This undated photo shows a farmer who joins the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) holding oil palm fruit from his plantation. (Photo courtesy of RSPO)
Sustainability, Productivity Go Hand in Hand: How Indonesian Smallholders Are Leading the Way
BY :GUNTUR PRABOWO
AUGUST 05, 2021
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused Indonesia’s first recession in over twenty years. The country’s palm oil industry, in particular, saw production and trade decline due to interrupted
supply chains and operations. With Indonesia supplying half of the world’s palm oil, productive recovery is critical for both the industry and the nation.
Despite their relatively smaller holdings, smallholder farms are significant to the success of palm oil. Across the nation, approximately 2.67 million smallholder farmers comprise 40 percent of total oil palm plantation land, yet many rarely receive any training or assistance. Independent smallholders typically learn how to plant oil palm from their peers or by trial and error.
Given the industry’s importance to the national economy, their productivity is a vital bellwether for the entire agricultural sector. Several Indonesian smallholders have demonstrated that with access to training and tools, they adopt environmentally friendly practices and improve livelihoods and empower the broader community by sharing and innovating new approaches across agricultural holdings and townships.
Sustainability Training Improves Productivity
For example, a training program in North Sumatra, established by the Produsen Mandiri Gaharu Seratus Bosar Maligas Cooperative, enabled farmers to learn sustainable agricultural methods in areas such as organic fertilizer utilization harvest measurement and measurement workplace safety protocols.
According to cooperative leaders, these practices have resulted in more efficient resource management, which yielded higher output levels.
Asosiasi Petani Kelapa Sawit Swadaya Mandiri Cooperative, located in the Riau Province, trained farmers to enhance fertilizer measurement, prevent land erosion, and separate
organic waste from non-organic waste. In addition to protecting the local environment, these practices have empowered farmers by increasing their palm oil yield while decreasing
These are just two examples of sustainable productivity being led from the ground up, and their efforts are influencing better practices in other agricultural areas. Based on the work of
North Sumatra oil palm farmers, the use of organic fertilizer will be expanded to sheep breeders in the area, which prevents the spread of harmful pesticides that threaten the health
of both sheep and farmworkers.
Selective-control weeding implemented by the Mulia Bakti Cooperative in South Sumatra has also reduced production costs and boosted output, but more importantly, has
empowered the cooperative to use the cash gains to start a business unit that provides capital for members to rejuvenate their plantations.
Oil palm smallholders have demonstrated that sustainability and productivity are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, the benefits rarely stay within individual cooperatives.
Providing training and educational opportunities to smallholders translates to tangible value for the broader community and across workstreams.
Sustainability Training Delivers Benefits Beyond the Cooperative
Learnings from sustainability, plantation management, and occupational safety training at the Karya Bersama Cooperative are now also being adopted by non-members, given the
demonstrable benefits reaped by their peers in terms of higher sale prices and volumes.
In Central Kalimantan, farmers were trained to cultivate harvests using intercropping, in which two or more crops are grown nearby. As a result, farmers improved the
quality of their soil maximized yields and reduced costs associated with land upkeep.
They also learned to grow cash crops such as aubergine, chilies, and water spinach, increasing family incomes and offering better food security and self-sufficiency. As an additional bonus, intercropping employs those with no access to land.
These are just some of the many examples, but they prove that the agricultural sector can reap the rewards of sustainable methods as long as farmers are given access to appropriate
training and education.
The Indonesian government has recently signed onto the Platform for Redesign 2020, an international agenda seeking to revitalize the economy and protect the environment through sustainable development. As smallholders have demonstrated, sustainable practices are a double-edged solution for both environmental protection and commercial productivity. They also create opportunities for local innovation to spur from.
Smallholders are just embarking on their sustainability journey and need external support to maintain momentum. To enhance these outcomes, consumer goods manufacturers and retailers should look to purchase smallholders' credits directly invested in their efforts and livelihoods.
Consumers must also increase demand for certified sustainable palm oil products.
Covid-19 has affected countless lives, and many farmers still face precarious situations. Access to training and education makes business sense and helps local communities re-build their livelihoods and survive during these challenging times.
Guntur Prabowo is an Indonesian smallholder program manager at Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)