In celebration of International Women’s Day, this coming 8 March 2020, RSPO is paying homage to the women leading the way in the sustainable palm oil sector.
Sisters doing it for themselves
In a small town in the state of Perak, Malaysia, the Dongkin sisters have been cultivating oil palm for more than 10 years now and are among a group of RSPO certified Orang Asli smallholders in the WAGS Air Kuning project.
In this area, the Orang Asli (indigenous people) initially planted rice paddies before converting to rubber in the late 1950s. The rubber farms were then converted into oil palm plots from the late 80s to early 90s. The Dongkin sisters’ father, a retired army officer, was given land that he divided into several plots for his seven daughters to manage collectively. Unlike their Semai forefathers who hunted, fished, and practised slash-and-burn agriculture, the Dongkin sisters depended on crop cultivation for subsistence.
“I joined WAGS because I wanted to learn better farming practices,” says Herzusa, 39, from Kg Chenderung Kelubi, a village 180 km north of Kuala Lumpur. “Before, our planting knowledge came from working for plantations and through trial and error.” She used to blanket (unchecked) spray chemical weed killers on her 8 hectare farm, as she “couldn’t stand the sight of weeds and wanted a ‘neat’ farm,” Herzusa admits. However, she learnt that ground cover is important for retaining moisture on the ground and reducing pest attacks, and that palm fronds stacked “correctly” ensure organic matter, which provides nutrients back to the soil.
“Now I only do circle spraying, which reduced my chemical use by half, increased savings and protects our environment,” says Herzusa, who also runs a small eatery in her village. “Once I adopted these practices, my previously yellowish, dry palm fronds are now vibrant green and healthy. These sustainable practices also assisted in improving Herzusa’s yield, which increased by 30% since she started using organic fertiliser like chicken manure, on top of compound fertiliser.
Herzusa’s elder sister, Azina Dongkin, shared that her production costs reduced after learning to use and apply fertilisers efficiently. “The savings help us weather the tough times when oil palm prices are low,” says Azina, 55, who manages a 14 hectare plot.
“Beyond the knowledge we gained, our RSPO certification validates the quality and standards of our fruits,” adds Bahari Pandak, 56, also from Kg Chenderung Kelubi. Bahari and the Dongkin sisters number among the 58 RSPO-certified Orang Asli smallholders in the Air Kuning project. “It’s a stamp of assurance that we will always have a market for our fruits.”
In 2013, a group of oil palm farmers in Sabah made waves as the first independent smallholder group in Malaysia to become RSPO certified. Elizabeth Japari is one of the farmers from this first batch of WAGS certified members, but had zero planting experience when she first started cultivating her 3.4 hectare plot about 20 years ago.
Established in the early 1990s, Toniting is a relatively new settlement with a population of about 450, out of which, one third are oil palm farmers. The villagers are Sabah’s indigenous Orang Sungai and Kadazan who moved from the Ulu Sapi area when the logging companies ceased operations.
“Although we received subsidised seedlings from the government, there was no initial training or guidance. It was mainly trial and error on our part,” says Japari, 50. Through WAGS, Jabari learnt the ropes of sustainable farm management, from using herbicides and fertilisers effectively and storing chemicals safely to keeping records of production expenses and yields.
“Before, we thought a ‘clean’ farm with no ground cover was ideal and made it easier for us to harvest and apply fertiliser,” adds Japari. “We used fertiliser only when the Fresh Fruit Bunch premium was high.”
Applying what she learnt, Japari’s yields increased by half and production costs reduced by 50% in the span of a year.
“Planting oil palm provided a stable source of income and allowed me to build a house and buy a car,” says Japari. With a secondary school qualification, she did odd jobs for several years before venturing full-time into oil palm.
Over the last six years, Japari and some of her peers still grapple with the documentation process required under RSPO certification, she admits. “But it’s important to track our expenses, it helps to keep us organized and minimise wastage.”