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In the first half of this dual post I discussed the environmental damage that has been caused by expanding oil palm plantations in South-East Asia. Basically this huge deforestation by large companies expanding their plantations to feed the global demand for palm oil has come at a great cost to both the atmosphere and the Orang-utans of the region. I discussed the drivers of deforestation and how Seed Change’s work actually reduces deforestation in Kigoma rather than repeating the mistakes of Malaysia and Indonesia. In this post I will address the distressing social effects of increasing oil palm plantations in South-East Asia and how we are learning from these mistakes to strengthen the position of small-holders in Kigoma.

Palm SunsetIn addition to causing wide spread deforestation, several large companies in South-East Asia, both private and state run, have had problems with local community engagement. Displacement of communities and compensation they may or may not have received is a common problem. Possibly as many as a few thousand land disputes remain unresolved in Indonesia alone with many more in Malaysia and other parts of the palm oil world. The use of migrant labour has also been an issue of contentions, particularly in Indonesia. These migrants tend to be from other regions of Indonesia rather than from overseas. In both cases – displacement and migrant labour use – local communities complain that their governments have forgot them and the profits being extracted from their land either fail to trick down or do not materialise at all. Small-holder farmers, a group living a daily battle to rise above poverty at the best of times, are being deprived of the things that can improve their lives – their land and their labour. To compound matters, small-holders often lack political voice to agitate for change or to have their claims to be fully addressed.

Here in Kigoma we are ideologically very much on the side of the small-holder. They are the reason for all Seed Change does. It is no surprise that we are actively working to make sure that the issues in South-East Asia do not appear here. Our primary method is to secure land titles for all farmers who receive Seed Change trees. The benefits of a secure land title are numerous. Financial institutions are more likely to make credit facilities available, land can be rented or sold easier, and for a woman who suffers the loss of her husband the likelihood of her also losing her land to her deceased husband’s family is greatly reduced by having a land title (fathers or brothers-in-law often lay claim to a widow’s land, leaving her and her children dependent on his largesse into the future). We are actively working on our land-titling program and hope to have titles for all farmers in the near future.
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In addition to land titles, our work also brings farmers together to discuss common challenges. These meetings are part of our Farmer Extension program. While this program is largely about education it is also about getting farmers to understand that they are not alone in their struggles and a great many things can be achieved when they work together. Farmers have already started to form groups, both formal and informal, to further their collective interests. This sort of civic action strengthens their political voice. Seed Change actively connects farmers with umbrella groups such as ANSAF that promote a united small-holder voice in national policy debates.

By strengthening and formalising small-holders’ land titles, we seek to give farmers some defence from land grabs or acquisitions by outside groups, such as large companies looking to set up South-East Asian style plantations. While such developments may happen in the future (and it does not necessarily have to be a bad thing) farmers with secure titles and who possess a strong political voice will at the very least have a seat at the table of any negotiations over their land. Furthermore by increasing the productivity of small-holders the incentive of a government, who is keen to see their country develop, to allocate land to a company promising to make the land “productive” rather than “idle” or “under-developed” is greatly reduced.

A network of productive small-holders with secure land titles greatly reduces the chances of a company being granted a concession to plant a large plantation. Any large plantation (15-20,000ha+) would likely involve a certain amount of large-scale deforestation. Seed Change’s work with land titles and facilitating the growth of a strong farmer voice prevents social conflicts from arising but also reduces the risk of large-scale deforestation.

Kizenga meetingThe negative effects of expanding oil palm plantations in South-East Asia are hard to deny. The environmental damage is catastrophic and the social effects will be felt for generations to come. However one should not through the baby out with the palm oil bathwater. The palm oil industry in Kigoma is a world away from the highly centralised, industrial complex of South-East Asia. The farmers here know little or nothing of the troubles of their counterparts in far off Malaysia or Indonesia. What they do know is that palm oil is a highly sought after commodity and they remain subsistence farmers struggling to have enough food to eat and money for their children’s schooling. To deny the possibility of a better life because of the mistakes of companies, consumers, and governments in other parts of the world would be as big of a sin as was committed upon the initial victims of oil palm expansion.

Because of the correctly well publicised mistakes and problems in SE Asia, in some parts of the world palm oil has become almost a by-word for environmental damage and social problems. However the issues with palm oil are emblematic of the problems and challenges facing agricultural globally. Palm oil has become a poster child for all that is wrong with agricultural development because a handful of large companies committed egregious acts on a large scale and over a short time. Yet all agriculture is beset with the problem of how to meet the growing demand for food, be a vehicle for development to the 2 billion people on small-hold farms globally, and preserve the environment to not exacerbate climate change or other problems. Certainly Seed Change does not pretend have all the answers (or any). But by empowering local people to control their own land, giving them a voice in decisions that affect them and their land, teaching them the best agricultural practices, and enabling them to get the most out of their current agricultural land so they can improve their lives and those of their families, we think we are hopefully moving down the right track.

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