CIFOR explores social impacts of oil palm expansion in West Kalimantan

Researchers recommend independent smallholder oil palm production; report on exclusion of women from co-operatives and poor conditions for female workers on plantations

A study published by CIFOR has analysed the impacts of oil palm expansion in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, highlighting the opportunities and challenges for smallholder communities and identifying negative outcomes for women in particular.

The research, carried out in 2010-2012, found that by limiting people's access to land, the growth of plantations has restricted opportunities for viable smallholder production of oil palm, as well as rubber and food crops.

The most severe outcome is an increase in landless households near company sites, which has forced many local women into casual work on the plantations. With limited employment security female workers are often vulnerable to sexual harassment and injury from exposure to chemicals and lack of protective equipment. They also face discrimination in access to work and wages; being given the hardest, least lucrative tasks.

Local men are not so commonly employed as women at the studied sites, as they have more options for migrating in search of work or finding employment with smallholders. There is evidence that plantation managers prefer to hire male Javanese migrants.

Precarious tied smallholdings?

Palm oil development has, of course, created opportunities for local and migrant farmers through tied smallholder schemes. At one of the companies studied, the yields from the outgrowers are as high as the yields from the nucleus estate. However, the study suggests that some scheme smallholders have been left with lower dividends than had they cultivated the land independently. Many farmers are unhappy that they were persuaded to forfeit customary land rights in order to gain jobs which, they claim, haven’t materialised. Smallholders interviewed in Sanggau District in 2011 suggested that they would need six hectares to profit from the cultivation of oil palm – more than twice the two hectares allocated under tied outgrower schemes. Smallholders who can also tap rubber or grow rice are more secure than smallholders who rely on oil palm alone.

An interesting gender dimension of the study is that women are excluded from ownership of plots under smallholder schemes, and cannot vote or stand for election in co-operatives. The research found that married couples treat oil palm smallholdings as their joint property, and during the interviews women did not raise the registration of plots in men’s names as a problem.  However, it means they have no formal rights and the study’s author, Tania Li, argues that women’s exclusion from formal plot ownership could potentially disadvantage them. For example, husbands can mortgage or sell the land without their wife’s consent.

Promoting independent smallholder production as part of a mixed farming system should enable women and men to retain access to land

The study concludes with a recommendation for better spatial planning of oil palm development in West Kalimantan. This, Li suggests, will help democratise decision-making and involve smallholders in the development of alternative pathways for the sector. A better understanding of land tenure agreements will also be essential here to help find a new balance between plantation and smallholder farming. Promoting independent smallholder oil palm production as part of a mixed farming system should enable women and men to retain access to land, giving them livelihood diversity and adaptability in the face of global market fluctuations.

To download the report (in English), click here.