Event Coverage

Voices of women in palm oil

Research seeks to shed light on women’s experiences in one of Indonesia's fastest-growing industries

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Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, CIFOR and partners held a multi-stakeholder policy dialogue on ‘Governing oil palm for gender and women’s empowerment’ in Jakarta, Indonesia. Find out more about the event here.

Before the sun rises, 35-year-old Magdalena Pandan has visited her rubber crops, cooked for her family, bathed and got her children ready for school. At dawn she waits for the company pick-up to take her to work on the oil palm plantations. There, she distributes up to 300kg of fertilizer that makes her hands sting. She won’t wear gloves for fear they’ll slow her down and she’ll miss her daily target. In the afternoon, she returns home to work in her rice fields, and perform more household chores.

The mother of three says she won’t be able to do this work forever. “But what can you do when there are no other jobs?” she says. “You just go back to the oil palm plantation again.”

Pandan’s story is one example of the experiences of women in Indonesia’s palm oil industry discussed at a policy dialogue held last week in Jakarta. Hosted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) together with the University of Indonesia and University of Brighton, the dialogue highlighted the latest research findings women’s experiences of oil palm expansion in Indonesia.

CIFOR research shows that women play a central role in oil palm — as part of local communities affected by the crop’s expansion, as formal and informal workers, and as smallholder producers.

Gender inequalities are rampant in relation to transfer of land to make way for oil palm, the treatment of workers, and the opportunities available to smallscale producers. And yet the current research and policy discussions on sustainable oil palm rarely consider gender issues. The researchers recommend that improving women’s rights and expanding their opportunities is critical if oil palm is to become truly sustainable.

Last week’s event in Jakarta brought together diverse stakeholders from the corporate sector, women’s rights advocacy groups, oil palm watchdogs, and other organizations supporting oil palm to share CIFOR’s ongoing research, and initiate discussions about challenges and opportunities for addressing gender issues in the sector.

   Plantation worker Magdalena Pandan spreads as much as 300kg of fertilizer a day by hand. CIFOR Photo/Icaro Cooke Vieira

Land rights

Obtaining free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from local communities, including indigenous peoples, in the transfer of land titles is the cornerstone of responsible oil palm. But the research shows that in many cases this is not being adequately carried out, and that women in particular are excluded from the process.

Nominated as the heads of their households, men are usually engaged in exchanges with private companies and the government, leaving women out of the conversation. This division partially stems from pre-existing gender norms in some local communities. But in areas where women have traditionally held comparable rights over land to men, it is an introduced layer of inequality. Without an understanding of the complex tenure systems of indigenous communities, the process can mean that women are dispossessed of their land.

This has knock-on effects for community food security and well-being. Prior to the arrival of oil palm, women in many indigenous communities relied on swidden land for rice cultivation and forestland for firewood, food and medicinal plants. Excluding them from negotiations on tenure means they are left voiceless in decisions that fundamentally alter their lives and landscapes.

“Women need to be considered as important stakeholders,” said Devi Anggraini, Director of the women’s and indigenous rights group Perempuan AMAN, at the dialogue in Jakarta.

“Free, prior and informed consent must be considered, not only by companies that arrive, but also should be carried out at a local level.”

   Yuliana works with her husband on a plantation by collecting loose palm fruit. CIFOR Photo/Icaro Cooke Vieira
   Her husband, Singapue, has the job of cutting bunches of palm fruit from the trees. CIFOR Photo/Icaro Cooke Vieira


Formal jobs in the palm oil sector tend to be divided by gender, the research shows. Men are typically assigned jobs that involve heavy physical labor. With high harvest targets, they end up relying on their wives and families as ‘shadow workers’ to get the job done. The result is that women workers are rendered invisible and uncompensated for their contributions to the sector.

Where women are visible, they are over-represented in category of casual workers, particularly working with fertilizers and pesticides, and are undercompensated for their contributions. On average, women receive less pay than men, and as casual workers have no job security or other benefits.

Tuti Suryani Sirait, a social auditor for consulting firm Sucofindo, said at the dialogue that these conditions may be against Indonesian law.

“Work done every day for same amount of hours cannot be considered casual work,” she said.

Tuti added that many women work longer hours than is recommended in close contact with chemicals, with potential adverse effects for their own health and that of their families. Rules against pregnant or breastfeeding women working in these roles can lead to further discrimination and harm to health.

“They are not supposed to work for more than five hours at a time with fertilizers and pesticides, but this often happens,” Tuti said. “This is a problem for safety. Personal protective equipment is often not provided for the sake of cost efficiency — this should not be allowed to happen.”

Meanwhile, companies argue that casual work provides much-needed flexibility for women and their families.

Anita Neville, Vice President of Corporate Communications and Sustainability Relations at palm oil company Golden Agri-Resources, put the question to the dialogue: “Is casual labor fundamentally exploitative?”

“Mothers in particular make choices about casual work,” she said. “What we need to be asking is, what are the holistic needs of women in communities? And how can we make casual work a free choice, and an appropriately paid choice?”

   Sumartina and her coworkers are just some of the many women who perform critical roles in the oil palm sector. CIFOR Photo/Icaro Cooke Vieira

Opportunities for change

Certification systems such as the RSPO and Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) are now being put forward as potential conduits for change in the palm oil sector. CIFOR researchers say that consideration of gender issues in certification mechanisms, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), could lead to better outcomes for gender equality and women’s empowerment in the oil palm sector and beyond.

Mechanisms like these are a good starting point for holding companies accountable for social and environmental impact. Further challenges lie in including smallholder operations in sector-wide changes.

Indah Fatinaware, Executive Director of oil palm watchdog Sawit Watch, said that certification is a long and difficult process for many smallholder farmers. Others are involved in ‘plasma’ schemes, whereby companies support a minimal area of community-managed smallholder lands. However, these schemes raise further problems of equity, transparency and investment, she said.

“Women especially are not involved at all in these processes,” she said at the event.

Eko Novi Ariyanti from the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection said that the Indonesian Government is working to ensure that equal opportunity policies are better applied in practice in the oil palm sector.

“Even where there are regulations, the reality in the field may be different,” she said. “Something we plan to address this year is to review regulations on this issue.”

Bimbika Sijapati Basnett, a leading researcher at CIFOR on the issue, hoped that the dialogue in Jakarta would mark the start of broader discussions for change.

“There are many different points of view about oil palm, so there needs to be a consolidated effort by different groups if oil palm is to safeguard women’s rights and expand their opportunities,” she said.

   Discussions for change are now underway. CIFOR Photo/Icaro Cooke Vieira
For more information on this topic, please contact Bimbika Sijapati Basnett at b.basnett@cgiar.org.
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