Opinion: Working with farmers to achieve a sustainable palm oil process

Smallholders inspect their harvest at a palm oil plantation. Photo by: GAR.

Since the late 1990s, many reports and articles have criticized the sustainability and ethical practices of palm oil. Its track record certainly isn’t squeaky-clean when it comes to sustainability, but placing blame on an entire industry is never the best way to fix a systemic problem.

“It is the responsibility of agriculture companies like GAR to educate the farming community on why a change in mindset will benefit them in the long term.”

— Susanto Yang, CEO, West Kalimantan plantations

It also does not take into account the millions of people working along the value chain who depend on this crop for their livelihoods. With decades of experience working in plantations alongside growers and their communities, I’ve seen just how fundamentally the livelihood of these communities depends on the palm oil business.

The all-encompassing nature of the industry requires us to engage not only the smallholder farmers that make up the majority of palm oil growers, but the entire community. Long-term sustainability for this industry will be impossible without their full support.

Today’s reality for palm oil is vastly different than 10 or even five years ago, and huge strides have been made toward ensuring the crop’s sustainability, but how do we continue to implement change for good?

Getting the farmers onboard

Changing practices along the entire palm oil supply chain

This program has been developed to teach villagers how to clear and cultivate land without burning it. One farmer that has seen great benefit from being part of this program is Yatimin, a 63-year-old farmer from West Kalimantan. Like his peers, he had been using traditional farming methods for decades, meaning low yields, hard manual labor, and falling soil quality.

GAR advises villagers on how they can make additional income from their farms. Producing their own food such as vegetables, livestock, and fish can help a family to save up to 300,000 Indonesian rupiah ($20.92) per month in household expenditure. GAR also trains farmers on ecologically integrated agriculture for three-six months at purpose-designed learning gardens. Farmers can take these methods back to their farms and improve incomes in the community. In addition, GAR increases farmers’ access to other communities at the district and regional level by allowing them to sell their excess crop in GAR-owned concessions so that they can be sold at higher sales margins.

Since receiving the training, Yatimin has managed to double his yield and increased his monthly income by more than double — an example of how we can change practices along the entire palm oil supply chain. Yatimin is even sharing his success with his local community, training other farmers in organic and sustainable growing methods.

For farming communities to support sustainable farming practices, farmers need to first understand the alternatives to traditional farming methods and why these methods are better for their crops, communities, and livelihoods. For hundreds of years, farmers have been relying on burning to clear land and using ashes as fertilizers. It’s cheap, easily accessible, and it works.

But the “slash-and-burn” method is unsustainable and harmful for the environment, hence it is the responsibility of agriculture companies like Golden Agri-Resources to educate the farming community on why a change in mindset will benefit them in the long term. The challenge is convincing smallholder farmers, who have been farming the way their fathers taught them, that these traditional practices will have severe consequences to their crop’s productivity and yield.

Advocating for change in farmers’ behavior can seem like an impossible task. Many of these farmers living around our concessions in Indonesia do not grow oil palm, but their role in protecting the plantation and forested areas surrounding it are just as important.

We take it upon ourselves to talk to these farmers and answer their questions, such as how this will impact their harvest, is it going to cost them more, and who can produce be sold to?

We seek to address these questions directly by teaching these farmers how to grow organic vegetables that provide the community with added food security, a reduced expenditure on food, and additional income from the sale of surplus crops.  

Thinking differently for the next generation

After discussing fire and its negative connection with palm oil production, it is important to also address the importance of peatlands. Peat is important for the environment as it stores huge amounts of carbon. In Indonesia, millions of people live in or are adjacent to peat and depend on the land for fishing, aquaculture, and other agriculture activities. This can sometimes lead to the drainage and decomposition of peatlands, resulting in serious problems for both the environment and communities in the long term.

Recognizing the importance of peat and the urgent need for its preservation, a commitment has to be made by the industry not to open and convert additional peatland into palm oil plantations.

Restoring degraded peatland is a huge project. While GAR has made great strides in preserving forests, we also realize that more industry players and institutions need to participate in order for the impact to reach scale and outcome to be sustained. This is where engaging the next generation of industry leaders will help.

With over 45 percent of Indonesia’s population living in rural areas, access to education can pose a huge challenge. Out of the belief that every child deserves one, we support more than 230 schools across our plantations catered to children of different age groups.

GAR conducts fire response training with communities. Photo by: GAR.

We are also providing scholarships to students to encourage them to move into higher education. As part of our commitment to unlocking young children’s potential, we need to do more to improve the level of education in rural communities and raise awareness of the diversity of professions that the palm oil industry can provide. These students may well become the next sustainability officers, farmer trainers, agronomists, and chefs that will demand a more sustainable industry for generations to come.  

Progress is being made every day, but there is always more to be done. As someone with deep roots in the plantation business, I believe that the communities living around these estates hold the key to our future.

While challenges remain, seeing farmers adopt best practices and children from rural communities reach their educational potential, I am regularly inspired and reminded of what we can achieve.

To find out more and join in the conversation, use #extraordinaryeveryday on Twitter.

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About the author

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    Susanto Yang

    Susanto Yang was born in Pontianak, West Kalimantan. He graduated from Trisakti University, Jakarta, in management. His career in palm oil started more than 15 years ago. He joined Sinar Mas Agribusiness and Food in 2007 and today, he is the CEO of the West Kalimantan plantations. He is also the vice chief of GAPKI (Indonesia Palm Oil Industry Association) for Public Policy Department.