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Beyond palm oil in Indonesia

Large areas of primary forest have been felled in Indonesia, to make way for oil palm plantations (Sawit Watch)
Large areas of primary forest have been felled in Indonesia, to make way for oil palm plantations
Sawit Watch

As a raw material for the bio-diesel, food and cosmetic industries, palm oil has become a mainstay of the Indonesian economy and a valuable source of local employment. At present, over six million hectares in Indonesia are covered by palm oil plantations and a further 330,000 hectares of forest are targeted each year.

While palm oil is a major source of income for Indonesia and some plantations are well managed, the loss of natural rainforest has provoked considerable environmental concern. And, according to Sawit Watch - an Indonesian NGO working against oil palm plantations, in many cases the companies who monopolise the palm oil industry have encouraged local communities to sell their forests for low prices, rendering them landless and without the local resources (honey, fruit, medicinal plants) on which they depend.

In an attempt to reduce the dependency of local communities on palm oil production, Sawit Watch has been working with indigenous Dayak communities of Kalimantan on the island of Borneo to investigate increasing the productivity of home gardens.

In my backyard

Known locally as Tembawang, the home or community gardens traditionally contain "more than 100 planted edible and non-timber forest products, such as rambutan, durian, coconut, bamboo, rattan, ilipe nut, and countless other types of fruits," says Sawit Watch representative, Norman Jiwan. Working with farmers who have lost their land and income, the NGO is providing seed to help boost the production of these alternative crops, as a source of both food and income.

Roughly 70 per cent of the world's rattan comes from Indonesia, fetching a good price both domestically and internationally, for use in the furniture industry, as musical instruments and as gifts for the tourist market. The canes are also environmentally friendly, helping to control soil erosion by binding the soil in deforested areas, and reducing rain run-off. Traditionally, both bamboo and rattan are grown by forest dwellers in a community-based management system. Sawit Watch has encouraged the growth of bamboo and rattan in agro-forestry systems to protect the environment, and to encourage community cohesion.

Rubber - a flexible alternative

Another valuable alternative to oil palm is rubber. First introduced by the Dutch and grown for commercial interests, rubber cultivation has, over the generations, become part of the local tradition, and can be integrated with indigenous farming practices of shifting cultivation and crop rotation. Unlike oil palm, rubber can be inter-cropped in a small garden with cash and food crops, such as fruit trees. Rubber does not require such intensive maintenance, but most importantly, says Jiwan, it gives farmers strength in the marketplace. "Oil palm farmers are dependent in terms of the market, because they are not free to sell their oil palm fruit bunches. They are under the price monopoly of a big company." They are also dependent on contracts which, some farmers complain, have been broken.

In contrast, rubber farmers sell wet and dried latex rubber independently to local shops. In addition, productive rubber trees can be tapped everyday, and in three hours can yield up to US$11 per hectare. In contrast, says Jiwan, "oil palm farmers only harvest oil palm fruit bunches two to three times every month."

Setting policy straight

Through a policy study, Sawit Watch is attempting to raise public awareness of land-right issues and the monopoly of oil palm plantations, and to predict and monitor future trends in the industry. The study also provides an analysis of biodiversity in the region, soil erosion, pollution and the socio-economic impacts of oil palm plantations. Jiwan says that in the oil palm sector, "better economic returns can only be achieved if farmers are independent to sell their fruits."

Through press releases, conferences and video recordings, the organisation is also attempting to empower indigenous communities, enabling them to reclaim land from large-scale oil palm plantations. Given the lucrative market for palm oil, cultivating rubber, rattan and other local alternatives may be less profitable than growing oil palm in the short term. But, for communities who have lost their land, building on the productivity of home gardens is not only a more environmentally-friendly option, it is also sometimes their only alternative.

Date published: May 2007


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