Palm oil expansion in South Sumatra poses a threat to environment, local traditions

Purun harvester
South Sumatra, Indonesia
Palm oil expansion in South Sumatra poses a threat to environment, local traditions

The expansion of oil palm and timber plantations in a marshy area in South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district, has not only led to environmental harm – by increasing fires during the dry season – but also threatens a number of local traditions that have provided additional sources of livelihood for local communities.

Converting the peat marshland into plantations requires draining it of water, making the highly combustible organic matter that’s left prone to fires. While fires in the area were almost non-existent prior to the arrival of the plantations, they are now an annual event in the dry season. Conflicts over land use are also on the rise between local communities and plantation companies, environmental activists say.

Women in a number of villages in the Pedamaran Pampangan sub-district say the encroaching oil palm plantations have restricted the availability of the purun plant (eleocharis dulcis), which thrives on peatland. When dried, purun leaves are the main material used in the local Berembak mat-weaving tradition, which has helped supplement the meager incomes of farmers in the area who can only harvest their rice crop once a year.

Mat making in South Sumatra
Rusmi, a resident of Menang Raya Village in South Sumatra weaves a purun mat. Purun weaving has been a tradition among Pedamaran residents for generations and helps support the local economy / Credit: Ibrahim Arsyad

But as marshes retreat, purun are becoming harder to find, while those growing inside oil palm or timber concessions are off limits for harvesting. From the 1,200 hectares of purun territory in the sub-district, only about 200 hectares remain accessible to the local population.

In addition to mat-making, locals have earned supplemental incomes by producing sweets, cakes and oils from the milk of marsh buffalos.

But as the area covered by peatland has declined, so too have the number of buffalo, with local officials estimating that the population of nearly 5,000 buffaloes across three marshy sub-districts has been decreasing annually by the hundreds.

In the face of these challenges, local communities have called on the government to create policies to conserve the peat marshland and to stop issuing plantation permits. They’ve been encouraged by a program that works with local environmental organizations to raise awareness about the importance of peatland management.

In 2018 the South Sumatra provincial government did issue land burning and peat management regulations, though enforcement remains a challenge.

The full story was published in Indonesian at on 10 Dec. 2019.

Banner image: A purun harvester tethered his boat to a tree before harvesting the plant at the Arang Tetambun arbor in May / Credit: Ibrahim Arsyad


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