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Dayak women of Indonesia resist gender inequality exacerbated by palm oil production

Oil palm fruit in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Oil palm fruit in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

  • A study published in February examines how women are disproportionately impacted by palm oil development in rural Indonesia.
  • Despite the unequal social and economic pressures brought on by encroaching oil palm plantations, indigenous Dayak women have found diverse and creative strategies to sustain their livelihoods.
  • By “staying put and carrying on,” Dayak women have demonstrated resistance to the domination of resources by palm oil companies and thus further reinforced the value of the land outside of the formal economy.

In the rural Indonesian village of Hongoi*, indigenous Dayak Modang women like Lina* have had to come up with creative ways to continue their long-held tradition of weaving. Some Dayak women use their skills to sell or exchange their crafts as a source of income. In the absence of the forest materials necessary for this practice, many women have replaced traditional materials like rattan vines with things like single-use plastic cups and straws.

“Finding the plastic is the hardest part,” Lina told Tessa Toumbourou, a researcher from the University of Melbourne, as quoted in a study published in February in Asia Pacific Viewpoint. “Once I have them, weaving them together is easy, it only takes a few nights.”

The study examines the relationship between palm oil development and increased gender division in Hongoi, East Kalimantan province, where the Modang community resides. The Modang are a subgroup of the Dayak Kayanic group, who have lived in the area dating back to the 16th century.

The palm oil boom that started in the 2000s brought large-scale deforestation to the region and increasingly diminished access to materials and resources that people once gathered from ancestral forest landscapes.

Researchers focused on three main factors that influenced how palm oil impacted men and women differently: social inequality, livelihood strategies, and food security. The basis of this research was formed on feminist political ecology and it emphasized the act of “sustaining livelihoods,” despite the pressures of palm oil development, as an act of resistance.

A new section of palm oil being opened for plasma. Photo courtesy of Tessa Toumbourou.

Lead author Toumbourou emphasizes the importance of the Modang community’s ability to maintain the productivity and cultural significance of their land.

“Holding onto their land and continuing to sustain a livelihood in these times is an act of resistance,” she said in an interview. “Communities are under intense pressure to be assimilated into the palm oil industry … In such conditions, many assume that communities would inevitably give up.” By choosing to maintain their socioeconomic status on their own terms instead of being absorbed into the palm oil industry as landless laborers, they are actively resisting the allocation of resources into external markets.

Over the past decade, all neighboring villages eventually conceded land to oil palm plantations, and Hongoi became completely surrounded by oil palms. In Hongoi and elsewhere in the region, companies have taken advantage of ambiguity in the precise location of village borders to encroach on ancestral forests and farmland.

“Though there are different views across the village about how — and whether — to negotiate with palm oil companies, no one wanted to give up their village land entirely, as this would mean the loss of their autonomy as farmers and their cultural practices and knowledge,” Toumbourou said. “By sustaining livelihoods, women are also helping to prevent the need for their village to release land to companies and become landless laborers.”

Swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture and cash crops like cocoa, banana and coffee have long been common sources of food and income in the Dayak community. Villagers would also gather food and materials from the forest and nearby river. However, as oil palm plantations have replaced forest landscapes, the loss of resources, as well as the loss of ecosystem services, have threatened main livelihood staples.

“A lot of rural smallholders want to engage in lucrative cash crop production to increase their income over time, but without necessarily giving up their ancestral lands,” co-author Wolfram Dressler, also from the University of Melbourne, told Mongabay. Oftentimes people are not wholly for one or the other. “They are usually somewhere in the middle,” he said. Dressler adds that it is important to recognize the false dichotomy that is often portrayed between customary and modern agribusiness production.

Being able to maintain small-scale income streams despite encroaching oil palm plantations is “socially, politically, and economically empowering,” he said, “but [rural communities] are going to be subject to massive cost constraints and it’s going to be increasingly difficult to thrive in rural landscapes.”

Gendered implications

Reciprocated labor planting of swidden – women and men perform distinct but equally important roles. Photo courtesy of Tessa Toumbourou.

