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The goal is to help them increase their yield and income, while also promoting more sustainable livelihoods, forest conservation, and the welfare of people.
The Riau landscape programme covers approximately 8.2 million hectares and 12 districts. It is home to several unique habitats that host Sumatra's endemic flora, fauna, and peatlands. Agriculture is ever-present in the landscape, as the land is mostly flat and suitable for planting crops. As such, many local communities and companies share the landscape with the surrounding forests, which comprise about 15% of the landscape area. These forests are largely fragmented and located near the east coast.
"The vision is to create a compelling case that balances commodity production with forest conservation, sustainable livelihoods and the welfare of people", said Yulia Hardini, Indonesia Operations Lead, who leads Earthworm's work in Indonesia, including Riau.
Approximately 6.3 million people live in the 12 districts in the Riau landscape. Despite the abundance of the pulp wood and palm oil industries in Riau, over 490,000 people live below the poverty line, particularly in the Kepulauan Meranti, Rokan Hulu, Pelalawan, and Kuantan Singigi districts.
Nearly 40% of the workforce is employed in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Palm oil, coconuts, rubber, cocoa, coffee, areca nut, sago and livestock are the most common commodities farmers grow here.
Indonesia is the world's leading producer of palm oil. And yet, farmers here still struggle with farm management practices.
“The fact that the average palm oil productivity is only three tons of crude palm oil per hectare per year, significantly lower than the average of four tons, only exacerbates the problem,” added Yulia.
As such, the Riau government aims to replant more than 26,500 hectares of ageing and poorly managed oil palm plantations each year to boost the sector, especially given the current economic climate.
However, the threat of losing more than 70% of their monthly income due to the conversion of their oil palm plantations weighs heavily on farmers, who had no choice but to look for alternatives to make ends meet.
As Yulia's team delved into this issue, they discovered two potential solutions for the farmers. The first option involves developing new land in a no-man's-land area, which could become a conservation area. However, this would require waiting five years for the new trees to mature and become harvest-ready. Once the new land was productive, the old plantation would be cut down since it had surpassed its productive age. This issue of deforestation is a global problem that the world is grappling with, and it is what Agung, a farmer from Surya Indah, Pelalawan district, had encountered. Agung purchased a piece of land that was part of a conservation area and contained peat, making it significantly cheaper for him to buy.
The second option is for farmers who own only one oil palm plot to sell their land, as they cannot afford the cost of replanting, which is quite high at IDR 120,000,000 per plot (one plot is considered two hectares). This option creates new problems and exacerbates the farmers' already precarious situation.
In the second half of 2022, Perseroan Terbatas Petani Bumi Makmur was established by oil palm farmers from three farmers' groups and, since then, has grown with three more farmers' groups joining the farmers' cooperative. The cooperative management agreed to pilot corn farming as their alternative income, investing $67,000 to support production and daily operations. Earthworm has joined the project by supporting them with crop planting and rotation, plantation management and post-harvest processing such as drying, threshing, and product packaging.
By the end of 2022, farmers working with Earthworm planted 30 hectares of corn.
“The field teams have focused on giving farmers alternative cash crops, especially during the replanting phase, whereby the farmer's income would be zero from the palm trees, in fact spending more for maintenance and others," said Kasmujiono, Earthworm's Riau Forest Manager.
According to the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture, as of February 2022, the replanting programme for oil palm plantations reached 668,756 hectares, with 519,634 hectares in Sumatra. The programme started in 2019 and is set to run until 2023, with a target of replanting 185,000 hectares per the first year.
Between 2020 and 2027, more than 80,000 hectares of smallholder oil palm plantations will enter the replanting phase2.
This means that more than 50% of the community will face the same problem of not having the money to replant. If not managed properly, the possibility of accelerated deforestation and increased social problems will increase.
Kasmujiono and his team offer alternative cash crops, which are carefully selected based on their market opportunities and suitability to the current conditions of the palm oil land.
Livestock has proven to be a successful alternative, as compost from cow manure3 can help replenish the former palm oil land, which was deficient in nutrients, particularly organic carbon. Cows can also be an additional source of income for farmers, as they can be sold or their products, such as milk, marketed.
Other crops Earthworm recommended were corn, chilli and vegetables (C-4 crop type), which thrive in the current conditions of the palm oil land, Kasmujiono said. This land, which was mostly mineral, never submerged in water and received full sunlight for five to six hours daily. Not only are these crops easier to grow, but the market opportunity for them in Riau is very large4. By diversifying their crops, farmers can develop new sources of income and avoid the pitfalls of monoculture.
In order to enhance the farmers' yields and livelihoods, various methods are utilised by the field teams, including training and support to improve farming practices. Farmers receive training on various topics, such as soil management, pest control, harvesting, and pruning. These topics are carefully selected to aid farmers in boosting their crop yields and incomes. For instance, employing appropriate pruning techniques could enhance crop quality and ensure plant health.
"We have received valuable support from the Earthworm Foundation in implementing good agricultural practices for palm oil, particularly in terms of technical knowledge in agriculture, despite having been farmers for decades," shared Adi Pranoto, Yono, and Darno, who are farmers from Surya Indah, Pelalawan district.
By April 2023, 403 farmers were coached on Good Agricultural Practices, and 70 farmers among them were applying Best Management Practices in their plantations. Harvesting has been made more efficient, reducing waste and increasing the amount of produce that could be sold.
The team also encourages the farmers to form a company to help them better organise their business. By working together, they are able to access capital more easily from the government, banks and other sectors. This is crucial in ensuring the farmers have the necessary resources to succeed in their new venture.
Siti, a field agricultural extension worker, said that the initiative has helped their work and is also tackling food security in the area. Corn for chicken feed that used to be sourced from West Sumatra can now be sourced locally, at a cheaper price. Siti also invited the Provincial Office to visit to check the quality of the corn, which is still being analysed.
As the programme progressed, more farmers in the region and even neighbouring regions were expected to benefit from sustainable livelihoods, while also promoting forest conservation and the welfare of people.