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This article is the second in a four-part series on a global study on Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes.

East Kalimantan is one of five Indonesian provinces located on the island of Borneo, where forests are facing increased pressure due to the accelerated expansion of oil palm plantations. The province has become the focus of research into Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes, with parallels drawn from Kalimantan to Colombia.

Oil palm has a long history in Indonesia, going back to the late 1960s. At that time, just under 120 thousand hectares were being cultivated by government and private enterprises. There were no smallholders involved. Since the late 1990s, expansion has accelerated, and by 2015, 11 and a half million hectares were planted – 40 percent by small-scale farmers.

Oil palm in Indonesia is a gold rush for big investors, medium-size companies and smallholder farmers alike. Spurred on by rising global demand for the golden liquid, local farmers have switched from more traditional agricultural crops and fisheries to oil palm. When this happens, communities become dependent primarily on oil palm for their livelihoods.

Rapid growth in oil palm cultivation leads to forest conversion. Yet the business remains a significant source of state revenue, with important economic spillovers at the local level. A major issue of concern, then, is how to balance the interests of economics and the environment.


To support more sustainable practices under the OPAL project, researchers at CIFOR, the Center for International Forestry Research, have been working in collaboration with WWF Indonesia and Ph.D. students from ETH Zurich and the Bogor Agricultural Institute’s (IPB).

OPAL uses the approach of Companion Modeling (ComMod) — a role-playing game used to explore strategies that promote more sustainable practices in the oil palm industry.

“Through this interactive game, we seek to understand how these palm oil plantations have impacted not only the ecology in these plantation areas but the lives of local farmers, and their strategies to use land and natural resources to optimally meet their needs,” says CIFOR researcher, Heru Komarudin.

“In this way, farmers can see the big picture and adjust their strategies for improving the use of the assets at their disposal, and thereby enhance their livelihoods,” he adds.

One way to increase crude palm oil (CPO) output without expanding into pristine forests is to improve the way smallholders cultivate oil palm. On average, smallholder plantations yield two tons of CPO a year. But with better seedlings, they could more than double their production.

“Farmers need to know how to make the most of their land,” says Nur Hasanah, a Ph.D. student at ETH Zurich.

Nur Hasanah is part of a team working on a ComMod game being played by farmers in four villages in Kutai Kartanegara district.

“Even though most farmers see oil palm as their future, they don’t see that if they invest in good agricultural practices, like using fertilizer, they will reap bigger harvests down the road,” she says.

“Through the ComMod approach, the farmers can see for themselves how better planning can lead to a more stable future,” she adds.

   A hut in the middle of oil palm plantations in Buluq Sen village, Kutai Kertanegara district. CIFOR Photo/Nanang Sujana


Ensuring sustainable palm oil cultivation is a complex problem, with one of the main issues being land tenure, says Arya Hadi Dharmawan, IPB Team Coordinator. He says this is not only linked to livelihoods, but also to local political issues, agricultural governance, institutions and mapping policies, adding that there is no single solution to address these challenges.

The team uncovered land disputes between large plantation owners and communities, and even within communities themselves. These conflicts can become deadlocked, and can prolong or otherwise impact efforts to implement change.

“The ramifications of these problems are so deep, and the scale of the problem is multi-layered, so the solution is not an easy one,” Dharmawan says.

“Through the OPAL process, we can all understand how complicated the problems related to our agrarian structure and the livelihood system are in Indonesia. We need to work hand-in-hand to solve the problem. Then, I hope, we will be able to create a good sustainable policy for oil palm production,” he adds.

To help overcome these challenges, the team also included villagers, farmers, non-governmental organizations, plantation agencies, private institutions and local government officials in the ComMod games.

Through this approach, the researchers found that district authorities need to better understand how to create a system that supports sustainable palm oil and the environment.

They say protected forests, which are often remote, need to be clearly defined, and that communities need to be aware of national-level regulations aimed at protecting forests.

“Engaging district level officials, provincial plantation agencies, oil palm companies and farmers, and bringing them into a non-traditional platform like this interactive game is crucial to create a common understanding of major issues and possible solutions for achieving sustainable palm oil goals,” notes Komarudin.

We have to understand the dynamics of oil palm development at the farm and plantation level in single landscapes

Heru Komarudin, CIFOR researcher
   A ComMod game in action in East Kalimantan. CIFOR Photo/Halimatu CIFOR Photo/Halimatu


The team is now working on the second phase of the OPAL project, using lessons learned from the first phase and refining the game in an effort to raise awareness among all stakeholders of the problems, and to find solutions to these challenges together.

“We hope the results of this research can inform and improve partnerships between farmers, palm oil companies and other stakeholders so that we can protect Indonesia’s remaining forests,” concludes Komarudin.

Putting the ComMod approach in perspective within the wider debate on how to achieve sustainable palm oil supply in Indonesia will be a next critical step, says CIFOR Principal Scientist, Pablo Pacheco.

“We have to understand the dynamics of oil palm development at the farm and plantation level in single landscapes, and be able to provide information on better ways to manage the economic and environmental trade-offs across disparate landscapes,” he says.

Part 1: Playing for keeps: How a simple board game could lead to more sustainable palm oil

Part 3: Playing the long game with palm oil: Using role-play to improve landscape management in Cameroon 

Part 4: Sketching out sustainable futures: New methods for mapping and planning in Colombia 

For more information on this topic, please contact Jaboury Ghazoul at or Heru Komarudin at or Pablo Pacheco at
This research was supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), the Swiss Programme for Research on Global Issues for Development and the Luc Hoffman Institute.
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