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Jakarta Post

Book Review: The challenges behind Indonesia's agricultural matrix

  • James Erbaugh
    James Erbaugh

    PhD Candidate at the University of Michigan focusing on land-use, rural livelihoods, and agricultural production in Indonesia.

Jambi   /   Tue, July 26, 2016   /  03:00 pm
Book Review: The challenges behind Indonesia's agricultural matrix For those seeking to learn more about the environmental, economic, and social significance of oil palm production and peatland agriculture, the National University of Singapore Press has just released two new titles. (NUS Press/*)

The forest fires that raged across Sumatra and Kalimantan in 2015, coupled with whisperings about further limitations to oil palm plantation expansion, have focused international attention on oil palm production and peatland agriculture in Indonesia.

For those seeking to learn more about the environmental, economic, and social significance of oil palm production and peatland agriculture, the National University of Singapore Press has just released two new titles. The Oil Palm Complex: Smallholders, Agribusiness and the State in Indonesia and Malaysia examines how oil palm production intermingles with land, labor, and the state in Malaysia and Indonesia. Catastrophe and Regeneration in Indonesia’s Peatlands: Ecology, Economy, and Society offers an in-depth case study of peatland ecosystems, regeneration, and biomass production. 

Individually, these titles provide insight into how oil palm production occurs within and across provincial and national boundaries, and how a history of peatland agriculture has affected communities and the environment in Riau province; together they provide an overarching framework for understanding oil palm production, and a detailed analysis for understanding how oil palm, peatland restoration, and communities have co-existed, and might continue to do so in the future.

Edited and partly written by two authorities on tropical agricultural production in Southeast Asia—Rob Cramb and John F. McCarthy—The Oil Palm Complex traces and analyzes oil palm production in Malaysia and Indonesia. Eighty-four percent of all oil palm production occurs in these two countries, and this collection of academic essays establishes and examines the unique transnational complex that facilitates the production of oil palm.

The Oil Palm Complex highlights the differences in regional contributions to oil palm production, focusing on sub-national studies from Malaysian Borneo, Kalimantan and Sumatra. After providing background on the relations of land and labor in these sub-national areas, the collection goes further to examine context-specific patterns, such as transmigration and the rise of “sustainable” oil palm efforts. An issue that runs throughout almost all of the 14 chapters is the interplay between agribusiness plantations and smallholder production of oil palm.

While this text often implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, promotes smallholder production over large-scale plantations, it does little to directly compare the economic contributions to case study villages where oil palm smallholding occurs. Indeed, some of the chapters leave the reader wanting more empirical evidence, especially concerning the analyses of smallholder and plantation production, “sustainable” oil palm production versus “standard” production, and the efficacy of state contributions to promote oil palm production throughout Malaysia and Indonesia.

Further, while this collection of essays provides deep insight into how the oil palm complex has developed, and helps to analyze the complex interlinkages that bring palm oil into the market, it does little to assess environmental impacts or empirically assess economic contributions in specific communities. To this point, Catastrophe and Regeneration in Indonesia’s Peatlands provides a nice complement.

Edited by Kosuke Mizuno, Motoko S. Fujita and Shuichi Kawai, Catastrophe and Regeneration in Indonesia’s Peatlandsoffers an in-depth study of a particular peatland ecosystem in Riau Province, by combining physical, biological and social science along with anthropological, policy and historical analysis. Researchers from Kyoto University and a host of Indonesian institutions examine the ongoing process of ecological restoration and implementation of sustainable development across degraded peatland in Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Baru Biosphere Reserve in Riau province.

The findings, within the three parts of this study, have many points of agreement with The Oil Palm Complex. The authors found that much of the area under study became degraded after a series of state-led agricultural interventions: commercial logging, followed by wood fiber plantations, which led to smallholder oil palm production, and, after a series of damaging fires, fallow and unproductive land. The farmers in this area have grown increasingly wary of planting oil palm due to its susceptibility to fire damage; over one-third of the plots in the study area were left untended. As a way forward, the authors note the success and promise of rewetting the peatland and the cultivation of rubber and community forests in the study area.

While Catastrophe and Regeneration in Indonesia’s Peatlands provides a deep analysis of the Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Baru Biosphere Reserve area, some of the scholarship is muddled by unhelpful vocabulary; this reviewer remains unpersuaded that the “humanosphere” offers anything beyond “sustainable development” and “the Anthropocene”.

Additionally, readers should be careful not to extend this careful analysis of one specific reserve area to other oil palm plantations, palm oil producers, and peatland agriculture. However, by limiting the geographic focus, this study provides in-depth examination of environmental, social, and economic results of oil palm agriculture in a peatland environment. With 54% of Indonesian peatland already opened for agriculture, this volume will become increasingly important as a way to comprehensively examine sustainable restoration and economic development in Indonesia’s many other peat swamps.

When the 2015 haze cleared, it became evident that oil palm production and peatland agriculture were beset by serious challenges. To address these challenges and promote sustainable development across Southeast Asia, environmentally and socially conscious planning and policy are necessary. These two titles from NUS Press provide scholarship that elucidates the complexities of oil palm production, and the challenges presented by peatland agriculture as well as peatland restoration. Together, they speak to the need for further studies on sustainable oil palm production; the economic and environmental trade-offs between plantation and smallholder plot production systems; as well as how best to restore areas no longer under oil palm production for communities and carbon sequestration. Oil palm production and peatland agriculture will remain part of the Indonesian agricultural matrix for a long time. Together, these studies help us see the benefits and drawbacks of oil palm and peatland agriculture a bit more clearly.



James Erbaugh is a PhD Candidate at the University of Michigan who focuses on land-use and land-cover change, rural livelihoods, and agricultural production in Indonesia. He is a Borlaug International Food Security Fellow, a Dow Sustainability Fellow, and a Fulbright Student Researcher. He is currently based in Sungai Penuh, Jambi, where he examines the interaction of production and conservation forests on rural livelihoods and local conservation efforts. He holds an M.Phil from the University of Oxford Department of Geography, and a B.A. in philosophy and environmental governance from Miami University.

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