For American cinematographer Patrick Fries, visiting palm oil plantations in Kalimantan especially having already a preconceived notion about them, offered little relief and put a stress on the urgency of finding rapid ways to boost productivity in order to stem the destructive expansion of the crop.

Patrick Fries

The director of Arrowhead, a film, and interactive communication company, recently made a 10-day swing to West Kalimantan to produce a documentary on palm oil commissioned by the Bangkok office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP.)

Although far from enough to provide him with a clear picture of the Indonesian palm oil industry, Fries said the visit had still managed to show him how expansive was the palm oil monoculture plantations and how important was the role the commodity in improving the life of local communities.

“From my perspective it is hum.. regrettable, it is heart-wrenching to see what was once pristine forests now completely monoculture. It is hard to reckon with that,” Fries told The Palm Scribe on the sideline of shooting some scenes and interviews for the documentary at Universitas Indonesia.

Fries added quickly that he also had the opportunity to see communities of extreme poverty hanging on the dream that the crop would help lift them out of their misery.

“We have seen them…. how poor these people are and how important this commodity is, and there is no question that it is making the difference in millions of people’s life,” he said.

For him, the ubiquitous sight of oil palm trees in West Kalimantan reminded him of the California gold in late 1800.

“My first impression was, my God, this is like a gold rush to them, everybody has five or ten palm seedlings in their front yard and they are all hoping to cash in,” he said.

Fries said that coming from the West, with “an intuition and a preconceived notion” about the palm oil industry, he, therefore, sought to have an Indonesian host for the documentary “to make sure that we have an Indonesian perspective.”

His choice fell on Nadine Zamira Syarief, an Indonesian Sustainability and Communications professional currently working in Washington for the Rainforest Alliance.

Zamira said that while also being depressed at the sight of the scale of deforestation and land conversion, her conversations with farmers and workers during the trip, showed how important the crop was to their life.

“They said that they now have this steady income, although it is at minimum wage and the company is making hundreds of millions of dollars, but it is income that they did not have. It is security they did not have before,” she said.

“It is one thing reading about it, and another thing to talk to them and they say: now, yes, I can now put my kids to school, now I can afford some sort of healthcare… So basically, they are saying palm oil is life, that is where we hung up our hopes and dreams. Our life is in that industry.”

Fries said that the visit to Ketapang and Sintang districts also gave them the cold realization of what could also happen in yet undeveloped and forest-clad areas.

“I think that so much of this industry is already in place and there is no turning back, really. The question is how much more, how further will it go,” he said citing as an example, Papua, one of the last frontiers where abundant forests are rapidly being converted to the plantation and other commercial uses.

Fries said that after having flown under the radar for a long time, palm oil but was now in the crosshair.

“But the one thing that strikes me is that it is as if we haven’t learned from all the mistakes, from all the other places in the planet, from Brazil to Europe and the United States, that once you destroy the forest, it can’t come back,” he said.

Companies, he said, are now realizing that there is a price to pay for bulldozing, clearing pristine forests. And not only publicly-traded companies, as many are finding that consumers increasingly decide on whether or not to buy a product depending on whether they are sustainably produced.

But changing hard ingrained habits and practices among smallholders was another matter, even if they knew it may result in increased yield.

“I think they have not felt that impact, how good agricultural practices or good certification can somehow add value to their produce,” Zamira said adding that especially in the area she visited, there was also an oversupply of palm oil and farmers were also getting cheated by some of the mills.

She said that there was also a downside to certification, as once they get certified the farmers would have difficulties selling their certified palm oil to uncertified mills who actually do not really care where the fruits came from.

Fries said that while some 40 percent of the global palm oil supply comes from smallholders, their yield was still far below those of the big producers.

“I kind of walk away thinking well, if it is going to be there, I’d rather it runs at peak capacity.  Makes sure that every hectare gets the maximum amount out of it… so it always comes back to the yield,” he said.

Was there still hope? Fries took sometimes before he could answer.

“The moral of the story for me is that it is not good or bad, it is good and bad,” Fries said, adding that he had met people on his trip that was changing their mindset, and this gave him hope for some changes in the way the commodity is managed.

He said that he was aware that palm oil is a big business, it is important to the national economy and that there was no turning back. And despite a national action plan, policies, programs, and projects, deforestation was still progressing fast.

“I wouldn’t say I walked away from that field feeling hopeful…the only hope is that they will continue to improve the technology to raise the yields. If you can get six tons per hectares instead of five, there is your solution.”

“But you’d better hurry up, that is the thing.”

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