Including Independent Smallholders in Sustainable Palm Oil

Various farmer empowerment programs deployed in Central Kalimantan seek to engage independent oil palm smallholders in a sustainable and inclusive supply chain, which in turn will improve their livelihoods and help end deforestation.

A discussion meeting about high conservation values for independent smallholders in Sukorejo village in Seruyan, Central Kalimantan

In Indonesia, independent smallholders manage around 40 percent of the total oil palm plantations. However, these farmers who manage small plots of land independently often face challenges in implementing sustainable practices. Only a few of them have access to information on good sustainable farming practices and inputs. 

Moreover, smallholders live in rural regions across the country, resulting in many of them being left out of the sustainability efforts in the palm oil industry. They are also less likely to have clear proof of land ownership, have limited resources to get sustainability certificates, and often are clueless how to access program assistance.

That’s why it is important to work with independent smallholders, addressing the problems from the bottom up, to advance inclusion and sustainability in the palm oil supply chain.

Inobu, a non-profit research institute, has worked with thousands of small-scale oil palm farmers across Central Kalimantan, training them to establish and run a strong farmer organization that will help smallholders get their sustainability certification.

The nonprofit research institute is aiming to help certify 2,500 farmers in Seruyan and Kotawaringin Barat districts as part of the Mosaik Initiative funded by Unilever.

The efforts to include smallholders in certification schemes, like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO), have been made possible by farmer organizations. 

Farmer organizations provide capacity training programs for small-scale farmers ranging from good agricultural practices to organizational skills. They also aim to provide better quality agricultural inputs and seedlings for member farmers, which can increase their yields and incomes. They also help members to connect to bigger markets, allowing smallholders to benefit from high premium prices for their fresh fruit bunches. 

Smallholders, many of whom don’t have land ownership, which is the requirement for certification, struggle to enter certification schemes. Farmer organizations also try to address this gap, assisting and connecting smallholders to relevant parties in handling legality documentation of their plantations. 

If farmers have land tenure but have used their land as collateral to secure a loan from a bank, farmer organizations will coordinate with the village administration to help farmers obtain a copy of their land certificate from the bank. In another case, if farmers don’t have a land certificate yet but they have managed the land for over 10 years, farmer organizations will connect farmers to the village administration to obtain a certificate under the agrarian reform program known as TORA. 

Farmer organizations train smallholders on high conservation values to reduce sustainability impacts in palm oil production

Moreover, among the main goals of farmer empowerment is reducing deforestation in oil palm plantations. That means there should be no new planting in primary forests or areas of high conservation value (HCV). Instead, farmers are taught how to increase their harvests with existing fields through good agricultural practice training, high-quality seedlings, fertilizers, and pesticides. 

With the bottom-up approach, farmer organizations can mentor and engage with the farmers better. Not only that, these organizations also have room for maneuver, allowing them to choose different ways in empowering the farmers.

Farmers in Lada Mandala Jaya village, for instance, are developing an integrated oil palm and cow system to produce organic fertilizers, a business opportunity that can be adopted by other oil palm farmers groups. This helps diversify income for farmers and provides jobs for the locals.

This way smallholders can adopt sustainable agriculture principles, maximize the output of their existing land, and stop clearing new land to expand their plantations.

As palm oil has helped many small farmers improve their livelihoods, we need to push the supply chain in a more inclusive and sustainable direction. Farmer organizations can be a driving force to realize sustainability in the palm oil industry at a larger scale, making it possible to trace deforestation-free palm oil from independent smallholders.