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Postcards from the field – reflections about sustainable palm oil

Posted: Nov 30, 2016 3 minute read Clairie Ng

At the end of her field trip, Clairie reflects on what she has learnt

We wrapped up our visit to the methane capture facility. Pak Gotz and I had separate flights to catch. I left Pekanbaru tired but happy with valuable insights and connections.

Palm oil in the Indonesian context

To someone entirely new to palm oil, one might be quick to judge it as an evil industry, responsible for tropical deforestation, the decline of orang utans and the hellish haze. But aside from all that I had seen on the ground in the last few days, I would also like to point out the context in which palm oil companies operate in Indonesia.

Palm oil is a lucrative generator of income for the country, an important source of employment and a crucial driver of economic progress in villages across provinces. As such, to facilitate productivity, the government allocated land to large private palm oil companies. These are called concessions which demarcate where each company can operate.


Workers gathering palm oil fresh fruit bunches

But having these concessions is not equivalent to having absolute land rights. Thus, private companies still have to engage neighbouring villages or desas, when they are carrying out palm oil plantation activities. The company has to build close ties with the local communities to ensure long term sustainable management of the plantation.

This leads to another important caveat in this arrangement which is that villagers are free to cut down forests as long as land rights belong to them. Why do they cut down trees? They do so mainly to survive- to obtain timber to build homes, to clear land for crops; or at times more insidiously, they slash and burn to grow their own palm plantations. And when forests are burned, the companies owning the concession can be implicated and NGOs can easily attribute deforestation to these ‘evil conglomerations’ and lambast them in public.

As a proud environmental science major, I am in no way defending private companies nor am I taking sides with any organisation. I am merely pointing out that there are two sides to every coin and more than one frame with which to view reality on the ground. While there is no way for a company to truly be 100 percent sustainable, NGOs also have vested interests in calling out the bad guys.

Sustainability can save money

After all I had seen on my field trip, I believe even more firmly that sustainability is not a cost but a form of savings in the long run. From the recycled energy harnessed from the methane and kernel husks, to the cost savings in mineral fertiliser, there is so much to learn from our environment.

Seeing the palm trees up close also made me realize how much I have taken food production for granted. It brings me back to the time in US when my friends laughed when I told them my fruits were sourced from the supermarket. It never occurred to me that my fruits came from an actual field, somewhere in the world.

Where our food is grown is a topic that many people in the cities take for granted and don’t give much thought to. It’s not a sexy subject but I think it is absolutely important to be connected to where our food comes from. How we use the land is a question everyone must ask. If we remain detached from our land, I don’t think we can be true stewards of our environment. With this in mind, there is no black and white in sustainability. Just a path forward with compromise and cooperation.

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