Silent protest: women in Indonesia’s oil palm industry

By: Rosalie Koevoets for Vice Versa

The oil palm industry brings to mind the image of men using large mechanical tools and carrying heavy loads of fruit. However, across Indonesia’s palm oil producing regions, women are frequently seen working on plantations alongside men. In fact, women form the backbone to the country’s most important industry. Yet, the voices of women in the struggle against oil palm companies are often marginalized.

If you are planning on visiting Indonesia, a visit to Kalimantan should definitely not be missed. This province, located on the eastern side of the Island Borneo, has an unique natural site and is known for its tropical forests and exotic flora and fauna. However, it is recommend to plan your visit any time soon, since, in the wake of widespread deforestation, there is no guarantee that these areas will remain intact. One of the biggest drivers of deforestation is the dramatic rise of oil palm cultivation in response to the skyrocketing global demand for palm oil. Within Kalimantan, between 1985 and 2007, some 56% of protected tropical rainforests have been cut down and replaced by large-scale oil palm plantations.

The oil palm, from which palm oil is extracted, is native to West Africa but they can flourish in every tropical area around the equator. Today, around 50 percent of the goods we use every day contain palm oil. From processed foods to cosmetics, animal feed and biofuels; the use of palm oil is integral to our daily lives. The industry is linked to major issues such as deforestation, loss of wildlife diversity, climate change, land grabbing and labour right issues. Indonesia, the world’s biggest producer and consumer of oil palm, lies at the forefront of these issues. The ongoing expansion of Indonesia’s oil palm companies into new production areas has taken a heavy toll on local communities and removed the natural habitat for many types of wildlife species. The situation is alarming and experts predict that all the forests in Indonesia will disappear in 20 years if the deforestation continues at its current rate.

Losing ground

Indonesia’s oil palm industry has been the scene of different forms of violent contestations and conflict’, says Rosa de Vos, PhD candidate at the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University. She has done research on access to land and property transformations in rural communities in West-Kalimantan, Indonesia. ‘Usually, it starts with conflicts over access to land between local communities and oil palm companies. Forests areas and agricultural lands often have been inhabited by generations of indigenous communities and are governed by custom. The central government of Indonesia deems that customary law is subordinate to the national interest and societal development. Land rights of indigenous peoples are therefore not respected. Instead, the government classifies these lands as vacant lands or bare lands up for sale. Subsequently, companies have easy access to oil palm plantation establishment permits.’

Broken promises

Contestations also occur because local communities are left feeling cheated by the companies once the plantation is up and running. When the oil palm plantation has arrived, local people have little choice but to find employment in the oil palm industry. ‘The promise of employment is used by companies to win over local communities to accept oil palm plantations on their land. In reality, the jobs created are only temporary and local people often end up as casual day labourer while being paid below the minimum wage’, explains de Vos. ‘The problem with oil palm plantations is that, once the land has transformed into large-scale monoculture oil palm plantations, there is no way back.’ With this, she means that it is difficult to develop economic alternatives to oil palm due to obstacles such as land tenure issues. For independent, small-scale producers, it has become nearly impossible to survive in the oil palm industry since the companies acquire lands for almost nothing. On top of that, large scale-plantations also benefit from subsidies and fertilizers from the government. It is difficult to swap the degraded land from oil palm to alternative small-scale crops. ‘So when the price level of oil palm falls, local farmers have a serious problem since they cannot cultivate alternative crops’, she says.

‘Another source of conflict are the unfair practices in allocating profits to the smallholders of the plasma plots. The Indonesian plantation system is based on a satellite model. It is a system in which plantation companies develop oil palm plots for smallholders in a ‘plasma’ area around their own plantation ‘nucleus’. The smallholders in the plasma areas cooperate with the large nucleus plantation by selling their harvest to them. Although cooperation between companies and smallholders sounds like an attractive way to develop marginalized rural areas, in practice it means that companies gain control over large areas of land. It used to be 20% large-scale companies and 80 % smallholders; nowadays those numbers have been switched. Under new plantation models, plasma areas are even integrated into the nucleus plantation, reducing smallholders to shareholders who have very little autonomy over their lands and lifestyles. They become landless labourers, dependent on the company.’

A double burden

De Vos is currently working on an article on women in the oil palm sector together with Izabela Stacewicz, Phd Candidate at Geography and Environmental Science at University of Reading (UK). ‘Women in rural areas, in particular, face a difficult situation. During the negotiation process over oil palm plots, the role of women is often marginalized and their voices are neglected. Once the communal lands are privatized, they become registered under the name of the head of the household: the husband. Leaving women empty-handed and dependent on their husband for access to land and income.’

‘Women who find work on the plantations tend to be employed as sprayers of pesticides and fertilizers, exposing them to severe health risks. Quite frequently, they are not informed of these chemicals nor are they provided with protective equipment. In response, the companies sometimes provide women with a tin of milk to cure their damaged lungs. Of course, women are aware that this does not make any significant change, but they do not have a choice.’ Moreover, women perform the tasks that are paid the least. Sometimes, women are seen as ‘helpers’ of their husbands, and therefore not paid at all. ‘The arrival of oil palm plantations creates a double burden for women, because taking care of food and the household also remains the domain of women.’

Silent protest

‘We were especially interested in the role of women during the negotiation process between companies and communities’, de Vos says. ‘When it comes to activities of resistance, NGO’s and local organizations tend to be predominantly focused on grand gestures like men burning down plantations and using violence in street protests. Women cannot leave their children, the household, or the work on the land and therefore have no time to demonstrate. So they stay at home.’ But, according to de Vos, this does not mean that they are not interested in politics. ‘Men engaging in acts of violence risk being arrested and imprisoned. This puts women at risk because they will have to do all the agricultural work and ensure an income to support their families. The women we encountered therefore experienced a lot of anxiety and were worried about their future. These emotional aspects surrounding the oil palm industry often remain understudied.’

‘Moreover, women have their own specific, subtle ways to voice their interests’, explains de Vos. ‘One young woman told me that she protested by making her land as productive as possible. It is a way of showing to the oil palm companies that the land is not empty and therefore not suitable for oil palm.’ De Vos and Stacewicz discovered that such forms of silent protests by women are a common practice nowadays in Indonesia. ‘When it comes to activities of resistance such as demonstrations, not all women can join. But when women are accused of not wanting to participate in contestations against the oil palm companies, women refute that by saying that if not for them, nobody would eat because the harvest would not be done. Women certainly have a voice and there is too little attention for the alternative ways in which they resist plantation development.’

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