Women, and their children, often bear the brunt of health hazards while working in the palm oil sector. (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Hurt/UNDP Indonesia)

Commentary: Palm Oil Sector Inequality Proves Need to Empower Women


MARCH 08, 2016

In Indonesia almost half of the agriculture sector’s workforce is comprised of women. However despite providing a backbone to one of the nation’s most economically important sectors, women in agriculture can be marginalized and often have little access to financial resources, knowledge and technology to improve their crop yields and in turn better their lives. On this International Women’s Day we should use the opportunity to recognize the important roles of women in agriculture and to consider the benefits that their empowerment brings.

I have spent the majority of my career working for the Ministry of Agriculture in sectors such as palm oil, coffee, tea and cocoa, specifically concerning the development of the commodities and the impact on smallholder livelihoods. While significant advancements have been made to close the gender gap, there is still much that needs to be done. Since I’ve turned all of my focus to palm oil I continue to see the infinite potential women hold for the country and long-term sustainability.

Throughout the palm oil producing regions of the archipelago, women are frequently seen working the plantations alongside men, often assisting their spouses to meet demanding production quotas. They are also seen tending to seedlings in nurseries, sorting quality seeds from bad, handling fertilizer and pesticides, and are known to often take care of the finances.

Gender inequalities in palm oil plantations include land ownership and pay discrepancies. Women can be unpaid for fruit collection as their contribution is sometimes used to help meet their spouses’ production quotas rather than for personal profit. According to a study published by Center for International Forestry Research last year, landless indigenous women are among the most vulnerable due to fluctuating palm oil prices and increasing competition for work.

Women, and their children, also often bear the brunt of health hazards while working in the palm oil sector. Anecdotal reports collected during a recent United Nations Development Program field mission to West Kalimatan found that in one village almost three out of 10 women who worked on the surrounding oil palm plantations were treated for skin irritations caused by spraying pesticides without the use of appropriate safety apparel.

Women are often tasked with spraying pesticides and fertilizer as it’s considered less physically demanding. According to the village doctor in the same district, just outside of Sintang city, long-term inappropriate use of chemicals on oil palm plantations is particularly harmful for women who are pregnant or those who may become pregnant in the future as chemicals can be transmitted to the foetus unknowingly. Last year’s forest fires also posed significant long-term health hazards to women and children, said the doctor who urged her community to consider the health implications when clearing land for oil palm.

Beyond the direct disadvantages experienced by women on oil palm plantations are negative environmental consequences, which can have serious implications for women and their families. Environmentally irresponsible practices on oil palm plantations have led to deforestation, a decrease in groundwater, and pollution from run-off in nearby lakes and rivers. As a result, it is difficult for women to gather firewood and access clean water for household chores like washing, cooking and cleaning.

Extending women’s access to financial and technical knowledge is a win-win approach. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says if women had the same access to productive resources as men they could increase yields on agriculture plantations by 20 to 30 percent.This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent.

These potential productivity gains are just the first round of social benefits that would come from closing the gender gap. When women control additional income, they spend more of it than men do on food, health, clothing and education for their children. This has positive implications for immediate well-being as well as long-run human capital formation and economic growth.

In the face of last year’s forest fires and deforestation rates in Indonesia, there is an increasing need to capitalize on environmentally friendly agriculture productivity by intensifying existing plantations that improve environmental and human sustainability. Enhancing the capacity of women in the palm oil industry would be a giant leap in this direction.

Gender equality and empowerment is essential to the success of the Indonesia Palm Oil Platform (InPOP) and its National Action Plan for Sustainable Palm Oil. InPOP, a Ministry of Agriculture-led initiative which is facilitated by the UNDP’s Green Commodities Program, currently boasts female representation from all walks of life, including inspiring female political leaders based in Jakarta and women living in rural areas who represent their communities via InPOP’s provincial forums.

It’s vital that women, especially those who work on the oil palm plantations, have a seat at the discussion table so that their voices can be heard in order for fair reform to be made. Women posses the knowledge and skills critical to finding local solutions to environmental challenges, they just need access to the right opportunities to do so.

Tri Widjayanti is the coordinator for the Indonesia Palm Oil Platform (InPOP), working under the UNDP. She previously specialized in multistakeholder dialogue for cocoa, coffee and palm oil supply chains at the Ministry of Agriculture.