Challenges ahead for local women smallholders

Without good roads, these women oil palm growers have to wade across a swift flowing river to get to their farm.

THIS is a new phenomenon.

Fifteen to 20 years ago, not many could have imagined Dayak women oil palm planters would be driving the best Toyotas and other vehicles in Ulu Niah.

Now, Indai Patrick, from Sekaloh, Niah, is upbeat about her life following successful harvests of her oil palm over the past few years.

She told thesundaypost her husband, a government servant, had been giving her a hand at the farm during the weekends while their own relatives and part-time Indonesian workers also helped out.

“I’m glad we all have this extra income to build a new longhouse with the best of fittings. Now, we also have more money to spend and save. In a few years’ time, if the fresh fruit bunches (FFBs) can fetch better prices, we will be looking for a second vehicle. My longhouse people use gotong-royong to send the fruits to the ramps or mills. If we had our own mini truck, it would definitely be even better,” she said.

Meanwhile, Indai Ipis, a smallholder from Ulu Niah, had just picked up her daughter Patty, an undergraduate at UCSI, from Sibu.

Patty is now in her third year and her parents are paying her tuition fees.

She said if her mother had not decided to be a planter, she would not have been able to develop their land.

Indai Ipis owns more than 20 acres of oil palm on NCR land, passed to her by her grandparents who settled in Ulu Niah in the 1920’s.

She is married to Marin Jiram, a member of the Dayak Oil Palm Planters’ Association (DOPPA) and a retired Petronas technician.

Marin was already keen on oil palm smallholdings even some 10 years before his retirement. Initially, he and Indai Ipis spent every weekend cultivating oil palm seedlings. Today, they are full-time smallholders.

Both are aware of EU demands on the Malaysian oil palm industry and the several concerns raised recently, especially in Sarawak and Sabah. They have been following the news through DOPPA.


Timely formation

In Sarawak, the formation of DOPPA is timely. The Association’s ‘Aram Besawit Programme’ was held in Pakan, Bau, Selangau, Julau, Limbang, Kanowit and Long Lama in 2017.

DOPPA is well supported by an active and determined main committee and a large number of keen members.

Now the membership stands at over 1,000.

A woman carries an FFB-filled basket on her back.

DOPPA has several objectives which include:

(1)          Encouraging landowners to cultivate oil palms to increase their income.

(2)          Encouraging Dayak smallholders to boost their yields by adopting good agricultural practices in line with those of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and Malaysian Sustainable Oil Palm (MSOP).

(3)          Raising awareness of MSPO in view of the latest global constraints, rules and regulations enacted by EU. By 2019, all oil palm big companies and smallholders must be certified MSPO or the EU will not recognise Malaysian oil palm products.

(4)          Planning to increase its membership among Dayak planters.

DOPPA vice president Rita Insol, a law graduate, told thesundaypost, “Workshops, seminars and meetings organised by the association, are well attended. To help smallholders understand global stands on oil palm production, DOPPA has been holding seminars and workshops since its formation.

“Presently, to meet EU and other global standards and also help Dayak planters, three regional clusters, based on geographical locations — southern, central and northern — have been formed. And each is further clustered accordingly.

“For instance, Selangau is considered one cluster and Bintulu and Tatau have become one smaller cluster. Miri and Limbang are clustered as one.”

DOPPA committee member Alexander Isut and his wife Regina, a former teacher, have been growing oil palm during the weekends since 2009. Both retired recently.

With their savings, they bought 10 acres of NCR land, sharing boundaries with three other friends who together took 30 acres. The couple has friendly neighbours who want to develop their land together.

In the beginning, Alexander and Regina had help from an Indonesian man and his wife who stayed at their farm house, to plant the seedlings.

They, in turn, helped the Indonesian couple to get their passports renewed but it wasn’t easy.

Alexander and Regina had problems getting more workers from Indonesia as the labour agents weren’t able to help due to their land status, being still NCR.

Fresh fruit bunches are taken to the mill by pickup, which also provides transport for the family.

