Progress and preservation – a dichotomous struggle

Estate crops are more attractive than community forests in West Kalimantan
A smallholder harvesting oil palm fruit in Indonesia. Photo by: CIFOR CIFOR/Lucy McHugh

Related stories

First came the timber companies and then the rubber and oil palm plantations. During the last three decades, forests on the island of Borneo have been destroyed at an unprecedented rate. Between 1973 and 2015, an estimated 18.7 million hectares of Borneo’s old-growth forest were cleared while industrial plantations expanded by 9.1 million hectares, according to a 2016 study conducted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

This is largely due to the high profitability of palm oil production. In 2016 alone, Indonesia exported USD $18.6 billion worth of palm oil, according to the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association and Ministry of Agriculture.

To save what is left of the bio-diverse island of Borneo, the Heart of Borneo initiative was launched 10 years ago as joint effort by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei to protect 22 million hectares of forested area on the island shared by the three countries. People living in the area inhabit the world’s largest trans-boundary rainforest, but many live below the poverty line.

In 2012, a group of researchers from CIFOR and its partner institutions traveled to the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan and visited villages in the Heart of Borneo protected area, aiming to examine how communities are dealing with the rapid growth of estate crops. The researchers have returned each year since to record the changes.

They recently published a study on their findings, looking at how smallholder farmers and indigenous communities cope with both opportunities and threats presented by rapidly spreading estate crops.

“Even in this relatively short period of time, we found that what people value changes, and this is often linked to development,” says James Langston, Ph.D. candidate at James Cook University. “As people get more and more involved in market economies, they have to find a way to balance their economic interests with other landscape values.”

Communities in this region have long respected the traditions of their forested adat land – land understood to be under the domain of a certain community – and used this land to source plants for local ceremonies and medicine. However, economic incentives to convert this land to estate crops are increasingly winning out.

As agribusiness enters the area, local communities are moving away from crop diversification and toward one-crop systems – usually rubber or oil palm. Their will to preserve their environment and culture is outweighed by the need to survive and the desire to prosper.

Researchers also found that there are no clear business models occurring in the area, and families engaging with estate crop companies are doing so in a variety of ways. Formalized legal agreements matter much less to most local communities than informal profit- or crop-sharing agreements negotiated directly with companies. The more successful families are, the better the connection they have to external towns and markets.

“The economic opportunities provided by road access originally stimulated by the oil palm industry has made life better,” said a local research respondent, as quoted in the study. “There are some social costs, but we all now have a desire for modern amenities and want to live prosperously.”


Many international agriculture experts have touted community-managed conservation as one solution to involving local actors in decision-making processes affecting their environments. But in Borneo, the researchers found that poverty is a major threat to this method’s success.

This led the researchers to institute a more comprehensive approach to reconciling conservation and development that simultaneously addresses issues of poverty, food security, climate change and biodiversity. Experts acknowledge that it is almost impossible to successfully balance all four areas in any one landscape; the goal is rather to better manage the trade-offs.

“The real challenge now is how you balance those costs and benefits,” says Langston. “In addition, you have to consider urbanization – more and more young people want to move away and seek new opportunities in towns and cities.”

When such high economic incentives to convert land are at play, the researchers found that even the incentives provided by REDD+ – despite its reputation as a prescription treatment for deforestation issues – aren’t enough.

“I think there’s been a problem of too much hype over REDD+,” says Langston. “A lot of money is spent bureaucratically, and not enough goes to the people. So some people are disgruntled. The real monetary cost of keeping some of the large companies from cultivating forests is more than first imagined, so all REDD+ initiatives across Indonesia need to be fully assessed.”

Furthermore, the study reveals that a number of NGOs working with local communities in the area are often working under flawed assumptions.

“Sometimes NGOs influence people’s thoughts without providing proof and convince people that something is bad without giving evidence of the trade-offs,” says Langston.

The researchers found that the problem with some of these organizations is that they speak for a part of society with which they don’t share the same vision. This leads to unsatisfactory outcomes for local communities.

“To be more effective, NGOs need to not speak on behalf of groups, but to decentralize the way they work and speak with the local groups they are empowering, and build up local consensus coalitions,” says Langston.

In addition, the researchers found that there is a general belief that local communities observe indigenous wisdom about living harmoniously with nature, whereas what these groups currently want is to improve their income and provide a better life for their children. Nature comes second.

“There are conservation organizations, known by some as ‘green grabbers,’ who obtain land in order to protect it – for good reasons,” says Langston. “But our research shows that this can’t happen if people in these areas remain living in poverty, or are blocked from attractive development pathways.”

In short, land needs to be protected, but community needs also must be addressed for conservation to work.


It’s often held that poverty and deforestation share a win-lose relationship, and deforestation is the price to pay for development, but the researchers found there are ways to balance the two if all the right pieces fit into place.

They point to one area on the upper Kapuas River where local government and the community were able to check the power of large estate croppers and conserve their environment by democratically creating a spatial plan that allowed the company and the community to co-exist.

Langston says that this can be achieved more often with good leadership at provincial and district levels, and better mapping, monitoring and evaluation methods supporting clear land policies.

“You need governance bodies thinking about long-term policies, but providing development pathways that benefit the communities and society today,” he says.“Conservation can’t get in the way of development. You need development to lead conservation — not the other way around.”

For more information on this topic, please contact James Langston at or Terry Sunderland at
This research was supported by USAID Biodiversity Fund, James Cook University
Copyright policy:
We want you to share Forests News content, which is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). This means you are free to redistribute our material for non-commercial purposes. All we ask is that you give Forests News appropriate credit and link to the original Forests News content, indicate if changes were made, and distribute your contributions under the same Creative Commons license. You must notify Forests News if you repost, reprint or reuse our materials by contacting
Topic(s) :   Deforestation Community forestry Oil palm