmers support their families while still practicing conservation in palm oil?
Public awareness of environmental issues is huge capital if we want to encourage people to take real action in environmental conservation. The jurisdictional certification program for oil palm, which is based on the Principles and Criteria of Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a program that is currently underway in the village of Pangkalan Tiga, Kotawaringin West, Central Kalimantan, in association with Inovasi Bumi (INOBU).
One of the activities of this program is training independent farmers about high conservation value (HCV). The term alone is complex and confusing, like a university-level course! However, farmers in this village proved that they are open to the material and willing to take HCV into consideration as they determine which land to use as a plantation.
What has been the positive impact of the jurisdictional Certification Program in Pangkalan Tiga?
Farmers have become more aware of the importance of maintaining a buffer zone between their farm land and rivers (5 meters). Oil palm crops already planted along the river mouth will not be fertilized and sprayed but will be allowed to grow as natural vegetation along the river. Farmers have organized themselves in order to create a platform for learning and exchanging information. They are working based on a system of dialogue and consensus, through an internal control system to monitor compliance with the collective goals.
In addition to the awareness and motivation of farmers to protect the environment in implementing the jurisdictional certification program, local government and related agencies are also very supportive of the program. The issuance of Registration Certificates (STD-B) that previously cost hundreds of thousands of rupiah per hectare has now been made free by the district government. Commercial oil palm plantations around the village are also assisting communities in providing training services on good practices in oil palm cultivation.
How would you summarize your lessons from the field on building sustainable palm oil?
What I have learned from the case of Central Kalimantan is that what is considered broken by others does always need to be ostracized and abandoned, but by working together, broken things can be repaired. As one friend said, uniformity is one form of the removal of God’s verses are not written, but it is necessary to dismantle the ideology that must be undertaken and lived.