Oil palm and food security – The National

A Papuan smallholder oil palm grower’s perspective
Two proud Papuan oil palm farmers.

ON Friday afternoon, July 22, 2022 I had a chance of meeting an oil palm farmer from Papua, Dorteus Paiki, a member of oil palm association Apkasindo, who inspired this article.
We discussed the commonly known challenges that oil palm farmers face and the facts that more than 10,000 smallholders can be found in mainly four regions of Papua. A point he made that stood out is conviction that oil palm cultivation has been a life changer for him, his family and the community around them.
He expressed confidence that closer collaboration among oil palm farmers in Papua and the other two palm oil producing countries in the Pacific, namely Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, would be a sure pathway towards their sustainable development.
With the help of the government of Indonesia, relevant oil palm institutions and local universities in the two Papuan provinces, he was upbeat about capacity building for Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu if the local conditions for oil palm cultivation are proven. He did not preclude the possibility that Indonesia could have a center of excellence for oil palm cooperation in the Pacific nations in Papua.

Misperceptions of the industry

The stories on the oil palm industry have been focused on industrial oil palm corporations.
The media and NGOs in the West are very consistent in targeting the most important commodity for Indonesia to date, with biased perspectives on deforestation, social conflict, rights of local communities to the collapse of biodiversity. The litany of attacks has mainly targeted Indonesia and unfairly labeled her oil palm industry as “unsustainable” despite the fact that it lifts Indonesians from a cruel cycle of poverty while providing an affordable cooking oil to the world.
In addressing this war of disinformation against the palm oil industry, a strong alliance of oil palm producing countries must be formed. The industry has not fared well with the weak, incoherent, un-sustained communication strategy of the present day. For a strong communication campaign to take place, strong leadership at the global levels will be required by the major palm oil producing countries as the persistent attacks against palm oil prey upon a divided, and therefore weak, palm oil industry.

An oil palm farmer in PNG.

Smallhodrers, the face of the industry
To fight the persistent attacks on palm oil, more objective publications on the true nature of this industry are needed, not only for Indonesia, but for the global palm oil industry where a large portion of the industry is in the hands of smallholders.
In the case of Indonesia, it is more than 42 per cent involving an estimated 17 million people. Palm oil is different from other edible oils notably soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower which are mostly owned by corporations or large-scale farming. The oil palm industry in the three regions of Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Central and Latin America is very much about small-scale farmers who own small plots of land and in many cases less than two hectares.
This is a perspective which is often disregarded despite the fact that in many oil-palm producing countries, the industry is almost exclusively in the hands of farmers. These include palm oil producing nations including Thailand, Honduras, Ghana, Nigeria and Colombia.
In many cases, more than 70 to 90 per cent of the industry is owned and operated by farmers that face challenges from acquiring certified seedlings, fertilisers, transportation, fresh fruit bunch pricing mechanism, financial access,’ attention and assistance, sustainability to inadequate infrastructure and capacity.
In short, most oil palm farmers are not an apple-to-apple comparison with the heavily-subsidised ‘farmers’ of Europe who would qualify as industrial operations in Indonesia with their heavy machineries and large farms.
It does not need an expert to explain the looming food and energy crisis globally especially in the developing world. Much has been said about the fact that the conflict in Ukraine has exposed the soft belly of food and energy security not only in Europe but also in the world at large.
Food and energy security is indeed one of the main priority issues for the Indonesia’s G20 Presidency this year.
After the possible dire impacts of climate change, the next top priority in my opinion is food and energy security that is locally produced and managed to be more self-sufficient as a way of taking control of their future. That way the relatively poor inhabitants of the Pacific island nations with less connection to the outside world such as Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu can have the best chance of achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Those countries cannot be left behind when the world has less than seven years to meet the promised sustainable development goals in 2030.
Thus, I am not of the opinion that increasing geostrategic competition of some countries in the region is what the region needs. Pacific nations must place their own needs and priorities before geostrategic maneuvrings of rich countries.
Political issues and geostrategic competition of major powers should not rob the island countries of their chance to alleviate poverty and meeting other SDGs while facing the increasing and present threat and danger of climate change.

Edible oils in Indonesia/Pacific

In the words of Dorteus Paiki: “If oil palm can effectively contribute to better the livelihood and welfare of the oil palm farmers in Indonesia, including Papua, it could be a precious experience to be promoted to the other island nations of the Pacific.”
The two palm oil exporting countries of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands have shown the potential of extending it to the island nations. That said, Indonesia and the four Melanesian countries are also coconut producers which is another natural capital that needs closer attention and collaboration.
It is not a secret that both oil palm and coconut, if developed well, are perfect examples of riches of the region to meet food and energy security. Indonesia has shown its leadership in being the most advanced in the biodiesel mandate based on oil palm.
Being independent on fossil fuel, biodiesel development can indeed contribute to greater independence and self-reliance of the region.
If trade and investment are what the island nations need most, then closer cooperation on oil palm and coconut need serious discussion on official levels. Indonesia has managed to develop well and there is no reason why Pacific nations cannot achieve the same level of development based on the ability to cultivate tropical crops.
It is to be expected that if the Pacific nations were to develop palm oil as a source of revenue, there is bound to be criticism from foreign sources,especially those from the environmental lot. The loud noises from these groups who make their protests from the comfort of rich nations should be dismissed with an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s famous quote: “You may proclaim, good sirs, your fine philosophy. But until we can feed ourselves, right and wrong can wait.”
Achieving the 2030 global agenda and the 2050 strategy of the Pacific is the main priority for the island nations. It can be done by developing what the region has in common with a partner like Indonesia. The Pacific nations must not be left behind in the strategy.
The cultivation and production of edible oils for local food security and foreign exchange revenues are critically needed. For that to happen, the secretariat of the Melanesian Spearhead Group can consider an in-depth discussion with parties concerned.

  • Dupito Simamora is former deputy executive director of the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (June 2019 – May 2022). The views expressed here are his own.