Soewarno: Supporting smallholders on the ground at scale

Soewarno in front of an oil palm plantation in Kotawaringin Barat District.

Organizing smallholders into farmer groups brings plenty of benefits but is a herculean effort that requires consistent support from all stakeholders. Soewarno, a longtime champion of rural community development in Kotawaringin Barat, is up for the task.

In Kotawaringin Barat, a palm oil-producing district in Central Kalimantan, smallholders have pushed a new wave of sustainable palm oil certification to the forefront. Some nights, these farmers of a district-level smallholder association would gather local smallholders for meetings or training sessions. 

“Sometimes we’d do it at night because farmers are busy working at plantations throughout the day,” said Soewarno, the leader of the association named Asosiasi Petani Lestari Kelapa Sawit (APLKS) from Pangkalan Dewa village.

The wave of organizing is revving up in his village and other villages across Kotawaringin Barat. However, a few years ago, many independent smallholders in Pangkalan Dewa village had yet to get certified. Back then, certification seemed costly and complex. But when they heard many good things about certification and sustainability training, including the increased productivity and profits for small farmers from nearby villages, they were intrigued.

“We heard how other smallholders from our neighboring village got training from Kaleka, became certified, and enjoyed all of the various benefits,” Soewarno recalled. “We hoped to be able to get the same chance,”

In September 2020, Kaleka was set to establish a jurisdictional smallholder association called Asosiasi Petani Lestari Kelapa Sawit (APLKS) that covers the entire Kotawaringin Barat. 

With years of experience in community development for a plantation company under his belt, Soewarno, who is also an oil palm farmer, has been appointed to helm the district-level certification entity.

“A jurisdictional smallholder association is on a completely different scale. In plasma farms, it was just around 400 farmers, but here we’re talking about certifying 1,320 farmers,” Soewarno said. 

Soewarno, third from left, leads a meeting

The core assistance for farmers is the training of trainers on sustainability certification. Key figures of farmer groups in several villages are coached and taught on sustainability principles, good agricultural practices, and auditing. These trainers will then help their member farmers to obtain and maintain certifications, both RSPO and ISPO.

The association also helps smallholders to keep records of their on-farm activities and harvests. “The farmers will inform the trainers on their harvest,  who will collect data from all member farmers,” Soewarno explained.

So far, the farmers are slowly trying to adopt sustainable farming practices, such as using personal protective equipment and applying fertilizers efficiently. 

At times, the job got tough, too. Despite the massive campaign promoting sustainable farming as easy and beneficial, some farmers still didn’t buy it. They’d say, ‘We don’t need to follow such complicated procedures because we already can make money anyway,’” he said. “Nevertheless, I continue to promote sustainable palm oil all the way. I want to show them that what we’re doing here is the right thing.”

Soewarno (left) during one of the meetings with the farmers

Joining farmer organizations and obtaining certification will contribute to the income of smallholders and give them more bargaining power. The various programs from the organization will allow small-scale farmers to reap bigger and better harvests while managing their land sustainably, access markets and credits, and achieve food security.

In the future, Soewarno has high hopes for the association to enhance farmer welfare further. “I also hope we reach another milestone, such as including 2,000 farmers or more and expanding our coverage into other areas,” said Soewarno. “I wish we can certify all smallholders in the entire district of Kotawaringin Barat.”