Postcards from the Field – an encounter with plasma smallholders
In Part One of “Postcards from the Field”, GAR intern and Environmental Science student, Clarie Ng, takes a trip to Libo, Riau and meets some plasma farmers.
My journey begins with a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Jakarta to Pekanbaru. In Indonesia, visiting a plantation requires considerable patience, endurance and the ability to sleep on bumpy car rides – a skill which I fortunately have. We turn in for a good night’s rest in Pekanbaru to prepare for the next day.
The field trip is meant to introduce TOTAL, the French oil company, to the workings of sustainable palm oil in the hopes of convincing them to become partners with GAR. At 7am, we pick the TOTAL team up from the airport.
In the car, Pak Gotz, the head of upstream sustainability in GAR, talks about the challenges of sustainable palm oil. This includes constant pressure from NGOs to go above and beyond current sustainability goals. The problem is that they barely give any time for current sustainable policies to bear fruit before moving on to other demands and requests. He comments that NGOs should familiarise themselves with the reality in the field before moving the goal posts. I can’t help but agree, having grown up in this sprawling Indonesian archipelago. Traveling to plantations is a huge hassle, let alone implementing and testing out new sustainability policies and monitoring.
The first item on our agenda is meeting farmers that are on GAR’s plasma scheme. This scheme is a farmer’s cooperative programme where smallholders operate under GAR management. GAR shares seeds and expertise from agricultural specialists with them. These farmers will then grow palm oil Fresh Fruit Bunches which they sell to GAR.
An important benefit of this scheme is the big increase in productivity as palm estates belonging to small farmers are often low-yielding, unhealthy or old. Under the scheme, they replant with GAR’s palm varieties which provides consistent good yields. To replant the palm, current old and unhealthy palms are cut down and trimmed into 15cm wood chips before being deposited in between the newly replanted trees as organic fertiliser and moisture retention.
Legumes and ferns are also strategically planted in the new fields to prime the land for the next cycle of planting. These plants help with nitrogen fixation in the soil as they capture nitrogen gas and convert it into organic nitrogen, a form which the palm tree can absorb and assimilate. To summarise, the plasma scheme converts land already being used for palm oil into more productive plantations through better agronomic expertise and practices. From a macroeconomic perspective, more Crude Palm Oil (CPO) can be produced without encroaching on forests, resulting in more revenue while keeping forests intact.
We break for lunch at the company’s mess at Libo (our accommodation for the night). I was prepared for a rustic field experience but to my relief, the company ‘mess’ was equivalent to a villa. It was well furnished with more than 10 guest rooms, a spacious living room and three dining tables. Appreciative of how lucky we were, Pak Gotz, the TOTAL team and I enjoyed our Indonesian meal immensely. On a side note, it was great to see the French adventurously try Salak (snake fruit) and Indonesian bananas for the first time. The appreciation on their faces made me proud of my Indonesian heritage.
Join Clarie as she continues her trip in the next instalment of “Postcards from the Field”.