‘Empty pocket season’: Dayak women farmers surviving the impacts of palm oil

‘Empty pocket season’: Dayak women farmers surviving the impacts of palm oil

‘Empty pocket season’: Dayak women farmers surviving the impacts of palm oil

 Palm oil nuts / Credit: Creative Commons - oneVillage Initiative

Mensea, 83, is the oldest woman in the village of Long Bentuk, a Dayak indigenous community in East Kalimantan province on the Indonesian island of Borneo. Though her body is weakening and her brown eyes cloudy with cataracts, her mind is as sharp as ever.

“When palm oil was given out by the district head I didn’t accept it. I am still angry at the palm oil companies,” said Mensea.

For twenty years she led her community as the kepala adat (customary head). Despite her firm stance against converting land for industrial palm oil, today it abuts her village’s land, where her communities’ ancestral forests once stood. Now pest infestations, climate change and palm oil production all affect local livelihoods and food security. Women suffer the most through increased workloads and food shortages.

Palm oil’s rapid expansion

Palm oil plantations have expanded rapidly in Indonesia, increasing by 450,000 hectares per year from 1995 to 2015. In East Kalimantan the 2016-2036 provincial land zoning plan allocates nearly 3.26 million hectares for more palm oil – over a quarter of the province’s total land area of 12.9 million hectares. Kahar Al Bahri, an activist with East Kalimantan NGO JATAM, is concerned that land use allocations pays little attention to natural features, such as rivers, or the tenurial claims of local communities. “Almost all permits issued in East Kalimantan are in blocks, or grids,” Kahar said. “Companies just request the blocks they want to become their plantations.”.

Converting land for palm oil has extensive implications for the lives and livelihoods of rural land-dependent people who live in and around concessions. Proponents of industrial palm oil emphasize its development benefits for rural areas. Last year, Awang Faroek Ishak, the outgoing governor of East Kalimantan (soon to be replaced by recently elected Isran Noor, former district head of East Kutai from 2009 to 2015), said in an interview that “palm oil is a development solution, as companies are able to offer – through corporate sustainable responsibility programs – roads and schools and health clinics.” Yet in the sub-district of Busang, where Long Bentuk and five other villages are located, these programs have not emerged. Busang is not an anomaly. A 2018 study titled “Evaluating the effectiveness of palm oil certification in delivering multiple sustainability objectives” found that even palm oil plantations certified to the highest industry standard – the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – have not led to a decrease in rural poverty, and the number of health care facilities per capita has declined between 2000 and 2014 in regions where palm oil has proliferated.

While palm oil companies have been present in Busang for over a decade, still no state road connects it to Samarinda where the nearest market, hospital, university and other services are located. The only access is through a bone-rattling nine-hour drive through a timber plantation with spindly acacia trees growing in uniform lines.

Vehicles ply the road to Busang in East Kalimantan province / Credit: Tessa Toumbourou

Indonesia’s 2001 decentralization laws gave local governments the authority to greenlight permit palm oil plantations, logging and mining operations. This new power was not matched with support or budget to ensure that companies deliver development contributions. In accordance with laws regulating palm oil, land acquisition and any benefit arrangements are left to companies to forge with local communities. Without government oversight to ensure that companies acquire land in a way that is not coercive – or that any negotiations are conducted at all – communities are significantly vulnerable to strategies taken up by the private sector to pressure them to release land.

Local communities’ capacity to determine how their land is used, and to ensure that negotiations reflect all the preferences and concerns of social groups is limited. As observed by Tania Murray Li, in her 2017 article ‘Intergenerational displacement in Indonesia’s oil palm plantation zone’, increasingly communities find that, even where they refuse to release land, as with the community of Long Bentuk, companies go around them, leaving their village residential and farming land in place but surrounded by plantations.

Permitting palm oil
In late January 2006, just weeks before he was to leave office to make way for Isran Noor, the then district head of East Kutai, Mahyudin, signed off on four palm oil companies’ early stage land use permits for most of Long Bentuk’s land. The permits were issued one after the other, four days in a row. The four companies lead back to two main business groups: the Teladan Prima Group and Triputera Group. In Indonesia, larger companies create a number of smaller companies to get around laws that prohibit any single company from operating concessions larger than 200 square kilometres (77 square miles).

Young oil palm trees grow where the Long Bentuk community’s ancestral forest once stood / Credit: Tessa Toumbourou

In Long Bentuk, it wasn’t until village hunters discovered men cutting trees in their ancestral forests that they realized their land had been issued permits for palm oil, according to Wang Beng, a Dayak Medang elder from Long Bentuk. A protracted struggle against palm oil companies ensued over the subsequent decade. The Dayak Medang villagers tried every strategy they could, rallying their community to protest the land clearing, reporting to the district government and law enforcement agencies, and eventually travelling to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, to report to national authorities. The companies’ continued pressure brought previously mutually agreed borders between villages into dispute.

