[Blog] Women’s role in the Palm Oil Industry in Indonesia

Dec 24, 2015

Image: A woman, who partook in the transmigration programme launched by the former President Soeharto in the 1980s, stated during a UNDP interview, “The difference between being in the palm oil business and not is that I am now able to send my children to university and build a house by saving up to 1.2 million rupiah a month.” Photo: UNDP Indonesia/Agusriady Saputra

At first glance, the palm oil industry in Indonesia may seem like a labor force managed by men using large mechanical tools and carrying heavy loads of fruit. However, with a closer look into the contributions of both men and women in the palm oil sector, the common perception of work on palm oil plantations in Indonesia may change. In fact, according to a report conducted by the Food and Agricultural Organization, 61% of women in rural Indonesia work in the agricultural labor force.

As the world’s top palm oil producer, Indonesia benefits highly from the profits of the industry. An estimated 4.5 percent of the nation’s overall annual GDP is contributed to by palm oil, with a total of 14 percent contributed to by the agricultural industry (Ecosystems Alliance, World Growth). However, in the face of recent environmental disasters such as forest fires and concerning deforestation rates in Indonesia, there is an increasing need to capitalize on environmentally friendly agriculture productivity by intensifying existing plantations to improve environmental and human sustainability. Enhancing the capacity of women in the palm oil industry would be a giant leap in this direction.

Beginning in 2014, UNDP Indonesia partnered with the Ministry of Agriculture to form the Sustainable Palm Oil Initiative (SPOI). With various facets of the project, SPOI hopes to challenge the ‘business as usual’ approach in the palm oil sector through its support of environmental sustainability and human sustainability, as mutually dependent and beneficial.

In Indonesia, both men and women contribute significantly to the work and function on palm oil plantations; however, their contributions and assigned tasks vary. More often than not, men are responsible for picking palm oil fruit from the tops of the trees and driving large trucks to transport the fruit to the collection site. Nonetheless, women are also typically responsible for work on the plantation involving fruit collection from the ground, application of pesticides and fertilizers, and management of finances.

 Image: Two members of the SPOI team interview a woman responsible for the management of a mobile bank in a nearby community. Photo: UNDP Indonesia/Agusriady Saputra

A mother of three children working alongside her husband on a commercial plantation in the regency of Kampar, Riau explained her role in picking up the collected fruit from the ground. She mentioned that her work contributes significantly to her husband’s overall output of palm oil fruit collection. Another middle-aged woman based in the Kampar region described her role distributing cash and handling the finances for her husband and other palm oil farmers through an effective mobile banking system. She highlighted that the skill of handling finances was unique to the women in the community.

 Image: Women operating a mobile bank for Palm Oil smallholders in the neighboring community of Kampar, Riau. Photo: UNDP Indonesia/AgusRiady Saputra

Disadvantages in the work of women on palm oil plantations include a lack of pay allocated for jobs completed on the plantation. In addition discrepancies between women and men regarding land ownerships, female workers on palm oil plantations are not paid fairly for their contributions. Women are often unpaid for fruit collection from the ground as the contributions are often used to help their husbands meet the production quotas rather than for personal profit. If the total average monthly wages in Indonesia are indexed to 100, then agricultural wages average 54 and female agricultural wages average 44.

Women working in the palm oil sector are also more exposed to chemical toxicity as their work often involves spraying pesticides and fertilizers. Chemical toxicity is particularly harmful for women who are pregnant or those who may become pregnant in the future as levels of chemical toxicity can be transmitted to the fetus unknowingly. High levels of chemical toxins have also been reported to cause blindness through exposures to the face.

In addition to the impact on women on the plantations, environmentally irresponsible practices on palm oil plantations have led to environmental degradation from the palm oil industry causes deforestation, a decrease in groundwater, and pollution from run-off in nearby lakes and rivers. As a result, it is difficult for women to gather firewood and access clean water for household chores like washing, cooking and cleaning.

Based on the findings from research and fieldwork surveys, the project is working to ensure gender equal engagement and benefit in all efforts towards environmental sustainability. SPOI aims to empower both men and women through engendering the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certification training. By targeting concerns of health and safety, specifically when handling chemicals and preventing pollutant run-off, SPOI will address issues particularly relevant to men and women to ensure gender equal benefit. The initiative is also working to support the inclusion, representation and benefit of women and men in the National Action Plan on Sustainable Palm Oil, Indonesian Palm Oil Platform and community-level sustainability awareness campaigns.

Enhancing the capacity of women and protecting their wellbeing is a win-win outcome not only for the environment and rural economies, but for the productivity of the palm oil industry as an entity.

Story by: Hilary Grantmyre

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