A major hassle

Subsequently, they tried to get Indonesian workers through the right agents but found it wasn’t worth the time and effort.

Regina explained, “Getting foreign workers to work for us is a major hassle. We have no title to our land, so we are disadvantaged. Most of the Iban women planters face the same problem — shortage of manpower. We really miss our first few Indonesian workers who were like family to us.”

On the origin of their oil palm seedlings, she said they were able to buy the right ones from Persatuan Peladang Subis, making them MPOB-compliant.

“Our fresh fruit bunches are, therefore, acceptable to any mills in Sarawak. Furthermore, the fruits we have been harvesting have really been some of the best we have seen.

“The kernels are big and the husk thin and they are very acceptable. I’m glad my husband and I decided to buy those certified seedlings from day one.”

They hired contractors to do the harvesting but stopped after Regina, especially, found they were not meticulous in their work.

She said they did not clear away the branches but simply lumped some old fruits with newly-ripen ones, adding that this made their FFBs harvest look bad and gave them a bad reputation.

So since 2012, they have doing their own harvesting.

Regina said, “It is very manageable. We work from section to section. I can do as much work as Alex. Actually, if we had a farm on our longhouse land, we would be doing gotong royong or berdurok with our relatives.

“But since we are in Beraya, far from our home village, we have to do our own work. Longhouse communities who plant oil palms have their traditional gotong royong — with everyone helping on rotation without any cash outlay.

“Many longhouse smallholders actually benefit from this traditional system. It is practised in Ulu Niah.”

Spraying pesticides and applying fertilisers is labour-intensive.

Regina, who is good at these jobs, said even if she had to do all the work by herself, it was quite all right.

“We’re fighting against time as the fruits are getting over-ripe, so we have to help ourselves. If we take a holiday, many of the fruits will be over-ripe and we face wastage.”

Rumah Sekaloh was mainly financed by incomes from oil palm.

Roads are important

A Dayak teacher and part-time oil palm planter, who wished to remain anonymous, said access roads are very important to them in cultivating oil palms.

He is happy some of the big companies have built roads, saying this has helped transform owners of idle land into modern oil palm smallholders.

“The roads will help all of us to transport our FFBs to the mills and send our fruits to Marudi. Good roads also help to reduce the costs of maintaining of our vehicles.

“We look forward to better roads from Marudi to Long Lama,” said the planter, who is also diversifying into planting Musang King (durian), dabai and other tropical fruits

However, the most urgent issue to address is the nature of NCR land.

According to DOPPA, some 1.5 million ha of NCR land in Sarawak have largely been undeveloped or left idle.

Based on statistics, there are more than 22,000 Dayak planters forming 75 per cent of the state’s 36,000 oil palm smallholders. In total, they have cultivated more than 100,000 ha.

Also, by joining DOPPA, smallholders can join SPOC and get certified as a group at a much lower cost than individually. All who have bought MPOB-certified seedlings are MPOB-certified and can sell their FFBs to any mill in Sarawak.

Renggie Sam, a horticulture graduate and son-in-law of Indai Patrick, told thesundaypost, “Many smallholders are happy to just sell their FFBs to middlemen or collection centres without paying much attention to following standards or getting their NCR land recognised.

“But seriously, they must have better attitudes to become globally recognised oil palm growers. The state and federal governments should play their roles in guiding, advising, protecting and managing land use and farming subsidies.

“Land is a precious commodity. Without land ownership, many good Malaysian citizens will end up living under bridges or in squatter colonies. This will give Malaysia a bad name.”

He said the big companies could help by “growing together with the local communities”, adding that this is one way to move the economy forward and bring about the modernisation of agriculture.

“Furthermore, with EU and other global players calling for better management of human and agricultural resources in Malaysia, we will have to move faster to gain better bargaining powers.

“As loyal citizens of Malaysia, we need to upgrade our image as planters. Our children have aspirations and dreams to be useful citizens. We are the real grassroots of Malaysia,” he added.

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