A similar study conducted in West Kalimantan province finds that although experiences can be diverse, based on certain factors such as age, ethnicity, social status, and so on, women are especially vulnerable to palm oil development. A few of the ways in which women are disproportionately impacted by palm oil is that they have unequal access to land, resources, and opportunities. Pre-existing social norms in which women’s labor is consistently devalued and underpaid have been exacerbated by palm oil development. Dayak women are also frequently excluded from leadership roles and public forums where decision-making takes place and their interests are often underrepresented in these spaces.

Before the palm oil industry took off here, indigenous peoples’ communal land ownership was not formally recognized by the state as village adat (elders) were customarily in charge of granting people permission to claim land. Despite Dayak communities having customary claims to the region, palm oil companies were able to acquire government permits to develop huge tracts of land. This has created a shift within communities from local adat to state control.

Formal land titling has direct consequences for women because the state views women as dependents of their husbands, meaning often only the husband’s name appears on land titles. Without formal titles in their name, women cannot defend or reclaim land if their husband dies. Having reduced and unequal access to land means women have less access to certain livelihood opportunities like swiftlet farming (to cultivate edible birds’ nests) or oil palm farming.

A Dayak Modang woman husking cocoa. Photo courtesy of Tessa Toumbourou.

Before the arrival of palm oil, Dayak men and women had a more equal division of labor. Women were expected to weed and maintain swidden crops like rice, but these tasks have now become more intensive and time-consuming than before, according to Dayak women.

Villagers have observed more frequent flooding, likely due to the loss of a forest buffer and increased erosion. The loss of forest habitat has resulted in increased competition with wildlife, which turn to crops as a food source. With reduced access to land, Dayak communities also have to rely on the same fields for crop cultivation year after year instead of cycling between plots as they normally would. According to villagers quoted in the Asia Pacific View study, this has resulted in depleted and weed-ridden soil that results in lower yields.

Crops are harder to cultivate and women must spend more time weeding, which gives them less time for other responsibilities like fishing, securing other food sources for their families, or investing time in other income-generating activities.

Livelihood strategies

The village entrance from the river pier. Photo courtesy of Tessa Toumbourou.

Vegetable gardening, basket weaving, and beadwork are three predominant, creative strategies that have emerged as a means for women to sustain livelihoods. Women have found creative ways to maintain their livelihoods by replacing forest materials with plastic and gardening near their homes because it is more efficient.

These examples highlight Dayak women’s efforts to continue sustaining their own livelihoods on their own land. As Toumbourou explains, “it challenges a persistent state narrative that rural people are unproductive, and don’t work as they aren’t engaged in the formal economy.” She said a government official justified this arrangement by saying that oil palm expansion “would provide otherwise idle, rural women [with] jobs.”

“This assumption ignores the work that women do on their farms, in their homes, and to support their communities and cultural practices,” Toumbourou said.

By continuing to occupy the land despite uneven economic pressures, women are also emphasizing the land as an important resource and an essential part of their cultural identity. This practice is often overlooked in favor of more visible forms of high-profile protest. However, by doing so this ignores the contributions of marginalized women who face unequal challenges from extractive industries, but whose actions challenge how land is allocated and utilized.

* The study notes that the “name of the village and respondents have been changed to ensure anonymity.”

Banner image: Oil palm fruit in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.


Toumbourou, T. D., & Dressler, W. H. (2020). Sustaining livelihoods in a palm oil enclave: Differentiated gendered responses in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Asia Pacific Viewpoint. doi:10.1111/apv.12265

De Vos, R., & Delabreb, I. (2018). Spaces for participation and resistance: Gendered experiences of oil palm plantation development. Geoforum, 96, 217-226. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2018.08.011

Jenkins, K. (2017) Women anti-mining activists’ narratives of everyday resistance in the Andes: Staying put and carrying on in Peru and Ecuador. Gender, Place & Culture, 24(10), 1441-1459. doi:10.1080/0966369x.2017.1387102

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