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The Gender Dimensions of Oil Palm Investments in East Kalimantan, Indonesia

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Photo: Agus Andrianto/CIFOR
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This is part of the Global Study on Innovation and Development Through Transformation of Gender Norms)

Brief Report on rationale for case study site selection, methodology and very preliminary findings, September 2014.

Rebecca Elmhirst, Mia Siscawati

Aims of the research in the context of the Gender Norms Global Study

The study investigates the gendered dimensions and effects of land investments in oil palm through four case studies in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Research has shown that whilst oil palm may be welcomed as an important source of revenue for both smallholders and large scale private and state sector enterprises, its expansion has also been associated with dispossessions from and degradation of land, water and common property resources, with considerable implications for the well-being and future of those affected. The aim of this research is to address a knowledge gap in terms of the gender dimensions of these processes, with a focus on the ways men and women are engaged in oil palm production, how such engagements may be reshaping or reinforcing prevailing gender norms and power relations, and the gendered impact investment in oil palm is having on well-being, livelihoods and equity. Five key questions (and associated research propositions) have been developed to investigate the multi-dimensional gender impacts of land investments in oil palm:

  1. How do changes in oil palm trajectories (from the issuance of concessions through establishment and the realization of commercial production) affect variously positioned women’s and men’s economic choices, livelihoods and gendered divisions of labour?
  2. How does the structure and governance of the palm oil chain affect the ways in which men and women participate (e.g., migrant workers, smallholder farmers)? What are the terms and conditions of their work (e.g., their position within the labor process, wages, benefits, etc.)?
  3. How does men’s and women’s access to and use of land change as oil palm replaces rubber, low-value lands, rice fields, or primary forests?
  4. How are customary systems of ownership affected as agreements between smallholders, governments, and companies collaborate to develop the palm oil chain? How are men and women differentially affected by these changes?
  5. How are the benefits of smallholder cultivation of palm oil or wage work in the sector distributed within households? To what extent are women and men who are contributing labor to the household enterprise benefitting equitably?

Cross-cutting these questions is a series of questions concerning gender norms and agency:

  1. How might local manifestations of gender norms – rules prescribing women’s and men’s roles and behaviour in their society – be characterised?
  2. What impacts do such gender norms have on women’s and men’s agency (understood as the ability to define one’s own goals and act upon them)?
  3. In what ways are gender norms and capacities for agency changing? How are gender norms and women’s and men’s agency changing, and under what conditions do these changes catalyze innovation and lead to desired development outcomes (CGIAR SLOs)? What contextual factors influence this relationship?

Overall, the research aims to develop an in-depth understanding of the interaction between land investments in oil palm and gender norms and capacities for agency, in order to assess the gender impacts of oil palm in East Kalimantan.

Selection of cases

Whilst following the case selection criteria of the global study (in terms of gender gaps in assets and capabilities, and the existence of economic dynamism, in this case, in relation to oil palm investment), specific criteria are adopted to probe changing gender norms in the context of different experiences with oil palm investment. The study comprises five case study sites in East Kalimantan, Indonesia selected according to (i) the mode of incorporation of the community into oil palm systems; with attention paid to a comparison between (ii) oil palm business models (corporate or smallholder); (iii) ethnicity of the case study community (e.g. Dayak groups, Javanese transmigrant, Bugis migrant, other ethnic groups as these emerge in the study); and (iv) the local natural resource context (upland, mid-watershed or coastal). Comparing the cases in this way will test the proposition that the social and gender impacts of oil palm reflect largely the ways in which communities have been incorporated into oil palm systems.The comparison will further extend this analysis to consider how the dynamics of gender norms in different ethnic groups shape (and are shaped by) investments in oil palm according to these different modes of incorporation, the terms under which communities are engaging with oil palm, and how well-being and equity in the context of oil palm development relates to geographical context (i.e. the relative availability of off farm or natural resource alternatives).

Following visits to seven potential field sites in Berau and the subdistrict of Telen, East Kutai, five sites were selected as case studies for the project:

