The Curse of the Palm

One of the many causes of the Earth's warming climate is the continuous clearing of forests. Oil palm plantations in Indonesia are a leading contributor to the high rate of deforestation.
Photo & Text:
Albertus Vembrianto & Anton Muhajir
Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Slowly but surely, the once lush green forest is now turning yellow and dry in Asiki District, Boven Digoel Regency, Papua. The lush coconut and bamboo trees that used to be the space where local people live are now surrounded by oil palm plantations. Sago Hamlet, where the indigenous Papuan community lives, is a victim of global demands for palm oil supply to meet the world’s food needs.

The dryness of the location where indigenous Papuans live has occurred since oil palm plantations began to open in this area. Forests were cut down. Local communities had to move away from the places where their ancestors used to live and build local cultures.

One of the bivouacs in Ujung Kia, Asiki District, Boven Digul. Today, the bivouac is on the edge of an oil palm field because the residents work as laborers for an oil palm company.
The walls of the bivouac are made from nibung tree material and the floor from sago bark. All the building materials for the bivouac come from the forest.

Oil palm trees (Elaesis guineensis) are an important commodity for producing crude palm oil (CPO). This African plant thrives in the tropics, around the Equator, including Indonesia and Malaysia. Globally, these two neighboring countries account for more than 86 percent of the world’s palm oil production. During 2020, Indonesia and Malaysia produced 63 million tons out of a total of 73.23 million tons of global palm oil production.

The same data from the United States Department of Agriculture shows that Indonesia is the largest palm oil producer with 43.5 million tons in 2020. In comparison, according to data from the Indonesian Palm Oil Association, in the same year, palm oil export volume reached 34 million tons, down from 37.39 million tons in the previous year.

However, despite the decline in volume, the value of Indonesia’s palm oil exports continued to rise. It reached USD 22.97 billion in 2020, up from USD 20.22 billion in 2019. This value shows that even in the midst of a pandemic, palm oil still contributes to the country’s foreign exchange.

From oil palm plantations in rural Indonesia, palm oil is then processed as an important ingredient in today’s modern products, including food, beauty tools, and even biodesel.

However, the industry’s impact has been equally disastrous on the ecological balance and lives of indigenous communities living in forest areas that have been cleared for oil palm plantations.

A monument at the entrance to an oil palm plantation area in Getentiri, Asiki District, Boven Digul.

We now have no land. If my children don’t make it to school, how will they live.

- Tadius Butipo -

As is the case in Boven Digul, Papua and almost everywhere else in the country, oil palm is a commodity developed by clearing forests (deforestation). In early 2019, a team of researchers from Duke University in the United States published research that showed that palm oil plantations caused the highest amount of deforestation in Indonesia, 2.08 million hectares over five years (2011-2016).

Deforestation is one of the biggest causes of global climate change. Recent research shows that forests can reduce 30 percent of the greenhouse gases produced by fossil burning and land use change. The mass clearing of tropical forests has reduced this ability and made the Earth’s climate warmer than in previous centuries.

After Sumatra and Kalimantan, Papua is now an area besieged by the oil palm plantation industry in Indonesia. Based on the inventory of the Regional Office of the National Land Agency (Kanwil BPN) of Papua Province, in 2020 there were 328,895 hectares of agricultural and plantation land use rights (HGU). More than half, 159,000 hectares to be precise, are oil palm plantations spread across several districts and cities.

From Papua, palm oil is produced to meet the food needs of the world’s citizens. Ironically, in places where oil palm is developed, it creates misery for indigenous communities. Palm oil, which brings jingling dollars for entrepreneurs and the state, actually brings poverty and serious confusion because of the changing living landscape of indigenous Papuan communities.

Tadius Butipo (30) lives in Getentiri, Asiki District, Boven Digul. He doesn't want his children to drop out of school like he did.
Angelina Ketang (29) lives in Kampung Naga, Asiki District, Boven Digoel. She works as a laborer in an oil palm company because the wages received by her husband are not enough to support the family.
Xaferius Kume and his family live in company housing in Getentiri, Asiki, Boven Digul. Xaferius works as a cleaner. Of the 40 employees in his office, only 7 are Papuan. They work as cleaners.

Samela (10) and her grandmother Maria live in a workers’ housing complex owned by the Korindo company in Getentiri, Asiki, Boven Digul.
Samela has never been to school, cannot read or write.

