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New book by Mongabay Indonesia & Kaoem Telapak investigates palm oil industry

A worker sorts through harvested oil palm.

A worker sorts through harvested oil palm. Image by Ricky Martin/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • A new book by Mongabay Indonesia and NGO Kaoem Telapak looks at five main issues in Indonesia’s palm oil industry.
  • The book is written by 23 journalists who went to 20 palm oil-producing regions in Indonesia to investigate the industry.
  • Among the issues highlighted in the book are land conflicts and deforestation.

JAKARTA — Indonesia has made strides in developing its plantation industry, catapulting the country into the world’s largest producer of palm oil. Its sprawling plantations produce more than half of the palm oil consumed by the global market.

With the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations come a number of issues, from deforestation to agrarian conflicts.

A new book produced by Mongabay Indonesia and environmental NGO Kaoem Telapak tries to capture those issues.

The book, titled in Indonesian “Di Antara Janji Kesejahteraan dan Dampak Sosial Lingkungan”, is written by 23 journalists who went to 20 palm oil-producing regions in Indonesia to investigate the industry.

“Why did we collaborate with Mongabay in this book? Because we all know that palm oil is a main commodity [of Indonesia], which contributes significantly to the country’s GDP and also job creation,” Kaoem Telapak director Mardi Minangsari said during a recent online discussion of the book. “But we can’t close our eyes to the problems that plague this industry.”

The book covers five main topics. The first focuses on issues that palm oil farmers face. The second highlights conflicts between local communities and palm oil companies.

Third is the ecological and environmental impact of the palm oil industry, such as forest loss and pollution.

Fourth, the journalists dug into the relationship between palm oil farmers and companies and how firms sometimes don’t make good on their promises.

Lastly, the writers looked at some of the initiatives that farmers have taken in cultivating their plantations in a sustainable manner.

“Like it or not, there are still many issues in Indonesia’s palm oil industry, regardless if there’s black campaign or not,” Mardi said, referring to the claim from top government officials in Indonesia that there’s been a smear campaign targeted at the commodity.

Abetnego Tarigan, a special adviser to Indonesia’s president on human development, said the government had rolled out a series of policies to improve the palm oil industry, such as a moratorium on new palm oil permits and an action plan on sustainable palm oil.

These policies are designed to limit the land expansion of the palm oil industry while still increasing its productivity.

Nevertheless, there are still some issues as highlighted in the book, Abetnego said.

“This [book] is an important reminder for us that we still have serious problems that need to be further addressed, whether they’re related to social welfare, plasma farmers, agrarian conflicts, legal uncertainty and production and trade management,” he said during the discussion.

Oil palm plantation in Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Abetnego applauded the book for successfully capturing issues of plantations in different geographical conditions, such as plantations inside forest areas, inside national parks, in mangroves and surrounding lakes.

Diah Suradiredja, a senior policy adviser at the Indonesian Biodiversity Conservation Trust Fund (Kehati) Foundation, said this variety of locations enables readers to see the common thread of issues plaguing the plantation industry.

“Hopefully [issues in] this book could be captured by policymakers because I see that the government’s support for our friends, especially independent palm oil farmers, is very lacking,” she said during the discussion.

Sri Palupi, a researcher at the NGO Ecosoc Institute, commended the book for not only looking at problems but also at efforts made by farmers to develop their palm oil sustainably.

“[The initiatives are] interesting. One of them is an effort to intersperse crops, not only palm oil, but also food crops and other crops that can be sold [in the market],” she said.

However, Sri said the book mostly focused on economic and environmental issues in the industry.

She said it’s also important for stakeholders to look at the social and cultural issues in the industry.

For instance, there are some Indigenous communities in Central Kalimantan and West Kalimantan provinces who lost their cultural identities because they switched from agricultural fields to oil palm plantations.

This loss of culture weakens their ability to face issues like disparity and conflicts, Sri said.

Diah, meanwhile, said she lamented the limited number of stakeholders featured in the book.

She said the book mostly interviewed activists from civil society groups who monitor the palm oil industry.

“The perspective [from them] is not enough,” Diah said. “I thought there’d be sources from the government and the industry as well [featured in this book].”


Banner image: A worker sorts through harvested oil palm. Image by Ricky Martin/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).


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