“When the company first came, we knew the impacts would be bad, but the neighboring villages accepted, so now we are encircled by palm oil,” explained Mensea, the former long-serving kepala adat. This strategy of enclaving communities who refuse to release land is frequently taken by palm oil companies: residents are left in place with just enough land for current generations to continue farming, at least in the short term.

Empty pocket season
The Dayak Medang community of Long Bentuk reside along the lowlands basin of the Kelinjau river, a sub-branch of the larger Mahakam, a powerful river that winds its way through East Kalimantan. Swidden rice is a main livelihood staple, supplemented by cocoa, banana, rubber, durian and rambutan as well as sengon and ulin hardwood trees for timber. “Rice is very important, it’s our breath. If there wasn’t swidden what would we eat?” Mensea explains. Its importance as a food source is reflected in Dayak Medang culture: children were traditionally named after the point in the swidden cycle at which they were born. Until the arrival of palm oil, Long Bentuk farmers had what they felt was infinite land available to them; they’d clear and carefully burn small plots, enough to sustain their households. Up to five years ago, one kaleng, a measure of 17 kilograms or 37 pounds, planted on a 1-hectare plot, about 2.5 acres, would yield an average of 1.8 tons of rice, enough to last a family for two years, if not more. Some farmers reported boom years with yields of up to 5 tons of rice.

Swidden plots in fallow near the village residential area / Credit: Tessa Toumbourou

Today, industrial palm oil plantations have replaced much of the village’s ancestral forests. The impacts from the loss of the ecological services that forests once provided undermine yields of swidden rice as well as cocoa, fruit and other cash crops. “Less forests mean that there is less habitat for squirrels, pigs, monkeys and birds and they are hungry and eat swidden rice,” explains local farmer Margareta, a local farmer (the names of some of the women in this story have been changed). Forests also provided medicine, materials for weaving and building, and a food security buffer against environmental shocks, such as drought or fire, that affect swidden plots. The loss of the “insurance” that these forests provided threatens food security, health and cultural practices. “This is crisis season, empty pocket season,” is a common refrain in the village.

Survival strategies
While the impacts of being enclaved by palm oil affects all people in a community, the effect on women is particularly adverse. Last October, I found farmer Lina sitting on the porch of her home, a single-room house on stilts. She was cutting lids off used plastic cups she’d collected from a waste heap behind the village government office to use for weaving. “They must have had an important meeting today, there’s lots of cups,” she said. The meeting, we learned later, was an information session held by a new palm oil company looking to establish a concession across a portion of the village’s land. Few people in the village knew the meeting was being held; invitations were hand-delivered to neighborhood heads, heads of farmers groups and religious leaders on the morning of the meeting – after most had left to tend their fields for the day. Lina once wove intricate and durable baskets from rattan that her husband collected while hunting in nearby forests. With forests now converted to palm oil, rattan is increasingly difficult to find. Lina is adapting to weaving with plastic instead.

Dayak Medang women returning after 'nugal' rice planting / Credit: Tessa Toumbourou

She weaves baskets in the evenings after a long day of working in her swidden rice plot, fishing and maintaining her family’s cocoa and banana garden. It’s tiring work, but her family needs the extra income she can make from selling baskets to buy food. A recent flood destroyed her swidden rice crop and vegetable garden, and drowned the chickens they were raising. “The flooding is certainly worse since the palm oil began upstream,” Lina said. Where the forest floor previously absorbed the region’s heavy rains, the conversion of forests upstream means that more water now washes into the rivers and silt from erosion has thickened the river floor, making it shallower and prone to frequent flooding. “When it rains, because the palm oil companies are on higher land than us here, the chemicals are carried down to here. At first the river was clear, we’d drink from it. Now we don’t know what’s carried in the water downstream.” River fish, a main protein source, are also less abundant. “We used to get fish very quickly. Now it takes hours of waiting, and we need to use worms.”

The arrival of palm oil plantations has put a price on land, turning it into a finite resource. Where in the past households could easily find a new plot to plant with rice, doing so today costs money most farmers don’t have. “There’s less land, but yields are lower so we need more land,” Lina said. “Plus, there’s less money to buy what we used to be able to grow, like vegetables.” Many people are having to use swidden plots more frequently than they would prefer, resulting in less fertile, weed-prone soil. While all farmers are feeling the impact, it is women’s role to ensure a household has enough to eat.

Weeding swidden plots is now more time-consuming, but necessary to ensure that weeds don’t choke out rice. Lina’s neighbour, Leng said she though palm oil “brings only negative impacts. Before there was palm oil, when we finished harvest we could relax in the village. We could gather and dance hudoq (a traditional thanksgiving celebration), cook together. Now the yield from swidden has reduced, and people here have to work in their swidden more.”