It is well known that oil palm is greedy for water. In Asiki District, Boven Digul Regency, the sago hamlets that were left adjacent to oil palm plantations are now slowly drying up. The use of herbicides and pesticides to maintain oil palm plants certainly affects the sustainability of sago hamlets.

Sago hamlets are not only a source of carbohydrates for indigenous communities. After the sago trees are harvested, pruned and the sago is taken, the decaying tree trunks will become a breeding ground for sago beetle larvae. These larvae later become sago caterpillars containing calories, protein and fat, which are important foodstuffs and ritual tools for indigenous Papuan communities in inland and coastal areas.

Women now have to walk further to get clean water. In the past, they used to fetch water for daily needs from the rivers that flowed clean water around the bivouac. The use of herbicides and pesticides by oil palm companies has made them afraid to collect water from the rivers.

The indigenous community had to find and replace water sources in areas far from the oil palm plantations, such as in sago hamlets. Now women have to walk further and take more time to get water. The same is true for firewood. The indigenous community has to walk closer to areas where there is still forest to get firewood.

An Auyu family living in an oil palm company barracks in Getentiri, Asiki District, Boven Digul. They work on the oil palm land, from planting to harvesting.
Auyu women fetch water at a sago hamlet in Getentiri, Asiki District, Boven Digul. Since the arrival of oil palm plantations, they do not collect water from the river due to the use of herbicides and chemical fertilizers on the oil palm land.
Sago caterpillars living in the carcasses of sago trees are a delicious, protein-rich meal for indigenous Papuan communities. Landscape changes due to oil palm plantations have destroyed sago hamlets.

The existence of oil palm companies brings changes that were never imagined before. The companies have turned indigenous Papuan communities, the owners of customary rights, into low-wage laborers. They often have to owe foodstuffs to cooperatives managed by the company. The debt will be paid when they receive their wages the following month. The amount of wages that have been used to pay debts is not enough to cover the needs of life in a month. As a result, new debts are always made every month.

This condition forces women to work for the palm oil company, as a tactic so that the needs of the house can be covered. This has drastically changed the way children are raised. It is not uncommon for children who already have enough energy to work with their parents in the oil palm fields.

Before the forest was converted into oil palm plantations, there were many game animals, such as wallabies (kangaroos), cuscuses, cassowaries and wild boars. Also aquatic fauna, such as fish, lizards, crocodiles and turtles. Furthermore, vegetables, fruits and nuts that can be found in the forest have become rare and hard to find. “Now we find it difficult to find game animals. We also lost trees for building houses, boats and daily tools,” said Tadius.

The loss of indigenous Papuan communities’ access to food sources has drastically changed the welfare and prosperity experienced since their ancestors. One of the most serious impacts is that children suffer from malnutrition.

Paskalina (42) lives in Asiki District, Boven Digul. She has been experiencing headaches for the past 2 years. The doctor diagnosed that she was suffering from stress.

Almost every day, Paskalina walks around 40 km, going back and forth to sell forest products.

In the past, there was still forest, the road was not hot, there were many trees. Now, the forest has been replaced by palm oil. I miss my parents and ancestors.

- Paskalina -
Mother and son return home to look for firewood in Ujung Kia Village, Asiki, Boven Digul. Since the forest was cleared for oil palm plantations, the indigenous Papuan community living in the area has been looking for firewood in more distant locations.

The presence of palm oil processing waste also presents another threat. During heavy rains, the waste will flow into the river. The embankment of the waste storage pond is not enough to handle the threat of the waste. Occasionally, the embankment is raised. However, residents have seen the pond overflow several times when it rains, and the waste flows into the river.

The bad smell is so strong from this area about 800 meters away. Residents often complain about the bad odor. But they seem to be ignored.

This photo series tells the experience of indigenous Papuan communities in oil palm plantation areas who are now living in new habits experienced due to the presence of oil palm companies. Habits that make their lives move from one vulnerability to another, without choice.

Kami menerima kontribusi foto cerita untuk ditayangkan di situs ini. Tema yang diusung adalah seputar dampak perubahan iklim, kerusakan lingkungan, ketahanan dan adaptasi masyarakat serta inovasi-inovasi yang dilakukan untuk menghadapi tantangan perubahan iklim. Silakan kirimkan tautan berisi foto resolusi rendah, teks, dan profil singkat ke Kami akan segera memberi tanggapan kepada Anda. Terima kasih.

Kisah Terkait