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Sustainable palm oil has improved the livelihoods of many rural families, including those coming from indigenous communities in Kalimantan. For Yadi, a smallholder from the sub-ethnic of Dayak Ngaju tribe, the high-yielding crop has helped him rewrite his life story: after years of struggle as a rubber grower and fisherman, he is finally able to find a stable source of income as an oil palm farmer in Seruyan.
Yadi, who goes by one name, thought that his best chance at a better life might have been to move from Sandul village in Batu Ampar sub-district, the hometown where he was born and raised. As a young man in his twenties, he wanted to see what was outside his comfort zone. And so in 1996, he joined the transmigrant program and moved to the nearby Sukorejo village which had been planned for the oil palm plantation development for private companies.
His life journey in the new village wasn’t smooth sailing.
Like everyone in his community in Sukorejo village, the ecological crisis has threatened his livelihoods and food supply. Yadi had to wrestle with the warming world and biodiversity loss, forcing him to change livelihoods several times to survive.
One time, he tried to cultivate rubber trees, but his plantation was destroyed by seasonal fires. Then he tried fishing in the nearby rivers, but it was barely enough to cover the living cost.
In the past, Yadi recalled, he noticed a spike in deforestation, which in turn damaged the rivers.
“As someone who used to go fishing for a living, I was very sad to see the rivers were being damaged,” Yadi said. “People cut down the trees along the river banks, which also harmed the wild animals nearby, including crocodiles. Then the crocodiles attacked humans.”
At last, in 2007, Yadi shifted his source of revenue to palm oil. He got an opportunity to work as a plasma smallholder for a local plantation company. The crop could bring promising profits that would let him cover the daily expenses of his family, including his three children. But it wasn’t an easy beginning.
Just like his rubber plantation, his oil palm plantation had to suffer from frequent fires in his early years as an oil palm farmer. He bought oil palm seeds from non-plasma farmers, but he struggled to sell his harvest to private companies because the fresh fruit bunches didn’t meet the standards.
Years later, Yadi finally received training on sustainable palm oil and improved his farming. It was only after adopting good agricultural practices, such as how to harvest fresh fruit bunches properly, and getting the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certificate that he began to enjoy a significant increase in yields and profits.
“Since I participated in the training, my yields and income have improved. Palm oil has been a pride for us farmers here,” said Yadi, who is also a damang, or a customary leader, in his community.
With sustainability certificates in their hand, smallholders can avoid exploitative middlemen and secure fairer prices for their fresh fruit bunches. Moreover, fertilizers, among the most important elements for the maximum crop production, have become more affordable for certified small farmers, too.
“I hope RSPO can still support our family,” Yadi said, adding that if the support for the fertilizer stops, that would affect his harvest.
In addition, there are lessons from the RSPO training that resonated with him deeply, including the principles of protecting the rivers and maintaining vegetation cover by planting trees along river banks. “That’s why I’m really proud of my RSPO certification,” he said. “I agree that we have to save the rivers.”
Besides being an oil palm farmer, Yadi works in the farmer cooperative with his fellow farmers and manages his small chicken farm. Juggling multiple jobs, Yadi now employs two trained agricultural workers to take care of his oil palms, while sometimes he would occasionally visit and check his 2.5-hectare plantation himself.
“I’m very proud to be a certified farmer,” he said. “It gives security and a better life for small farmers like me. I couldn’t imagine leaving palm oil.”