The first independent smallholder group in Aceh Province, Indonesia has successfully obtained RSPO and ISPO certification. In November 2022, nearly 400 members of the PESATRI (Perkumpulan Pekebun Sawit Tenggulun Lestari) smallholders group achieved certification through a landscape-based programme initiated by IDH and its partners PepsiCo and Unilever, and implemented by local NGO FKL (Leuser Conservation Forum).

The PESATRI group covers a sprawling 595-hectare area in Tenggulun Village within the Aceh Tamiang Regency, Aceh Province. The regency is home to the Leuser Ecosystem Forest area, renowned for being one of the last remaining tropical rain forest areas left in the world. Within this ecosystem, four species thrive: the Sumatran tiger, rhinoceros, and elephant and the Orangutan.

One of the largest palm oil producing areas in Aceh Province, Aceh Tamiang has also been susceptible to illegal logging activities. Tenggulun Village, in particular, has recorded some of the highest incidences of illegal logging in the district in the past.

Improving local economy through sustainable palm oil

In response to the district government’s initiative to improve the local economy through the oil palm plantation sector while also promoting sustainable forest practices, several parties were invited to transform the existing oil palm plantations in Aceh Tamiang into sustainable, conflict-free plantations. IDH stepped forward to support the regency’s initiative by offering a landscape-based certification programme, called Verified Sourcing Area (VSA). With the support of PepsiCo and Unilever, VSA works towards the certification of all products from Aceh Tamiang, aligning with the regency’s vision for a cleaner and more sustainable economy.

In June 2020, VSA Tenggulun, focused on oil palm plantations, became the very first VSA Programme in Aceh Tamiang. IDH and its partners tapped FKL (Leuser Conservation Forum), a local organisation that has been engaged in the conservation and protection of the Leuser Ecosystem since 2014, to be the programme’s implementation leader.
The programme engaged 500 independent oil palm farmers who were members of 10 farmer groups in Tenggulun Village, aiming to improve the standard of living of the farmers while also preserving the Leuser Ecosystem.

“This was quite challenging because the oil palm plantation farmers in Tenggulun Village, and the Aceh Tamiang Regency in general, had been cultivating their oil palm plantations in an unsustainable manner,” said Hendra Syahrial, Project Leader of FKL. “Before, they were clearing land in forest areas to expand their oil palm plantations, usually by burning. They also did not manage their plantations properly, making their oil palm production level very low.”

Higher yields, halting deforestation

Through VSA Tenggulun, the independent smallholders were invited to sustainably transform their oil palm plantations and were guided through several trainings to increase their self-capacity and improve their plantations – including Good Agricultural Practice (GAP), soil analysis and organic fertiliser making, No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE), and restoration of damaged forest areas through agroforestry. Training also included assistance towards achieving both RSPO and ISPO certifications. After participating in the entire process of the programme, the partner farmers formed PESATRI, to comply with the RSPO and ISPO certification requirements.

The biggest transformation seen by the PESATRI farmers since participating in the programme has been improved maintenance of plantations, resulting in as much as a 50% yield increase.

“Good and sustainable cultivation techniques increase production and quality of the fruit produced, thereby increasing the selling price, which will have an impact on increasing farmers’ income,” said Hendra. “Additionally, through RSPO, farmers will receive a premium fee as a bonus, which can be used to support the procurement of fertilisers and production inputs needed for oil palm plantations.”

By cultivating sustainable palm oil crops, farmers are now helping protect the environment in their plantation areas by not carrying out deforestation activities, safeguarding areas such as river banks and other High Conservation Value areas, not using toxic substances, and restoring open land in forest areas with agroforestry crops. Moreover, previous land conflicts were resolved, given that land legality is an absolute requirement for certification activities.

“It has been a fruitful journey for the RSPO smallholder programme since we started doing roadshows in Aceh back in 2019 to work with FKL,” said Guntur Cahyo Prabowo, RSPO Smallholder Programme Acting Head. “We see Aceh as the next province getting more certification projects in the pipeline, given the strong multi-stakeholder support at the local level, which is something we believe other provinces can learn from. The certification programme adds value and improves the welfare of farmers, while driving sustainable production and preventing deforestation.”

From illegal logging to agroforestry: Aceh’s sustainable path forward

Over time, forest encroachment and illegal logging activities in Tenggulun have significantly decreased through the Utilisation of Sustainable Palm Oil Farmers Forest Areas programme. Today, the farmers have earned the byname “Defenders of Leuser”, proudly protecting the Leuser Ecosystem Forest Area against encroachers and illegal loggers who still operate around the area.

Following the success of the PESATRI group, the second VSA programme was initiated in June 2021, engaging over 2,200 farmers who are members of 47 farmer clusters, currently on the path towards RSPO and ISPO certification. In February 2023, with funding from Unilever, the Sustainable Oil Palm Plantation Programme in Aceh Tamiang District was likewise kickstarted for 3,000 farmers.

“Looking ahead, PESATRI is aiming for all independent smallholders in Aceh Tamiang, as well as all companies in Tamiang, to join the certification programme so they can become a global model of sustainability,” said Hendra.

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