Charting a sustainable path in a land of peat, oil palm and pollution

Smallholder oil palm plantations are a common sight in Mandailing Natal, in Indonesia's North Sumatra province.

Smallholder oil palm plantations are a common sight in Mandailing Natal, in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

Editor’s note: In Indonesia, the world’s top palm oil producer, the crop is critically important to the livelihoods of the smallholder farmers who grow about 40 percent of it. But too often, palm oil represents a trade-off between economic expansion and clearing forest and peatland areas that are important for conservation, raising the question of how to expand production of a commodity like palm oil without degrading the environment.

Conservation International (CI) is tackling this problem through its Sustainable Landscapes Partnership (SLP) program, which works to reconcile the conservation of natural capital — the sources of the benefits that nature provides to people — while supporting sustainable development. In a recent interview, the senior technical advisor of CI Indonesia’s terrestrial program, Simon Badcock, explains how the SLP is helping preserve species-rich areas, reduce deforestation and educate farmers about how they can maximize productivity.

Question: Can you give us a brief background on the state of the palm oil industry in Indonesia and why it has expanded so much?

A: Palm oil’s rapid growth can be traced to two things: productivity and versatility. Not only is its production more land-efficient than other oils, it can be used by many industries in many different products, ranging from pharmaceuticals to foods like ice cream and cookies, to the products that we use every day it’s even in toothpaste. If you go into the supermarket, you’ll see it in almost everything.

However, in Indonesia large islands like Sumatra, Kalimantan and West Papua contain incredibly important areas for conservation they have a lot of unique plants and animals, they’re important for water, etc. And so as the palm oil industry has expanded rapidly over the last 10 or 15 years, there’s been significant deforestation and loss of biodiversity. So one of the challenges now for the country is figuring out how to create a development path that has less impact on the environment.

Q: Where does the SLP fit into this?

A: One of the great opportunities we have with the SLP is helping people understand and maximize production of these commodities, which supports their livelihoods while also benefiting the environment. In many instances farmers may not have access to information about how to grow certain commodities as effectively as possible. Together with partners, the SLP aims to close this information gap, clearly identify the risks posed to farmers by unsustainable palm oil production and help identify possible solutions to improve both the volumes that people are producing as well as the quality.

Part of the process is to focus on education, helping people understand that while palm oil is important, if you don’t balance production correctly, it will have negative consequences for the environment. When people produce a better-quality commodity, they can get more money — and if they recognize the ties between this higher-quality product and a healthier ecosystem, they won’t clear the land because they are being more productive on a smaller plot and don’t need to expand.

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Q: How does the SLP support help fight deforestation?

A: Much of the deforestation that many smallholder farmers contribute to is directly linked to the fact that they don’t have the production knowledge, support or access to markets, or they’re not producing the quality of product that allows them to get enough income. So one of the choices that they make is to clear mixed forest and replant it with oil palm trees.

Through the Sustainable Landscapes Partnership, we’re able to help farmers maximize their production, their quality and their access to markets. One critical point that SLP is currently addressing is the need to provide farmers with information about Indonesia’s legal requirements for palm oil cultivation, as well as the demand for sustainable palm oil that is not associated with deforestation or cultivation on peatland areas. Coupled with other efforts, such as working with governments on which lands are allocated for legal clearance, raising awareness of the value of standing forests for freshwater provision and directly linking productivity to conservation through conservation agreements, these actions collectively reduce deforestation.

Many smallholder farmers around the world rely on a monoculture or single crop such as palm oil. This dependence on a single crop can leave farmers vulnerable to an outbreak of pests or disease, or a drop in market prices. So one of our approaches through the SLP is to introduce farmers to mixed agroforestry systems that allow them to cultivate several crops within that system. For example, in North Sumatra we have farmers that, in addition to rubber and oil palm, also harvest and tap native sugar palm trees, which allows them to produce sugar. Through these agroforestry systems, we’re able to maximize the types of crops grown as well as the yields of those crops, providing farmers with more reliable sources of income.

But there’s an added benefit, too: These mixed agroforestry areas are typically in buffer zones on the edge of protected forest areas. The SLP is focusing on trying to increase the productivity of these buffer zones, which both help farmers and happen to be rich areas for biodiversity.

Palm oil fruit bunches harvested by a day laborer in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Palm oil fruit bunches harvested by a day laborer in Sumatra, Indonesia. (© David Gilbert)

Q: Forests aren’t the only type of ecosystem being converted into oil palm plantations in Indonesia — peatland areas are also being developed. Why is this a problem?

A: In places throughout Indonesia, whether on the island of Sumatra or Kalimantan, peatland areas contain large amounts of organic material that act like a sponge, soaking up and storing rainfall. Unfortunately, palm oil companies and smallholder farmers are clearing peatland areas, planting palm on the peat and then draining those peatland areas of water.

This changes the hydrology of that landscape and creates a fire risk because these areas become very dry. As you may have heard over the last year, Indonesia has been experiencing a lot of fires. And once a fire start in peat, it is incredibly difficult to extinguish; the fire then results in huge emissions of greenhouse gases that are contributing to climate change. So balancing and managing agricultural production in peatland areas is one of the SLP’s key priorities.

Q: What are you doing to address sustainable peatland cultivation?

A: One opportunity we’re exploring is how peat can potentially provide alternative livelihoods. In some cases, you can replant peatland areas. One of the things being considered is the need to re-flood areas of peat to manage or reduce the likelihood of fires. There are also opportunities to replant these areas with timber that can provide an alternative source of livelihood for people, as well as to fill them with fishponds. CI is looking at how to provide alternatives in places where developing peatland could be dangerous. The Indonesian government is also very committed to generating new policies and practices around peat.

Former peatlands near the coast in Tapanuli Selatan, North Sumatra, lie in wait for new oil palm plantations.

Former peatlands near the coast in Tapanuli Selatan, North Sumatra, lie in wait for new oil palm plantations. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

Q: What can the average person do to help ameliorate issues around palm oil and peat?

A: I think the average person can try to understand that there are many people in the world that depend on palm oil as a source of income so how can we think constructively about supporting those people? Palm oil itself is not the problem. Switching away from palm oil does not solve the problem, but simply shifts the challenges to other industries that are also dealing with issues of deforestation and sustainability.  However, the fact that oil palm is being grown on peat represents an opportunity to change production methods and do things differently.

We need to figure out the best way to produce palm oil and consumers can support this effort by supporting companies that are trying to move to responsible sources of palm oil. We have one planet, and we need to articulate that it’s a shared responsibility.

Simon Badcock is the senior technical advisor of CI Indonesia’s terrestrial program. Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for CI. 

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