Dayak women farmers grapple with the impacts of oil palm plantations

Dayak women farmers grapple with the impacts of oil palm plantations

  • The village of Long Bentuk in Indonesian Borneo is almost completely surrounded by oil palm estates run by large companies.
  • While the impacts of being enclaved by oil palm has affected all people in the community, the effect on women has been particularly adverse.
  • A recent commitment by Indonesia’s environment and forestry minister may see a greater role for women in land-use decisions across the country.

“When oil palm was given out by the district head I didn’t accept it. I am still angry at the oil palm companies,” says Monica Mensea. At 83, Mensea is the oldest woman in her village of Long Bentuk, a Dayak Medang indigenous community in East Kalimantan, a province in Indonesian Borneo. Though her body is weakening and her brown eyes are cloudy with cataracts, Mensea’s mind is as sharp as ever. For nearly 20 years she led her community as the kepala adat (customary head) of Long Bentuk, in the administrative district of East Kutai. Despite her firm stance against converting land to industrial oil palm, today a corporate-run estate abuts her village’s land, where her community’s ancestral forest once stood. New pest infestations, oil palm plantations and climate change are all affecting local livelihoods and food availability. Women are suffering the most, through increased workloads and food shortages.

Oil palm explodes

Oil palm plantations have expanded voraciously in Indonesia, increasing by 4,500 square kilometers (1,740 square miles) per year from 1995 to 2015. Kahar Al Bahri, an activist with the Mining Advocacy Network, an NGO with a strong presence in East Kalimantan, is concerned that determination of land-use allocations pays little attention to natural features, such as rivers, or the land 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 landscapes to oil palm has extensive implications for the lives and livelihoods of land-dependent people who live in and around company concessions. Proponents of industrial oil palm emphasize its development benefits for rural areas. Last year, Awang Faroek Ishak, the outgoing governor of East Kalimantan (soon to be replaced by the recently elected Isran Noor, who was the East Kutai district head 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 East Kutai subdistrict of Busang, where Long Bentuk and five other villages are located, these programs have not emerged. Busang is not an anomaly — a recent study assessing the development contribution of oil palm indicates that even plantations certified to the highest industry standard, that awarded by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, have not led to a decrease in rural poverty, and that the number of healthcare facilities per capita declined between 2000 and 2014 in regions where oil palm has proliferated. While oil palm companies have been present in Busang for over a decade, still no state road connects to the city of Samarinda, where the nearest market, hospital, university and other services are located. The only access is through an endless timber plantation: a bone-rattling nine-hour drive through spindly acacia trees growing in uniform lines.

Vehicles ply the road to Busang in East Kalimantan province. Image by Tessa Toumbourou for Mongabay.

Indonesia’s 2001 decentralization laws gave local governments the authority to greenlight oil palm, logging and mining operations. This new power was not matched with support or the budget to ensure that companies delivered development contributions. Benefit arrangements are actually 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 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. 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 oil palm

In late January 2006, just weeks before he was to leave office, the then district head of East Kutai signed off on four oil palm 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 the Triputra Group. In Indonesia, larger companies create a number of smaller subsidiaries to get around laws that prohibit any single company from operating concessions larger than 200 square kilometers (77 square miles).

In Long Bentuk, it wasn’t until local residents discovered workers cutting trees in their ancestral forest that they realized their land had been issued permits for oil palm, according to Wang Beng, a Dayak Medang elder from Long Bentuk. A long struggle against the oil palm 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 traveling 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 oil palm,” said Mensea, the former long-serving kepala adat. This strategy of enclaving communities who refuse to release land is frequently taken by oil palm companies: Residents are left in place with just enough land for current generations to continue farming, at least in the short term.

Young oil palm trees grow where the Long Bentuk community’s ancestral forest once stood. Image by Tessa Toumbourou for Mongabay.

‘Empty pocket season’

The Dayak Medang community of Long Bentuk resides along the lowland 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,” Mensea said. “If there wasn’t swidden what would we eat?” 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 oil palm, 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 of rice seeds, a measure of 17 kilograms or 37 pounds, planted on a 1-hectare plot, about 2.5 acres, would yield an average of around 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.

Today, industrial oil palm plantations have replaced much of the village’s ancestral forest. 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 forest means there is less habitat for squirrels, pigs, monkeys and birds and they are hungry and eat swidden rice,” said 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 oil palm 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 a pile of 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 oil palm company looking to establish a plantation 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 chiefs, heads of farmers groups and religious leaders on the morning of the meeting — after most people 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 oil palm, rattan is increasingly difficult to find. Lina is adapting to weaving with plastic instead.

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 oil palm began upstream,” Lina observed. Where the forest floor previously absorbed the region’s heavy rains, the conversion of forests upstream of the village means that more water now washes into the rivers, and the silt from erosion has thickened the riverbed, making it shallower and prone to frequent flooding. “When it rains, because the oil palm companies are on higher land than us here, the chemicals are carried down to here,” she said. “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 oil palm plantations has put a price on land, turning it into a finite resource. Where in the past households could easily find an unused plot to plant 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 impacts, it is the role of women to ensure a household has enough to eat. Weeding swidden plots is now more time-consuming, but necessary to ensure that the weeds don’t choke out the rice. Lina’s neighbor, Leng, said she thought oil palm “brings only negative impacts. Before there was oil palm, 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.”

Cross-section of an oil palm fruitlet in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


Weeding swidden takes up the time the 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 diligently pruned, fertilized and weeded to maintain yield. The increased prevalence of flooding and changes to the water table from oil palm upstream also has an impact, according to Darwis, the village’s main cocoa buyer. “Cocoa has reduced massively since oil palm moved in,” he said. “Now we are only getting 5 tons a month (from a total of 200 tons a month), making this a reduction of [more than] 95 percent.”

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 the 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 on to her land. “When the oil palm 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.” Other women shared this view, that their priority was to control their income from the land — and that by relinquishing it to the oil palm companies they’d lose this ability. They knew from communities nearby they would not have access to paid work in plantations, even if they wanted it, because companies deem women over 40 too old to perform strenuous maintenance work. “The tiring work is crippling, going up and down hills carrying heavy sacks of fertilizer. We’d send them broke,” Leng said of her preference to continue farming rather than see her customary land released to companies. Many were also cautious that the local village administration wasn’t effective enough to ensure that any benefits agreed on in exchange for land would end up distributed equitably. Without a robust agreement, they couldn’t be sure the benefits from palm oil would outweigh the impacts to their livelihoods.

Left out

In 2017, no women had formal roles on the village administration in Long Bentuk. This made it hard for women to share their voice, said Agnes, a farmer and schoolteacher 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 their 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 their silence in public forums did not mean they had no preferences for land use and development, Mary said. “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,” Mary said. “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, norms and taboos, and women’s household and care responsibilities that often leave them with less time during the day to attend formal meetings. 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 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 by companies before any development projects, including oil palm plantations, 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.

Banner: Oil palm fruit in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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