  1. Long Ayan, kecamatan Segah: a Gaai Dayak community in an upland area (Upper Segah) in which livelihoods are characterised by ladang, rattan collection, some kebun (subsistence) and cash income from gold mining. Oil palm concessions have impacted on the community in terms of land acquisition, but also in terms of labour opportunities for women (cash income), social importance of forest landscape. There is some independent investment in oil palm (to compare with other communities). Oil palm appears to be altering the gender divisions of labour in natural resource management as men responsible for (increasingly geographically distant) ladang, whilst women work on the oil palm. There is intensification of a cash economy also. Questions may also centre on the gendered aspirations of young people in the context of oil palm transformations.
  1. Gunung Sari, kec. Segah: the study will focus on 3 neighbourhoods within this village, known collectively (and slightly pejoratively) as ‘Kampung TKI’, lit, tenaga kerja Indonesia, an acronym for ‘migrant workers’. This is a ‘community’ comprising 3 neighbourhoods created by the arrival of migrants of Indonesian origin (largely from Sulawesi), many of whom have recently returned from work in Malaysia as oil palm labourers. The returnees have invested independently in oil palm on land they have bought as smallscale land investors. The precise mechanism for this mode of incorporation is a subject for investigation but early indications suggest it is shaped by complex kinship networks linking this area with different parts of Sulawesi and Malaysia also. Key questions will be around whether this marks a different oil palm experience compared to Dayak communities. There is also a possibility to explore the gender dynamics of innovation through experiences as migrant workers, and through mobility more generally. A key focus for this case will be gender norms and dynamics within this migrant/land investment trajectory.
  1. Harapan Jaya, kec. Segah: A transmigration settlement close to Gunung Sari in the upper Segah area. Transmigration pre-dated the arrival of oil palm concessions, of which there are 4 in the area. The ethnic composition of transmigrant community is likely to be Javanese/Sundanese with characteristic farming systems (ladang, mixed cropping, small animals). Key questions will be around land tenure (as status of transmigrant land likely to be different from Dayak communities), and gender norms related to tenure, socio-cultural factors, and livelihood opportunities.
  1. Dumaring, Kec Talisayan: a Dayak Baloy / Baloi community in a coastal area. Livelihoods are characterised by ladang, kebun (coconut, kemiri), cash cropping of corn also. Fishing is also part of livelihoods. Of interest is the impact of a single oil palm company, Tanjung Buyu Perkasa, in terms of employment of women on the plantation, the impact on land availability for ladang and the presence of a large migrant workforce (mostly from NTT) with potential impacts on gender norms/every day life. There is some small-scale investment in oil palm by local community: to compare with Gunung Sari. A focus for this case study is on the comparative impact of oil palm in a context where opportunities for agricultural diversification are relatively high (compared to Long Ayan and Long Segar).
  1. Long Segar, Kec Telen, Kutai Timur: a Kenyah Dayak community in an upland area (studied intensively by Carol Colfer and colleagues from the early 1980s, long before oil palm). Here oil palm began in 2004. The site offers the opportunity to examine the impact of oil palm on swidden livelihoods (ladang perpindah, rattan collection) in a context where the social function of the landscape is altering. Oil palm has presented new employment opportunities for women, but ladang cultivation appears to take precedence. A key question will be how gender norms are changing in the context of oil palm development, and how certain gender norms (around subsistence cultivation for example) may remain strong.

Adapting the global study methodology

The global study methodology provides a useful framework for examining core questions around gender norms, and in this sense, is appropriate for tackling the questions at the heart of this study of gender and oil palm. In particular, the themes explored in the ‘ladder of life’ exercise, and in the ‘aspirations of youth’ exercise easily map on to the core questions of the gender and oil palm study, with some small modifications to ensure questions around oil palm feature in the research tools. The methodology enables exploration of the ways norms may be shifting or being reinforced in the context of investment in oil palm, particularly as this has such profound impacts of local livelihoods. However, aside from some issues around translation (phrases such as ‘characteristics of a good woman’ don’t translate in obvious ways), the global methodology has presented a number of challenges in the East Kalimantan oil palm context, which we have attempted to address through some additions to the research tools.

Incorporating the emphasis on ‘innovation’ in relation to oil palm. In this study, we deal with ‘innovation’ in two senses, first, seeing ‘oil palm’ as an innovation (where smallholders or other entrepreneurs have adopted oil palm to better their livelihoods), and secondly, investigating ‘innovations’ forged by communities as they adapt to the oil palm context. However, conceptually, the concept of ‘innovation’ reflects an overarching concern with capacity and capability, and whilst these elements are important themes within any consideration of gender norms, we have been keen to ensure that our methods enable a deep engagement with structural issues: land tenure, governance, the role of the corporate sector, landscape histories and the kinds of path dependencies these can throw up. Additional questions to capture some of these issues have been included in the methodology (in the community profile and focus group questions), specifically around processes of land acquisition and exclusions from other forms of livelihood, and the gender effects of these.

Emphasis on ‘communities of place’ – even from our initial scoping, it has become evident that migrant networks are a critical dimension of oil palm investments in East Kalimantan. Migrant ‘entrepreneurs’ from other parts of Indonesia, particularly Sulawesi, are playing a key role in landscape and livelihood change here. In Harapan Jaya, the transmigration community, further migration is also important: in recent years around 50 percent of the transmigrants have sold their lands to migrant land investors from Sulawesi and elsewhere, then moved to other areas to seek better livelihood). In other words, this is a landscape of intense geographical mobility for men and women, with large-scale in-migration (particularly from Sulawesi) and out-migration (particularly of transmigrants). Emerging patterns in the data suggest kinship networks that link the area with Sulawesi (and therefore Bugis and other ethnic groups) are key. Gender norms thus need to be understood in relation to migrant networks. For this reason, the definition of ‘community’ used in the global study to delimit case studies may limit the extent to which key social processes (such as the reshaping of gender norms) associated with oil palm investment can be ascertained. Some additions have been made to the global study methodology questions to address this, primarily by considering migrant life histories, and by exploring migrant networks in the community profiles. Moreover, the ways in which the team is constructing community profiles, coupled with key informant interviews beyond the community, will probe the ways in which external forces have shaped change – including gender norms, discourses and practices – in the communities historically (e.g. the role of logging companies, followed by commercial timber plantations and now oil palm, processes associated with political decentralisation and regional autonomy, and more recently, connections between oil palm developments in Malaysia and in Indonesia, linked as they are through circuits of labour and investment capital).

