Over the past year, the feeble palm oil prices have been unsettling for oil palm farmers in Malaysia. Since the fourth quarter of 2018, palm oil prices had dipped to the lowest in five years.  Independent smallholders, especially, were hit hard and compelled to cut farming costs like contract workers’ wages, and fertiliser and pesticide spendings. Some farmers turned to supplementary jobs to keep their families afloat, and 53-year-old independent smallholder farmer, Jumatia Darmansah is taking the uncertainties in her stride. 

Jumatia has been cultivating oil palm with her husband in their 4.3 hectare (ha) farm in the Beluran district of Sabah since 1992. Over the years, earnings from oil palm and a full-time job as a mill crane operator (she retired in 2014) helped pay for their seven children’s education and uplifted their standard of living. More importantly, Jumatia is the quintessential self-sufficient farmer. “We rarely buy food since we grow vegetables and fruit, and raise chickens and ducks for meat and eggs,” said Jumatia, who supplements her income by selling home-grown pineapples, bananas, jackfruit and surplus vegetables. She sells salted eggs that she makes from her duck eggs. During the Raya festive season this year, she also baked homemade cookies for extra income. 
“Our living expenses are minimal, so we don’t feel the brunt of the low fresh fruit bunch (FFB) prices as much,” she adds. Vegetable rows, fruit trees and flowering plants deck her modest wooden house in the bucolic village of Kampung Ulu Sapi. Her oil palm plot is across the road from her house. 

A 1.5-hour drive from Sandakan, Ulu Sapi is a settlement established in 1950 with a population of 1,159 people. Oil palm planting, agriculture and fishing are the main sources of livelihood for the villagers. To keep farming costs low, Jumatia and her husband are hands-on farm owners. From harvesting and applying fertiliser to grass cutting to keep weeds at bay, they do all the work. Most smallholders hire contract workers to harvest their fruit but they face issues like labour shortage and demand for higher wages. 
“Since we are still able-bodied, we prefer to be self-reliant,” said Jumatia who joined Wild Asia Group Scheme (WAGS) in 2015 to learn better farm management. “Before, our farm was like a dense jungle,” she added. Due to her family’s financial hardship, Jumatia only completed her primary school education and used to sell kuih (local cakes) for a living before planting oil palm for a stable income. “After joining WAGs, we learned the importance of weed and pest control, how to apply fertiliser correctly and stack palm fronds to ensure healthier soil. We’ve always used grass cutters to control weeds. Not only do we save money, using herbicides will affect the roots of the trees and their health. Our yields have increased from 1 to 2 or 3 tonnes per acre since we started farming sustainably,” she said.

Within a year of joining WAGS, Jumatia received her RSPO certification in 2015. To date, there are 369 RSPO-certified independent smallholders in the Beluran district. “I am so proud to be certified. It also means that it’s easier to sell to the mills and they will not question the quality of our crops,” said Jumatia. However, the current low FFB prices and the dip in income meant Jumatia had to cut back on her fertiliser use. Although the Sapi mill where she sells her FFB offers a fertiliser scheme for farmers, Jumatia didn’t sign up for the scheme. She is worried her monthly earnings may be insufficient to cover fertiliser costs. Jumatia remains hopeful that oil palm prices will pick up, and in the meantime, she keeps exploring options for earning additional income.  
“It helps that I am the sort who can’t sit still,” she summed up. “It’s gratifying to see the results of the hard work we put in, whether in planting oil palm or growing our own food.” 

To learn more about RSPO smallholders, click here and to discover how the recently adopted RSPO Independent Smallholder (ISH) Standard aims to improve the livelihoods of farmers just like Jumatia, click here.

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