It Takes a Village – Reducing deforestation while improving livelihoods

Is it possible to increase production yields, and livelihoods, for smallholder oil palm farmers without further deforestation, thereby achieving economic development without environmental degradation? Solidaridad, with support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, is demonstrating that it is. But, it truly takes a village to make it work; actually, quite a number of villages, in four districts (Sintang, Senggau, Sekadau and Melawi) of West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Oil palm plantations with fresh fruit bunches

Indonesia produces more palm oil than any other country and roughly 35% of the national output is grown by smallholder farmers. Global demand for palm oil continues to rise, making the cultivation of relatively profitable oil palm irresistible to farmers. With some of the oldest rainforests in the world, and huge peat swamp forests along much of the coastal areas, the expansion of oil palm production on Kalimantan (also known as Borneo) is threatening the very existence of these pristine natural areas. So, unless we can increase production, without taking over more land for cultivation, the growth is not sustainable.

Developing local solutions for sustainable production

In 2015, Solidaridad explored sites in Indonesia for a pilot programme to assess the potential reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and avoided deforestation by improving the productivity of smallholder oil palm farmers. The West Kalimantan province was selected for this programme and in 2016, the programme was launched. Working with a broad range of partners including the oil palm farmers union Serikat Petani Kelapa Sawit (SPKS), the Credit Union Keling Kumang (CUKK), various cooperatives, local and regional governments and many others, a truly participative approach was rolled out.

Oil palm farmers receive training in good agricultural practices

Many of Kalimantan’s smallholders are farming in peatlands or adjacent to forested areas, thereby posing a significant threat of further deforestation and accelerating greenhouse gas emissions. To improve their livelihoods, they were constantly in search of more land to cultivate, encroaching on the surrounding forests. The project’s approach was to increase productivity on existing farms,without violation of the remaining natural lands. Through education, training, introduction of better seed stock and good agricultural practices, the objective was to enable farmers to be more productive on their current lands, but only in conjunction with their commitment to avoid further expansion into the surrounding forests.

The project trained farmers in good production practices ranging from on-farm planning to planting to harvest management. The farmers also received training in financial and business management, along with receiving improved access to loans specially designed to suit their needs. Over 500 farmers have been trained so far.

Farmers receive training in forest management and mapping

Addressing forest conservation using technology

The critical component of the project was getting the villages to buy into the protection and management of forests. Previously, poor communication and a lack of ownership by the community and regulatory authorities led to indiscriminate land clearing.  Hence, the project focused on educating both villagers and village officials about the importance of forests and encouraged them to adopt a collective management approach.

They were also involved in a process to map the forests, using both ground mapping and drones. Farmers were trained in the use of GPS devices to directly assist in mapping their own farms. Once mapped, a plan to manage the surrounding forests was developed and agreed to in a series of workshops attended by villagers, village leaders, religious leaders and many others. The maps and plans were reviewed collectively and all participants agreed to abide by the agreement. The mapping and data collection activity will continue to keep track of the state of the forests and utilize the information to improve project implementation.

Farmers have also been encouraged to cultivate other commercial crops to supplement their incomes from oil palm, such as the Borneo bean and the Areca nut, which can be grown without the need to clear additional land.

Solidaridad Indonesia team and the Keling Kumang Group (KKG) on a field visit to the Krabi Oil-Palm Farmers’ Cooperative Federation in Thailand

Continuous education and government support essential

But production is only the first step in the chain. Many of the farmers have no direct access to a mill and must sell their fresh fruit bunches to middlemen, often at depressed prices, leaving them with lower incomes. The collective dream for the farmers is to own and operate their own mill and recently, a number of them travelled to Thailand to learn from a cooperatively owned mill established there. In the meantime, the programme is working to improve access to mills, and eliminating or reducing the role of middlemen, thus allowing farmers to retain greater value from their crops.

The farmers who have participated in the programme have formed an alumni association that will foster the continued exchange of ideas and best practices and serve as a vehicle to allow their voices to be heard. Field visits to successful farms of alumni have been organized. Local and regional governments have also been very supportive of the effort, as avoiding deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, and promoting rural development are high on their list of priorities. The project partners are also involved in advocacy activities at the national level to enhance support to smallholders by way of more favourable policies.

Farmers taking a survey

An integrated approach to development

With a solid foundation established for the project over the last two years, the third phase of the programme will expand the effort, bringing further training and reaching more farmers. The goal is to reduce GHG emissions by more than 20% while increasing productivity by at least 20%. In other words, producing more with less, a major pillar in all the work that Solidaridad undertakes.

The key to success, however, is taking a holistic approach. Only by ensuring that the villages have an adequate livelihood can we expect them to help safeguard the forests and peatlands amongst which they live, but it really does take the whole village to make it work.

Learn more about Solidaridad programmes supported by North American partners

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