Pekanbaru, Riau. Suryono, a farmer in a small village in Riau used to make Rp 2 million ($150) a month from his two-hectare oil palm field. That was only after nervous four years before the plant started to give yields. Small farmers rarely survive the wait period as oil palms often prove infertile.
Today Suryono makes the same amount of money in just a week, after he replaced the palms with papaya trees. Last year, he earned Rp 300 million by dedicating a half hectare of his land to produce chilies.
Another farmer, Jan from West Pinang Sebatang, planted melons on a 1,200 square meter plot. Between December and March, his land produced 2 tons of melons and made him earn Rp 21 million in sales, of which Rp 15 million was in profits.
Suryono, and Jan are among 3,000 farmers from Riau, Jambi, Palembang, West Kalimantan and East Kalimantan who received a grant under the "Prosperous Villages Fight Fire" (DMPA) corporate responsibility program by Asia Pulp and Paper, an arm of conglomerate Sinar Mas Group.
Initiated in 2015, the program was designed to prevent small farmers from practicing slash-and-burn agriculture. While the hazardous technique is often the only method that small farmers can afford to clear their land for planting new crops, it is the main cause of haze and wildfires across Southeast Asia.
DMPA introduces sustainable farming methods to grow fruits and vegetables on peatlands and secure direct distribution links to consumers.
APP Sinar Mas director Suhendra Wiriadinata told reporters on the side a seminar in Pekanbaru on Monday (31/07) that DMPA also tries to match farmers with buyers and maintain a relationship between local communities and the local government.
"We want to help the government in preventing wildfires by teaching farmers alternatives ways of farming," he said.
For many years, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore were suffering from seasonal air pollution due to forest fires that were often caused by slash-and-burn practices.
Fingers were pointed at groups, including Sinar Mas, that run concessions where hot spots were located.
"In 2014-15, wildfires were dire in Sumatra," APP corporate social and security head Agung Wiyono said.
"The company was accused of burning the land, but we know we have a no-burning policy," he said.
DMPA began with a study to identify which plants will be best to boost the local farmers' income and make them leave slash-and-burn agriculture.
By the end of July, DMPA spent Rp 17.3 billion ($1.3 million) of its $10 million budget for villages in Riau, Jambi, Palembang, West Kalimantan and East Kalimantan. Out of 500 villages targeted, currently 95 are under the program's umbrella.
The Association of Indonesian Bachelors of Economics (ISEI) praised the program, which combines training, assistance and funding.
"I imagine the partnership model developed by Sinar Mas can be also introduced in other places," ISEI chairman Muliaman D. Hadad said.
Muliaman's comment came after he and other ISEI members, including Indonesia Deposit Insurance Corporation (LPS) chairman Halim Alamsyah and economist Aviliani, visited Tualang in Siak district, about 53 kilometers from Pekanbaru, whose residents participate in DMPA.
Muliaman said the program cut off the role of middleman and gave local farmers an opportunity to increase their income, while at the same time it reduces the use of slash-and-burn practices.
"Yesterday, I saw yesterday how the community was involved in for the sake of a more prosperous life," Muliaman said.
The Jakarta Globe was invited to Pekanbaru for the seminar that was held by Sinar Mas Group and ISEI on July 29-31.