Village forests in an oil palm landscape: can they co-exist?

6 juin 2019

By applying for a village forest permit, the villagers of Laman Satong in West Kalimantan prevented their forest from being converted into an oil palm plantation. But they did not ban oil palm completely.


On 10 April 2019, at 9 in the morning, around 30 people gather in a clearing in the forest of Laman Satong in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. They have come together to plant trees. After a short welcome by Victor Sryianto, the village head, everyone starts working under the already scorching sun. Within two hours, they have planted hundreds of seedlings, including a variety of fruit trees and some perennial crops such as coffee. In four years, this part of the forest will start to generate income for the community.

Sryianto is a lean man in his mid-40s, wearing a baseball cap and a friendly smile. After all of the seedlings have been planted, his shirt drenched in sweat, he sits down at the edge of the restoration plot, where the crowns of large trees provide welcoming shade.

He explains why the forest is important to his village. “It provides us with fruit, vegetables, medicines, construction material and water,” he says, “and because of the forest, we can live in a fresh and clean environment. It may not make us rich, but it is important in other ways. If the forest is healthy, the community will be strong – mentally, morally and physically.”


Laman Satong is a village of around 2,500 people in the southern part of West Kalimantan. The hills just north of the village are covered with a dense, dark-green forest, an anomaly in the otherwise monotonous landscape of oil palm that is so characteristic in this part of the world.

In recent years, rice fields, rubber trees and natural forests have been replaced with vast stretches of oil palm plantations. The environmental consequences have been severe: the habitats of many plants and animals, such as the orangutan, have been lost or fragmented.

In the early 2000s, it looked like the forest of Laman Satong would also be converted to oil palm. Around that time, the government started developing plans to lease the land to a commercial oil palm company. But the community had other ideas. They partnered with several NGOs and successfully applied for a so-called village forest permit.

With this permit, they are legally allowed to use and manage 1,070 hectares of forest on the hills adjacent to the village for a period of 35 years – meaning the government cannot hand out concessions to commercial companies on this land, so the community has the exclusive right to manage the area. Without the permit, the village would probably have lost its forest, says Sryianto.


At first sight, Laman Satong seems to have managed to prevent the expansion of oil palm plantations on its customary village territory. But that is not the whole story. While setting aside a part of their land for conservation, they reserved another part for oil palm. “The oil palm companies are like our godfathers,” says Sryianto. “They provide us with employment and income.”

The villagers – organized into cooperatives – have entered into partnerships with two large oil palm companies. In these partnerships, the company uses the village’s land for oil palm cultivation and shares the benefits of the sale of the harvest with the community. This has so far provided a steady source of income. In addition, many villagers work as employees for one of the oil palm companies or have their own plots of oil palm.

As a native of the area, Abu Bakar has seen the landscape change over the years, and he is worried about the consequences. “Since the oil palm plantations came, the temperature has been changing,” he says. “Before, it would still be cool and pleasant in the morning, whereas now it is already very hot at 8 a.m..” This experience corresponds with recent research that links oil palm plantations to increased local temperatures.

Although Bakar is concerned about the transformation of the landscape, it did not prevent him from cutting his field with rubber trees and replacing them with oil palm.

“The price of rubber was just not high enough,” he says. “With oil palm, I can earn much more. Moreover, when I still had rubber trees, I had to go to the field to tap the rubber every day, while now, I only have to harvest once every two weeks.”

Both Sryianto and Bakar stress that oil palm has brought unprecedented levels of prosperity to the village. Although this may not be representative of all villages in the region – the oil palm sector has been associated with widespread negative socioeconomic impacts – it does show that villagers do not always see themselves as victims of the oil palm industry.


Sryianto uses his position as village head to make sure that the boundaries and regulations of the village forest are clear and understood, and to spread awareness of the value of the forest to the villagers. The message has certainly landed with Bakar, whose oil palm plot is located about two kilometers from the village forest. “I know why it is important,” he says. “I know that losing the forest would be a disaster for me and my oil palm.”

“The village forest functions as a water reservoir,” Sryianto explains, “and this is particularly important for oil palm farmers, because their plantations need a lot of water. Some villagers do not understand this, or they don’t want to understand. They want to open up the forest to start new fields. Therefore, every time there is an event in the village, I remind the community members that it is important to conserve our forest.”


Among the people that gathered to plant tree seedlings in the Laman Satong village forest are villagers and NGO staff, as well as representatives of one of the two oil palm companies active in the area. After planting, they are sitting together, enjoying the coffee and snacks that were brought to the restoration plot in a pickup truck.

This exemplifies the way in which different groups in the Laman Satong area are working together, says Sryianto. It is not just the community and the NGOs that are interested in protecting the forest – the oil palm company is on board as well. He explains that the community sells seedlings to the company, which uses them to restore areas within its oil palm concession.

They are also currently discussing the creation of a wildlife corridor between the village forest of Laman Satong, the Gunung Palung National Park and a high-conservation-value forest maintained by the oil palm company. According to Sryianto, it is not the village against the company. In Laman Satong, they’re all on the same team.

This story also appeared on Tropenbos International, as part of its series on forest tenure. This series will be continue to be co-published on Landscape News in the lead-up to the 2019 \, 22-23 June, highlighting the forum’s theme of rights.

Landscape News, Koen Kusters

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