Individualised lives and livelihoods – an underlying thread within the methodology is an emphasis on individualised lives, aspirations and livelihoods, which sits uneasily with the social context particularly of Dayak communities, where lives are more communal, where there is still an emphasis on sharing, and on collective arrangements rather than overt individual enrichment at the expense of others. Concepts such as ‘land ownership’ carry a particular meaning in the sense that they have been imposed from outside. Many of the questions in the global study reflect a particular understanding of property and ownership, which don’t travel well, particularly in Dayak communities. As the study also involves work in communities where understandings of property, ownership and individual aspiration are closer to that implied in the methodology (e.g. in the transmigration community, in the way small-scale land investors are narrating their ‘purchase’ of land), we have had to be careful in enabling a comparison without imposing categories that ‘fit’ some contexts better than others, and that therefore are not ‘neutral’. In other words, we have to be mindful of the norms that underpin the study itself.

Gender norms and conjugal partnerships – another challenge faced in the East Kalimantan context is the emphasis on gender norms through a husband-wife dynamic. Whilst this may be important, other dimensions of gender relations may carry more weight in contexts where gender hierarchies within conjugal partnerships are less pronounced than is seen in other parts of the world. The role of wider kinship networks, extended families, clans and so forth play an important role in shaping, reinforcing and (possibly) challenging gender norms, especially where such social forms (e.g. clans) are meaningful in terms of contesting or accepting oil palm investment. Whilst the global methodology goes some way to addressing these kinds of questions, some of the wording of questions does not translate easily in a Dayak context. Where there has been space, probing questions have been added to the methodology.

Preliminary findings

So far, data collection has taken place in three of the five case study communities by the field team. Data collection in Dumaring will begin soon. However, as communities are now busy in their ladang, it has been agreed that data collection in the fifth village will be postponed until later this month. Data analysis has not been undertaken yet, so these comments are based on first impressions of the data and reflections of the field team.

  • Oil palm investment for communities such as Long Ayan presents new labour opportunities for some community members, even as their ladang is impacted by the acquisition of community land by oil palm companies. Within the Dayak community of Long Ayan, relative gender egalitarianism and flexible gender divisions of labour within households means that although there is quite specific gendering of tasks in relation to work on oil palm plantations (women working as daily labourers in relatively light tasks), there is some interchangeability of roles (in that men will help in domestic tasks and child care when women have gone to the plantation as wage labourers). Respondents have suggested that this is a continuation of past patterns. In other words, some aspects of gender norms have continued, even as new gender norms (in relation to the relatively fixed gendering of tasks on relatively recently established oil palm plantations) emerge.
  • Gunung Sari, and in particular, the three neighbourhoods dominated by migrants and independent investors in oil palm, offers a very different perspective on oil palm in which this crop, and the social arrangements that arise around it, might be interpreted as an ‘innovation’. In this community, gender norms still reflect women’s association with the domestic realm. However, investment in oil palm has meant they have an expanded role in working alongside their husbands in this work, usually undertaking particular ‘women’s tasks’, e.g. collecting litter, weeding, collecting palm fruit, whilst men are responsible for opening new land and more heavy tasks generally.
  • Harapan Jaya, a relatively long-established transmigration area, has also been subject to the impact of oil palm. Here, women’s role is constructed through norms that associate them partly with everyday domestic tasks (cooking, child care), but also with vegetable farming and marketing: livelihood practices that may be prioritised over and above plantation work. Again, there appears to be a relatively ‘loose’ division of responsibilities in the household, with husbands and wives helping each other where necessary, even as the domestic sphere is mostly regarded as women’s responsibility.

For these, and the remaining two villages, the data being collected will provide much more detailed information on oil palm, impacts on tenure, livelihoods and gender norms (in so far as these play out through tenure arrangements, migration and mobility gender divisions of labour, and women’s own aspirations. In addition, we will be considering the kinds of gender norms associated with the oil palm companies (the discourses of gender that play out in relation to land acquisition, labour recruitment and the gendering of tasks within the labour process.

Next steps

Once data collection is completed in Dumaring, we will be holding a data analysis workshop in Berau, with the objective of reviewing the data and ascertaining whether there are any gaps and omissions that can easily be addressed. This workshop will also provide some tools for the team to begin their own preliminary analysis, drawing on the conceptual framework and previous literature reviewed for the study. In addition, the two co-PIs will be arranging and undertaking interviews with key personnel from oil palm companies and where relevant, local government departments.

Also see:

Social impacts of oil palm in Indonesia: A gendered perspective from West Kalimantan, CIFOR

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