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Higher incomes driving Indonesian smallholders to oil palm and rubber

  • Interviews with more than 460 farming households led the scientists to conclude that farmers making the switch to a single crop chasing better incomes.
  • More than 40 scientists from Indonesia, Switzerland, New Zealand and Germany were involved in the research.
  • The research is part of the EFForTS project, based at the University of Göttingen in Germany.

Most of the attention paid to oil palm in Southeast Asia centers on big plantations set up by big companies, and it’s almost uniformly bad for the environment. But less information surfaces about the effects of small-scale oil palm, even as more people switch to farming this crop exclusively.

New research confirms that, as is often the case for large-scale oil palm, the move toward small-scale oil palm-focused farming in Indonesia is coming at the expense of rainforest, and the soil and water quality, carbon storage and wildlife habitat that it provides. For the 464 households in Jambi province on the island of Sumatra interviewed in the study, scientists found that the higher incomes associated with cultivating a single profitable crop were luring many farmers away from more traditional practices.

There’s an “agricultural boom going on,” said Yann Clough, an ecologist at Lund University in Sweden, who is the lead author of the study. There, he said, word has gotten out about how profitable this type of farming can be.

Recent conversion of rainforests to oil palm plantations in the province of Jambi, Indonesia, is threatening not only the forests but also the services it provides. Photo courtesy of Yann Clough
Recent conversion of rainforests to oil palm plantations in the province of Jambi, Indonesia, is threatening not only the forests but also the services it provides. Photo courtesy of Yann Clough

“You have these success stories, which are absolutely fantastic, that are exerting a strong pull on the rest of the population,” Clough said in an interview with Mongabay.

It’s even touched of the migration of people from other islands in the Indonesian archipelago. “You’re seeing these smallholders who were very poor and started planting oil palm 20 years ago, and now are able to put their children into higher education.”

The research “reconfirms what most people working in this landscape already know” about the impact of small-scale farming, said Janice Lee, an environmental scientist at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore who was not involved with the study.

Agroforestry, such as 'jungle rubber' plots here in Indonesia, provide much richer habitat for biodiversity than mono-cropped oil palm or rubber trees. Photo courtesy of Yann clough
Agroforestry, such as ‘jungle rubber’ plots here in Indonesia, provide much richer habitat for biodiversity than mono-cropped oil palm or rubber trees. Photo courtesy of Yann Clough

However, Lee said, in fleshing out the what is happening to the ecosystem, they’ve added to our understanding of the ripple effects of forest conversion on this scale.

For example, the team quantified how much nitrogen gets siphoned out of the soil due to heavy fertilizer use, which is important for maintaining the productivity of oil palm monocultures. Clough and his colleagues also looked in-depth at biodiversity on these small farms, comparing it with what would be found in pristine forest using what’s known as a naturalness index, and probing the genetic diversity of plants found on oil palm plots, Lee pointed out.

“We’re seeing very rapid transitions in how people manage their crops,” Clough said. “This is the case in Jambi, where we’re seeing this transition from these very nice – from a biodiversity point of view – agroforestry jungle rubber plots, which are being converted to monocultures of oil palm and rubber.”

These “jungle rubber” plots, while not primary forest, score much better on biodiversity scales because they don’t necessitate the exclusion of other plants. Like oil palm, monocultures of rubber don’t support much biodiversity, though they don’t require the amount of fertilizer that oil palm does, Clough said.

This study is the latest to come out of a multinational collaboration based at the University of Göttingen in Germany (Clough’s former research home) called Ecological and Socioeconomic Functions of Tropical Lowland Rainforest Transformation Systems – EFForTS – aimed at better understanding the changes occurring in Indonesia’s rainforests.

Three Indonesian institutions, the University of Jambi, the Institute Pertanian Bogor (an agricultural university), and the University of Tadulako in Palu, are also involved.

Indonesia is particularly affected by plantation agriculture, with much of the archipelago demarcated by concessions. Subsequent land-use change has led to significant losses of the country’s forests and contributed to the declines of iconic, now-endangered animals like the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus), which are found nowhere else in the word.

The province of Jambi is heavily affected by plantations. Data from the University of Maryland visualized on Global Forest Watch show that around 1.8 million hectares — 37 percent — of the province still had primary forest as of 2000. But between 2005 and 2014, around 413,000 hectares of that was lost. In other words, Jambi lost 23 percent of its primary forest in a decade.

Jambi Province occupies Sumatra’s midsection, and still contains relatively large tracts of primary forest. However, tree cover loss is rife in the region, resulting both from direct deforestation and plantation harvesting. While neighboring provinces still had large areas of mangroves as of 2000, Jambi’s are comparatively fragmented.

Just how to deal with the shift toward monocultures is an open question. And it’s not a problem specific to Southeast Asia, as scientists mapping the expansion of small-scale oil palm in Peru recently discovered.

In the paper, Clough and his colleagues call for more government regulation about where this type of expansion can occur, as well as ensuring that it’s not ruining fertile agricultural lands, to handle what he calls the “Europeanization of Indonesian agriculture landscapes.”

Lee agreed that enforcement is key, along with “really directing production to places that are less pristine – for example, places that have already been cleared.”

Without that control, she said, the government is relying on farmers, many of whom are poor, to choose more sustainable – yet less profitable in the near future – farming methods.

“It’s very difficult for people to voluntarily choose an option that provides them benefits in the long-term but not in the short term,” Lee said.



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Banner image by Yann Clough

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