Marlin: Learning to Farm Oil Palms Sustainably

Pak Marlin

Marlin and his family moved from East Java to a remote village in Central Kalimantan in the early 1980s. Now, the once-quiet village has developed rapidly from palm oil production, while Marlin has decided to become an independent oil palm farmer and learn about the principles of sustainable farming.

Marlin has various types of tasks to do throughout the day in Pangkalan Dewa Village, Pangkalan Lada, West Kotawaringin, Central Kalimantan. At around 5 AM, he goes out of the house to maintain his rubber plantation. After that, he rushes to the village office for work. Outside office hours, he continues working at the Appropriate Technology Service Post (Posyantek) until the afternoon.

“Sometimes my friends and I continue working at Posyantek until it gets dark,” said Marlin. “You can say that we’re still trying to start this business.”

Besides all that, Marlin, 48, is also an independent oil palm farmer. Almost all villagers work as oil palm farmers. Palm oil, as one would expect, is among the main factors of economic growth in Pangkalan Dewa Village.

The story of the transmigrants

Marlin along with his two younger siblings and parents moved from Blitar, East Java, to Kalimantan through the government’s transmigrant program in 1983. At that time, Marlin was still in 4th grade, and his family became immigrants in the first wave of the transmigration program in Pangkalan Dewa Village.

There, Marlin met transmigrant children who later became his new friends. These transmigrants came from different regions in East Java, such as Ponorogo, Nganjuk, and Jombang, as well as some regions in West Java.

At that time, the village looked like a tiny settlement in a forest, surrounded by dense trees and shrubs; there were no public facilities yet; the transmigrants had to live without electricity for years. There was no school building, so Marlin and the other children studied in an office room with a teacher hired to teach transmigrant children.

After the sun disappeared, residents got their light for their homes from traditional lamps. Electricity entered Pangkalan Dewa Village after about 10 years since the village was first established.

Along the way, many transmigrants felt that they couldn’t cope with the inconvenience and eventually chose to return to their hometowns.

“Honestly, living there was difficult at first,” said Marlin. “But in Blitar we only had houses and the land belonged to a company. It wasn’t ours. Meanwhile, in Kalimantan, we can get our own land. “

The government promised to give benefits for every transmigrant family. Among those were a house and 3 hectares of land, which then easily became the strong reasons for Marlin and the family to move and try to hold on in the tough environment in the isolated and newly-established village.

“We also received food rations for the first year,” added Marlin.

Pak Marlin’s oil palm plantations

Oil palm plantations

The early transmigrants at Pangkalan Dewa Village didn’t initially own any land for oil palms. Marlin’s parents, for example, grew secondary crops (palawija) to provide for their family. Oil palm plantations owned by the company arrived in the village in the mid-1990s. In 1997 only a handful of villagers could start planting and farming oil palms on their land.

Marlin only started to plant oil palm on his one-hectare plot of land in 2015. He cleared land and learned oil palm cultivation techniques from local plasma farmers.

Now, almost all residents of Pangkalan Dewa Village own gardens and become oil palm farmers. This shows why certification programs become even more important for smallholders to teach them to grow oil palms sustainably in an effort to protect the environment and prevent deforestation.

In 2017, Kaleka came to Pangkalan Dewa Village and helped independent smallholders to obtain sustainable palm oil certificates. The farmers also received various training sessions on how to plant oil palm, fertilizing tips, harvesting and post-harvesting handling practices, and wildfire mitigation.

“Now we pay more attention to how we fertilize oil palms, such as the dosage, the distance from the trunk, and the fertilization time,” explained Marlin. “Our harvests have become better now.”

Furthermore, the assisted farmers who are also the members of farmer groups have received a certificate of sustainable palm oil from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) last year. This certificate will also bring financial benefits to independent smallholders.