Can palm oil help Indonesia’s poor?

Focus, Normal

THE BBC’s Panorama programme last week reported on the disturbing destruction of orangutan habitats in Indonesia for palm oil plantations. But are there benefits from these plantations for local people? BILL LAW takes a look.


Environmentalists have long decried the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests, first for timber and more recently for palm oil.
The logging was a one-time deal that mostly benefitted the country’s corrupt elite and foreign corporations.
But does palm oil have the potential to generate new wealth for this nation of 250 million people?
There is one key fact that is often overlooked in the debate.
Of the more than seven million hectares (17.2 million acres) in palm oil cultivation, nearly half is in the hands of smallholders, ordinary folk trying to better themselves and look after their families.
“We are seeing the emergence of a rural middle class,” John McCarthy of the Australian National University says.
He is an economist and expert on the Indonesian palm oil industry.
“I was doing research in a town in Sumatra and I went to a local school and nine of the 13 teachers had oil palm plantations,” he said.
Intrigued, McCarthy carried out a survey in several villages in the region.
What he found startled him.
Villagers with 4ha (10 acres) or more were earning on average US$12,000 a year.
A second group with 2ha were earning much less – US$2,000 a year – but were still enough to provide financial security for themselves and their families.
Villagers without palm oil all fell below the poverty line.
The growth of this new middle class has profound implications for both prosperity and the prospects of furthering democracy in Indonesia.
McCarthy also discovered:
* Huge abuses;
* Plantations continue to be opened up that flout the country’s laws;
* Corruption flourishes;
* Local communities are being marginalised; and
* Habitats terribly degraded.
So what is the way forward?
In the often polarised debate about palm oil, it is rare to find converging views between activists and owners.
Sawit Watch is an Indonesian NGO that has campaigned for several years on the palm oil front.
Achmad Surambo is the executive director of Sawit Watch.
When I meet him, he is happy to make one point clear to me: palm oil in itself is not a bad thing for Indonesia. But the system needs to change.
Laws have to be enforced, people and the environment need to be protected, the land rights of local communities must be respected.
“We have to make the system more fair, accommodate the interests of farmers, communities and labourers,” he says.
“The system right now is tilted toward the big companies and that has to change.”
Lyman Agro is a small plantation company managing 60,000ha in west Kalimantan (Borneo).
Steaven Halim of Lyman Agro points to the roads, schools and health clinics that have been built as proof of the company’s commitment to its social responsibility.
 “We have also helped (smallholders) build up cooperatives so they can handle their own business,” he says.
The government and the industry until recently talked about doubling the land area in production.
Sensitive to negative press about deforestation, they are now talking instead about doubling the output in 10 years from 20 million to 40 million tonnes to help meet world demand.
When I ask Halim whether this can be achieved with existing plantations he nods vigorously.
“Yes, indeed. Indeed it can,” he says.
The key for him is increasing productivity for smallholders.
“If we can get them to 35 tonnes a hectare per year (it now is about 20 tonnes), we can do it.”
That is not far off what Sawit Watch wants.
It has called for a moratorium on expansion, as well as more support and better treatment of farmers and labourers.
Halim acknowledges there are “some bad guys, no doubt” in the industry, but that the time is now to talk.
“Let’s sit down together and try to find the way out. People have to be fed,” he says. – BBC