Ancient trees stand guard over the old graveyard near Long Bentuk / Credit: Tessa Toumbourou

Weeding swidden takes up the time women used to spend maintaining their cocoa and banana plots. A recent infestation of cocoa pod borer and black pod borer, both insect pests, has made cocoa, a once low-intensity crop requiring relatively little labor, more intensive to maintain, as infected trees must be intensely pruned, fertilized and weeded to maintain yield. The increased prevalence of flooding and changes to the water table from palm oil upstream also has an impact, according to Darwis, the village’s main cocoa buyer. “Cocoa has reduced massively since palm oil moved in. Now we are only getting five tons a month (from a total of 200 tons a month), making this a reduction of [more than] 95%.”.

Infected cocoa also takes more effort to process. Where healthy cocoa seeds come loose from their pods easily, infested cocoa seeds are sticky and harder to remove. I sat with Karina, a Dayak Medang woman in her 50s, as she separated out cocoa seeds. “If the fruit is healthy it shouldn’t need this much work,” she said. “Now they are sticky like this, we must do it by hand. The more diseased fruit takes longer to loosen.”

Where in the past women could balance both swidden and cash crops, today many are having to choose one increasingly time-intensive crop over the other. “If we don’t look after cocoa properly it doesn’t fruit, but if we don’t manage our swidden then we don’t have rice to eat. It’s a hard trade-off,” said Leng.

Many women predicted that releasing land to industrial plantations would result in a significant loss of control over their food and income source. Leng preferred to hold onto her land. “When the palm oil company came here we said no, we don’t want to work for someone else, in the hot sun,” she said. “Working swidden rice we are our own boss, we go out in the morning then come home when we need to. The yield we get we can sell or keep.”

Left out
In 2017, women did not have formal roles on the village administration in Long Bentuk. This made it hard for women to share their voice, said Agnes, a farmer and school teacher in Long Bentuk. “Women don’t have a formal representative on the village administration, which means that women aren’t invited to meetings,” she said. “If we aren’t invited then we don’t go to meetings. Women feel they can’t be in formal administrative positions if they are not capable or trained.” Just as no women have formal administrative roles, no women are neighborhood heads in the village. Agnes is one of the few people in the community with a post-high school degree, and is often called on to act as a spokesperson for women in the village. She would like more women take on leadership roles. “We tried to encourage women to nominate themselves as neighborhood heads; we called women to put themselves forward but none wanted to. No women were confident in themselves.”

The lack of women’s engagement in formal public discussions is not due to women’s disinterest, says the minister of the minority Christian congregation, Mary. She observed that while there are no limitations on women participating in formal decision making, they often feel hesitant to share their views in village discussions. “They aren’t confident to give their opinion in formal spaces,” she said. But, she emphasizes, women’s silence in public forums does not mean that they have no preferences for land use and development. “When they are outside after meetings are finished, it’s always bustling with women talking about what was discussed, and what they thought of it. I say to them, why didn’t you say that in the meeting? Maybe they don’t have self-confidence, or feel scared of being wrong, or saying the wrong thing,” said Mary. “Or”, she added, “perhaps they are pessimistic that they won’t be listened to.”

Studies from other parts of Indonesia have observed similar factors that limit women’s representation in formal village level discussions, including cultural or traditional conventions that discourage women’s participation, or consider men to sufficiently represent households; norms that allocate more household and care responsibilities to women meaning they often have less time during the day to attend formal meetings; a lack of value or validity placed on women’s knowledge of forest and land which may vary significantly to men’s; women’s limited access to education, as formal community governance institutions often require that participants are literate; and consequently lower levels of confidence using Indonesian, the national language of which meetings may be conducted. While there is now parity between levels of education for young women and men, a gap persists between women and men aged 30 and above, widening with older age groups. The effect of being uneducated is significantly larger for women, influencing their ability to fulfill literacy requirements that may be required to participate in formal bodies, and relatedly diminishes women’s confidence in their ability to articulate problems. Often invitations are only extended to men who are viewed to be heads of households.

A government commitment may enhance women’s engagement
A recent commitment by Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, may see a greater role for women in land-use decisions. In March 2018, Siti pledged to include a requirement for a gender impact assessment to be conducted as part of environmental impact assessments that must be undertaken before any development projects, including palm oil concessions, can be issued a full license to operate.

The minister’s commitment reflects a growing recognition that large-scale industrial plantations have uneven social impacts, with women disproportionately experiencing negative impacts including loss of control over sources of food and income, compounded by difficulties accessing social benefits. Such safeguards go some of the way to giving women in rural Indonesia greater decision-making powers over the land on which their livelihoods depend. If implemented, it could go some way to ensuring that the full implications of a development project for social inequalities and food security are considered, and to ensure that land acquisition is based on truly informed consent.


This story was produced under the EJN Asia-Pacific Story Grants 2018 with the support of Sweden/SIDA. A version of this story was published on Mongabay.

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