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By Stephanie Lim

Heddie Munte is a smallholder from Rantauprapat, a village in North Sumatra, Indonesia. When she first bought the land, she planted oil palm like her neighbors. However, her farm was extremely untidy and messy with overgrown shrubs, weeds, and stunted oil palms. She wanted to give up on her farm and even contemplated burning it – until field assistants from Musim Mas and IFC (International Finance Corporation), a member of the World Bank, came knocking on her door. They invited her to join their Independent Palm Oil Development for Smallholders program, where smallholders like herself would learn good agriculture practices, including learning how to maintain a farm and increase its productivity. Other elements of the program include financial literacy, improving market access, and replanting, all of which would contribute to improving the livelihoods of smallholders.

Above: Heddie (middle) dons the Bataknese headgear.

There was just one issue – Heddie comes from the Batak tribe, and speak mainly Batak Toba, a dialect not commonly spoken even within the Bataks in Indonesia. The majority of them are Christian and some, like Heddie, rear pigs on their farm and eat them. This is not a common sight in Indonesia, which has the largest global Muslim population, a faith that prohibits the consumption of pigs.

Cultural sensitivity is something Musim Mas and IFC integrated into the program’s implementation strategy. Most of its field assistants are hired from the local area, as they are sensitive to cultural nuances, dynamics, and relate well with the locals.

This hiring decision actually contributes to the larger picture of improving smallholders’ livelihoods over the long run. To increase market access of smallholders, they are encouraged to undergo sustainable certification, such as RSPO’s (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). As RSPO certificates are awarded to grouped smallholders and not individuals, field assistants from IFC and Musim Mas are tasked with grouping smallholders into farmer associations. This may sound like an easy task, but for a country with over 633 ethnic groups, 583 dialects spoken, bearing a history of civil conflict and with nearly one million internally displaced people, grouping strangers into a farmer association requires much deliberation. You need the smallholders to not only trust you as a field assistant, but also each other to prevent the farmer association from disbanding and losing the certification.

Farmers in the vicinity are deliberately grouped to reduce cultural shocks and field assistants are encouraged to boost association morale. Heddie’s field assistant, Anna Oktava Simalango, helped members to shop for a group batik (Indonesia’s traditional wear) in the city when one of the smallholders suggested they should get one.

Above: Heddie and fellow smallholders in the farmer association wearing the group batik as they celebrate the association’s third anniversary.

Below: Field assistant Anna (in navy) singing and dancing with the farmer association during their anniversary celebration.

Heddie is one of the 30,000 independent smallholders Musim Mas and IFC have engaged. The program started in 2015, targeting smallholders in North Sumatra and Riau. In 2019, 705 smallholders from the program achieved RSPO certification, Heddie included.

As Musim Mas sources 40% of its fresh fruit bunches (FFB) from independent smallholders, it has a vested interest to include smallholders in the sustainable palm oil journey. Palm Oil Agribusiness Strategic Policy Initiative (PASPI) projected that smallholders are set to manage 60% of Indonesia’s oil palm plantations by 2030, from the current 40%. Therefore, smallholder programs like these are crucial.

Our experience with smallholders taught us that they are interested in sustainability, but many lack the capacity to do so. What is needed is often a deeper dive into understanding why they are doing things a certain way, and creating an enabling environment for them to thrive. To scale up our impact on smallholders, we are exploring various approaches to engage more smallholders, such as via training village agriculture officers to train smallholders in our Smallholder Hub Approach.

More on our smallholders program here, and you can watch Heddie’s story here: