Indonesia: Palm oil farmers ignore sustainability, even if paid not to - study

Hans Nicholas Jong The Jakarta Post 7 Nov 16;

Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, plans to improve the sustainability of the industry and stop the annual land and forest fires, which occur in part due to the lack of awareness of sustainable practices among small farmers, who manage 40 percent of the country’s palm oil product.

According to a new report by the University of Indonesia’s (UI) Research Center for Climate Change (RSCC), two out of three palm oil farmers in Riau and South Sumatra said they would still convert new land to plantation land even though they were being offered money not to do so.

“Sixty-nine percent of our respondents said they are unwilling [to stop using new land] despite compensation,” said Sonny Mumbunan, the head of the research team.

The study questioned 1,350 farmers with up to 25 hectares of land in 96 villages in five regencies in Riau and South Sumatra, which constitutes 47 percent of small farmers’ palm oil production in the country.

The study, conducted from April to August, is the largest of its kind in Indonesia.

Out of all respondents, only 31 percent said they would be willing to stop using new land as long as they were compensated with about Rp 166 million (US$12,644) per hectare.

It means that using new land is still seen by small farmers as the only way to increase productivity, even though big companies are well-informed on this fallacy.

“They have land, but their productivity is low. So their instinct is to use new land, rather than increase their productivity,” Sonny said.

To convert new land to plantation land, small farmers sometimes resort to slash-and-burn practices as the fastest and easiest conversion method, which have led to annual fires engulfing a large part of Indonesia’s forests.

Small farmers’ reluctance to stop converting new land to palm oil plantations causes alarm because land conversion is likely to lead to deforestation.

“This is not easy. Unsustainable palm oil practices are still rampant,” said Sonny.

An even larger percentage of farmers said they planned to stay in the industry, with 85 percent saying they were unwilling to switch professions, indicating their dependency on palm oil and a lack of alternative job opportunities.

“Only 15 percent said they were willing to switch jobs with Rp 234 million per hectare as compensation,” Sonny said.

The survey also measured farmers’ concerns regarding their profession with long dry seasons and fertilizers as their main concerns.

Legality of land, forest conversions and sustainable certifications, like ISPO and RSPO, are the least of their concerns.

“Ten of the least important concerns relate to regulations [like land legality] that we often read about in newspapers. This is very upsetting,” said Sonny.

Dewan Effendi, a small farmer from Simpang Beringin village in Pelelawan regency, Riau, said that there were no government programs that empower small farmers in his region, which explained his lack of concern over sustainability.

“Back in 2013, there was a program that was supposed to give free sustainability certificates to us. But in the process, we still had to pay. There was no clarity on when the certificates would be issued. It’s all just false hope,” he said.

Musi Banyuasin agriculture agency head Iskandar Syarianto admitted that the government had long neglected small farmers. “In our agency, small farmers are not being cared for,” he said. “In terms of productivity, there’s been almost no training from us to support small farmers.”