Loss of palm oil fertiliser subsidies leaves Sumatra’s farmers reeling

Farmers face an uncertain transition to using composting methods to boost nitrogen content in plantation soil, as Indonesia has removed palm oil from a list of commodities qualifying for subsidised chemical fertilisers.

Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil, which is found in countless consumer products, from soap to instant noodles. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

In a sweltering oil palm field in Batanghari village, Rokani fixes a sickle to an 11-metre (36-foot) pole and begins cutting down bunches of fruit from the treetops. If he can harvest 1 ton of oil palm fruit, Rokani, 58, will be paid 250,000 rupiah (US$17).

“If the fruit is no good then you don’t get a ton from 1 hectare,” Rokani told Mongabay Indonesia at his workplace in Lampung, the easternmost province on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island.

Like millions of others across Indonesia, Rokani, a father of six, worries about the government’s removal of palm oil from the list of commodities qualifying for fertiliser subsidies. Many fear losing their livelihood as they struggle to maintain productivity from smallholdings without access to cheap chemicals.

In 2022, the Ministry of Agriculture withdrew palm oil from the list of commodities available for fertilisers subsidised by the taxpayer. Indonesia allocates subsidies for nine food goods and is prioritizing three plantation commodities — coffee, cocoa and sugar cane — for subsidised fertiliser, according to ministry officials.

Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil, which is found in countless consumer products, from soap to instant noodles. The value of palm oil exports accounted for more than half Indonesia’s trade surplus in 2022, and the government depends on revenues from the cash crop to fund public spending.

Rokani says he believes the dearth of cheap fertiliser could lead many of Indonesia’s more than 2 million palm oil smallholders to fail.

“If the upkeep isn’t optimal, then the yield of the fruit will decline,” said Rokani.

In response to clipped access to chemical fertilisers, some farmers are shifting to organic alternatives, but the change presents short-term challenges.

Lampung farmer Ikhwan Mulyanto mixes cow manure, ash and EM4, a culture of microorganisms, and leaves it to stand for a fortnight before spreading the batch on his 2 hectares (5 acres) of farmland.

“I measure 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of fertiliser, put it in a sack and place it at around 80 centimetres (31.5 inches) away from the palm trunk,” Ikhwan said. “The goal is for it not to be carried away by rainwater.”

Ikhwan has applied this mixture since the end of 2021 but said this method can take longer to benefit the soil. If Ihkwan does not fertilise his oil palm trees, then he expects the yield of oil palm fruit will decline by 30 per cent.

Some farmers report that open-market fertiliser costs could be borne by the farmer if oil palm prices remain high. Typically farmers would need to spend 4.5 million rupiah (US$302) annually in order to fertilise a plantation area of 3 hectares (7.4 acres). For some farmers, that could be a manageable equilibrium.

“As long as the price of palm oil is not less than 1,500 rupiah (US$0.10) per kilogram,” said Cipuk, 73, a farmer from Batanghari village.

Widodo, the head of a local farming cooperative accounting for almost 300 farmers in Wonorejo village, said he had requested meetings with the local government to address farmers’ concerns over fertiliser access.

“Assistance is needed for farmers to be able to make quality organic fertiliser,” Widodo said.

In response, Yuli Astuti, acting head of plantations at Lampung’s provincial agriculture department, said her office was attempting to implement a new program to aid farmers.

“But it’s still in the data collection stage,” Yuli said. “The program has not yet started.”

A minority of farmers in Lampung province have already begun employing organic alternatives to chemical fertilisers.

Suprayitno, a farmer in East Lampung district, explained there were downsides in using chemical fertilisers, such as destruction of microbes, but also pointed to risks of disease affecting oil palm fronds if composting is used incorrectly.

“If the soil is damaged, it will be difficult for the roots to develop,” he said.

Instead, Suprayitno has studied the correct method of processing manure to maintain soil integrity, although he concedes the process is more labour-intensive.

“Admittedly, it takes more effort,” he said.

Dermiyati, a professor at the University of Lampung’s agriculture faculty, explained that the province’s farmers could use almost any biomass left over from the farming process as compost.

“Likewise, any liquid waste or solid waste from the cooking oil industry,” Dermiyati said.

Cropping an oil palm field with legumes was another viable strategy to draw in nitrogen owing to rhizobium bacteria that exist in root nodules, she added.

But some farmers, like 58-year-old Rokani, who are used to chemical products, may struggle to grasp new methods that take time to bear fruit.

“I could lose my work,” Rokani told Mongabay Indonesia, “when you consider how old I am now.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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