Keeping Riau’s Palm Oil Industry Strong a Careful Balancing Act

Fidelis E. Satriastanti Jakarta Globe 30 Jul 12;

“Back in the 1990s, the future of our village was bleak, but then palm oil came and changed it all,” Firdaus said.

“The economy picked up, people could afford to buy motorcycles and improve their homes.”

Firdaus is the chief of Dosan village in Riau’s Siak district, one of the countless communities in the heavily forested Sumatran province whose fortunes are tied to the controversial crop.

In 2003, the village began growing oil palm on 3,500 hectares of land. But unlike many other areas, Dosan has from the outset practiced an environmentally-sustainable form of oil palm cultivation, Firdaus said.

“We don’t want the improved conditions to come to an end, so we’ve always tried to conserve our environment,” he said at a discussion in Jakarta held by Greenpeace Indonesia and the agriculture group Perkumpulan Elang (Eagle Society).

“That’s why we have rules on not clearing the existing forest, so that our kids and grandkids will still be able to experience the forest for themselves.

“We also require residents to maintain a 100-meter-wide belt of shade trees, because before we started growing oil palms the air here was very cool.

“Once we began planting the oil palms, it got hotter and we realized we needed shade trees to restore the cool.”

Perkumpulan Elang director Riko Kurniawan said more needed to be done to empower such farmers, given how much of Riau’s oil palm plantations they manage.

“Of the 3.2 million hectares of plantations in the province, local farmers manage 2.1 million hectares, yet their productivity is very low,” he said.

“That’s because, firstly, the major palm oil companies aren’t as supportive of independent farmers as they are of the farmers they employ. Also, oil palm is a relatively new crop and many farmers don’t yet fully understand how to cultivate it properly. Also, the prices are still dictated by the companies.”

He warns that without efforts to empower the farmers, the development of oil palm plantations in the province is essentially a “ticking time bomb” for environmental destruction.

“The rate at which they clear forests for farmland will be out of control. We need the government to step in and guide the farmers on how to improve their productivity,” Riko said.

He added that the government could help by providing the farmers with access to loans and technology to help boost their productivity.

“Right now, they’re only harvesting one or two tons per hectare per month, when they could potentially be making four to seven tons. If they could intensify their productivity from their existing farmland, then the forests can be saved.”