Palmed off: Women lose in West Kalimantan oil palm boom

Low wages for long, difficult and insecure work.

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BOGOR, Indonesia—Ibu Lila climbs up and down the hills between the rows of oil palms, carrying 18 kilograms of fertilizer in a basket slung from her shoulder.

If she meets her quota, spreading 350 kilograms of fertilizer around 175 palms, she will be paid 35,000 Rupiah (USD 2.71) today.

“Sometimes when I’m carrying that fertilizer I feel I just can’t do it anymore, I’m so worn out,” says Lila (whose name has been changed to protect her identity).

“I get a headache from the smell, it makes my eyes swell up, and I cry until night.”

It’s back-breaking work, but Lila feels as though she has no way out. Her plantation job is her only chance to make enough to keep her daughter in high school.

Ibu Lila lives in a tiny enclave between oil palm plantations in Meliau, West Kalimantan, Indonesia—land that since 1980 has been extensively developed for palm oil.

Hers isn’t the only palm oil story in the area. Independent smallholder families also grow the crop—and if they have enough land, and diversify their farm to produce rice and rubber, palm oil can help them prosper.

In most of Indonesia, the level of husband–wife partnership is extremely high. If you give couples access to enough of this highly lucrative crop and let them manage it, they will do very well

Tania Li

A new study from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) investigates the social impacts of oil palm in Meliau as part of a broader CIFOR initiative to understand the gender dimensions of oil palm expansion in Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo.

While industry promoters emphasize jobs and smallholder livelihoods, and NGOs warn of widespread environmental degradation, there is a missing perspective, says CIFOR scientist Bimbika Sijapati Basnett, who helped to oversee this work.

“Understanding who wins and who loses, and how that shifts over time, helps governments look at interventions and policies in a much more nuanced way,” she says.

The report’s author, anthropologist Tania Li, from the University of Toronto, says the study found that the social and economic benefits of the crop are real, but are restricted to particular social groups.

“There are winners and losers, but this is not random,” she says. “There are very identifiable processes at work that will situate people at one end or the other of that spectrum, and we can identify those.”


Half the total area planted with oil palm in Indonesia is cultivated by smallholders.

The study found that the crop offers prosperity and empowerment for women and men—with the right amount of land and government support.

“In most of Indonesia, the level of husband–wife partnership is extremely high. They work together to support their households. If you give couples access to enough of this highly lucrative crop and let them manage it, they will do very well,” Li says.

But not all smallholders have enough.

There are two models in Kalimantan—independent farmers, and supported smallholdings tied by contract to a large plantation company that manages a core plantation and a mill.

In Meliau, many people in the supported schemes are migrants from elsewhere in Indonesia who arrived in the early 1990s. Private companies gave each couple two hectares of land and obliged them to plant oil palm.

A two-hectare plot of oil palm is .... and you’re just making ends meet, and then you have a crisis, such as an illness, you have no choice but to mortgage or sell your land

Tania Li

Twenty years after the scheme began, the vast majority of migrants still had only one plot of land and were just scraping by.

“A two-hectare plot of oil palm is barely enough to live on, and they have difficulty holding onto it,” Li says. “If that’s your only asset, and you’re just making ends meet, and then you have a crisis, such as an illness, you have no choice but to mortgage or sell your land.”

Independent smallholders who can add oil palm to a mixed farming system of rubber and rice were far more secure, she says.

“What I dread is that for the folks that only have one plot of oil palm, come the next price dip in palm oil, they’re going to lose their land,” she says.

“This model places people in a highly vulnerable situation.”


And the model makes some workers even more vulnerable, Li says.

In the early 1980s, when the first state-run oil palm company set up in Meliau, married couples came from Java following promises of permanent work for good pay, free housing, food rations and medical care.

These conditions, available to only some workers, lasted a generation, but Li says they are being eroded. Companies are reducing the numbers of permanent jobs and relying increasingly on “casual” workers, who have no alternative but to put up with dangerous and insecure conditions.

This trend, Li believes, is not unique to Meliau, but is an inevitable consequence of the plantation model.

“Over time, as land becomes short and as the landscape fills in, labor becomes more desperate,” she says. “It’s not about rogue plantations or bad companies that have to shape up—plantation development is intrinsically going to produce these problems, however virtuous the company. A company has to be profitable, and one way to do that is to reduce the cost of labor as far as possible.”

This dynamic affects people differently based on gender and ethnicity.

While the companies in the study area previously recruited couples, they now prefer to hire migrant men as harvesters and landless local ethnic Dayak or Malay women for maintenance tasks, Li says.

Landless local women like Ibu Lila stand to lose most from this system, Li says.

Women’s maintenance tasks are perceived as unskilled compared with men’s more physical harvesting roles, and they are paid less. Critically, they are replaceable.

“These enclaves stuffed in little nooks and crannies around the plantation are just full of women who desperately need work,” Li says. “That means they can be pulled into plantation work on just about any terms. This makes the situation of landless women particularly difficult.”


Li believes that the debate on the future of oil palm should factor in the social impacts of the plantation model.

“There is no technical reason at all why oil palm has to be planted in plantations,” she says.

“Smallholders want to do it, and they do it quite efficiently if they’re given decent quality seedlings and access to a road and a mill.”

To reduce social harm in the meantime, stronger regulations are needed to protect workers, she says. Li also recommends that the government review existing supported smallholder schemes, and devise new programs to support independent smallholders.

The literature on oil palm in Indonesia has been dominated by studies of environmental impacts, says CIFOR’s Basnett.

“You need to pay attention not just to deforestation but also to what happens to people—and look at potential trade-offs between rights, economic efficiency and environmental gains,” she says.

 “Gender actually provides this very interesting lens to examine this issue of dispossession … it’s important new territory.”

For more information about CIFORs work in gender and palm oil please contact Bimbika Sijapati Basnett at

CIFOR’s research on palm oil and gender in West Kalimantan is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

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