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Advances from oil palm interests leave Sulawesi village unmoved

  • The village of Rumbia has repeatedly turned down advances from oil palm companies who want to develop their land.
  • Even officials from the local government have tried to convince Rumbia to try oil palm, but residents have remained steadfast.
  • Instead, they grow timber species and harvest palm sugar. Last year, the village received an environmental prize from the president.

One March morning on the island of Sulawesi, not long after Yerri Otoluwa was appointed acting head of Rumbia village, two men she didn’t know arrived on her doorstep.

“Can I help you?” the 34-year-old woman asked her visitors, who introduced themselves as officials from the local branch of Indonesia’s land agency.

The men said they wanted to do a land survey. “Rumbia has been zoned for oil palm,” one of them informed her.

Yerri was surprised, but she told them not to worry – the people of Rumbia wanted nothing to do with oil palm plantations.

“Why not?” one of them persisted. “Palm oil is good for the community.”

“According to you it’s good,” she retorted. “But according to us it’s not good.”

“Why do you reject palm oil?”

“Look, we don’t want it,” Yerri repeated, her voice beginning to rise.

After 15 minutes, the men gave up and left, Yerri told Mongabay. The survey would have to wait.

A street in Rumbia on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The village has turned down repeated advances from oil palm interests. Photo by Christopel Paino

Residents of Rumbia, a village of 533 families a few hours from the city of Gorontalo in the eponymous province, have been saying no to oil palm companies for years. Usually, it’s representatives from the companies themselves who come in hopes of persuading local people to part with the rights to their land.

In response to the advances, the citizens of Rumbia held a meeting to discuss the proposals. In the end, they decided to go a different direction.

“The community has already formed forest farmers’ groups,” Yerri said. “We get a lot of benefits from the forest.”

Indeed, residents’ livelihoods are entwined with the trees. In 2012, 279 of the village’s 15,000 hectares were zoned as community plantation forests, known as HTR. Here, farmers plant white jabon (Anthocephalus cadamba) and red jabon (Anthocephalus macrophyllus), timber species they log for sale locally.

According to Hitler Bilatula, head of Rumbia’s Harapan Jaya 1 farmers group, the community-run timber initiative is part of an effort to reduce the activities of logging companies, which have been active in the area since the 1980s.

“Now we want to safeguard the forest ourselves,” said Hitler, who once worked for a timber company himself. “We don’t want outsiders taking our wood.”

Ismail Hasan, who works with the AgFor Sulawesi program. Photo by Christopel Paino

In recognition of their efforts, in 2014 the village won first place in two categories in the Forestry Ministry’s (since merged with the Environment Ministry) Wana Lestari competition for sustainable forest management.

“The forest farmers group won for utilizing non-timber forest products, namely palm sugar,” said Yerri, who alongside Yance Djafar, a farmers group member, met then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and represented Rumbia in the acceptance ceremony in Jakarta last year.

“Our palm sugar is the best in Gorontalo,” she added.

Aside from sugar production, Rumbia residents use palm trees to make a traditional alcoholic drink called cap tikus – to the ire of some villagers who consider the drink haram, or forbidden by Islamic law. Police raids are frequent.

“If the people make cap tikus, they’re summoned to the police station. But if they make palm sugar they’re invited to Jakarta,” Yance joked.

Like the community-logged timber, palm sugar is sold in the local market, by the seed rather than by the kilogram. A single seed goes for about 10,000 rupiah ($0.73), but prices can drop unexpectedly, forcing locals to tighten their belts.

Red palm sugar is prepared by farmers in Rumbia, who say their product is the region’s best. Photo by Christopel Paino

In addition to the community logging and non-timber product output, there are plans to make water more accessible for locals.

Despite Rumbia’s abundant water supply, much of it is pumped to neighboring districts and to the coastal tourist center of Bolihutuo, which raises prices.

According to Ismail Hasan, a participant in a five-year sustainable livelihoods project known as AgFor Sulawesi, which is funded by the Canadian government and implemented by the World Agroforestry Center, locals are lobbying the local water authority to lower prices from 2,350 rupiah to 1,300 rupiah per cubic meter.

Since 2014, the program has educated local farmers on how to curb illegal logging, fight wildfires and maintain a healthy balance between production and conservation.

The inculcation of these principles has created a bulwark against oil palm firms seeking a foothold in the village.

“We learned from other regions that letting oil palm companies onto our territory will only create conflict,” Yerri said. In neighboring Pohuwato district, “oil palm only has brought conflict and turned people into laborers,” she added.

“We are thrilled we have been able to establish HTR forests, so people can make use of the forest for their own benefit. Given the clear status of these forests, people can now be assured of a better future.”


Christopel Paino. “Hutan Rakyat yang Membanggakan Desa Rumbia.” Mongabay-Indonesia. 29 April 2015.