Musdhalifah Machmud Deputy Minister for Food and Agriculture

Do not mention the word “lose” in front of her when talking about Indonesian palm oil that is now busy parring waves of the negative campaign from many corners. Don’t even mumbles “the slightest chance of maybe losing”. Musdhalifah Machmud knows her game very well, and she believes that not too long in the future, the world will understand that palm oil is not just a necessity for global food security, but also plays a pivotal role for millions of Indonesians.

“Palm oil is one of the main producers of vegetable oil. In the context of food security, it has provided enough food for the people at a reasonable price, because we can get it directly from our domestic industry that has a sufficient production,” she told The Palm Scribe in an exclusive interview at her office within the Coordinating Ministry for the Economy.

“We have contributed to world food security through oil palm, through the supply of vegetable oils to the world. Not only in the context of the oil, but also its derivatives,” she said firmly, adding that palm oil and its derivatives can be found in most of the food products as well as in other consumer goods.

“There is no doubt that oil palm is the most competitive, and we believe it can be produced in a sustainable manner. In the global context, we also contributed significantly to the availability of food, ” Machmud said.

As Deputy Minister for Food and Agriculture, palm oil is just one of many items in the long list of food and agricultural policies and problems in the country that she has to accord her attention on. Born in Ujung Pandang, Sulawesi in 1964, she graduated from the Forestry Department of the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) before taking her Master degree at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), majoring in Social and Economic Development.

As if her thirst for knowledge knows no boundaries, she is currently finishing her Doctoral studies at the Business School of the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB).

Being in the know about the whole picture surrounding palm oil in Indonesia, Machmud believes that the government has done almost everything it had been requested to meet a high palm oil standard.

“We make improvements in the country to show the world that Indonesia is carrying out various policies, that our oil palm cultivation is carried out sustainably and in an environmental manner. We fulfill fair social and economic principles from upstream to downstream,” she said.

According to Machmud, the government has accorded its attention to the strengthening of ISPO, an Indonesian standard set up in 2011 that relates to principles of environmental friendliness, Good Agricultural Practices, socio-economic, employment, traceability, and transparency.

The government has also issued Presidential Instruction no. 8/2018 on a moratorium, a new policy to boost national palm oil output with stress on raising the productivity of existing oil palm plantations rather than the opening up of new plantations. Indonesia has also embarked on a comprehensive legal review of existing forestry and agricultural concessions, and increased law enforcement against forest crimes while addressing issues with local communities.

Indonesia has also introduced a ‘one map policy’ that is expected to bring more clarity into the country’s land use and avoid the grey areas and overlapping use ownership of land.

Local governments have also been busy in boosting their ability and capacity in preventing as well as dealing with forest and ground fires that have in the past greatly contributed to the substantial amount of greenhouse gas emitted by the country. The role and participation of the people in this effort have also been stepped up.

A policy is also in place, governing what forest areas can be released for cultivation, settlements and other purposes and what must remain as protected forest areas. The policy also includes how long the land can be used as an oil palm plantation before it is returned to the forest again.

“Why do they always point out at palm oil? Even though we only use a total of 25 million hectares in areas in the world, compared to rapeseed, soybean, etc? They should try to not only correct palm oil, but all other vegetable oils. In the name of fairness, do they also have good standards for other vegetable oils?” she said.

“It is precise because of its high contribution and high competitiveness when compared to other vegetable oils, that oil palm is receiving a significant resistance. I believe all this negative campaign is caused by economic competition. Once we get the world’s recognition, we will be able to enter many industrial segments to fulfill various needs, ” Machmud explained.

According to Machmud, a vast country like Indonesia with its large population and human resources also has the right to access its own natural resources.

“We must have a balance between development and human needs, as stated in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which cover all aspects from health access, zero hunger, education, good sanitation etc. With oil palm, we can meet 12 to 15 of the 17 SDGs categories. The environment is only one of the 17 SDG indicators,” Machmud pointed out.

For Machmud, although palm oil was now the biggest contributor of foreign exchange for Indonesia, it is also equally important for the country to start taking care of its other commodities, such as coffee, cacao, rubber, if it wanted to raise and spread people’s welfare.

“If the people are prosperous, the environment will follow … there are still many people who need help, so palm oil actually helps our people too,”

Empowering Smallholder Farmers

Machmud said that the government’s main goal is to empower palm oil smallholders, farmers. It introduced a replanting program in 2017, aimed at boosting the yields of smallholder plantations, from a low average of two tons to up to eight tons per hectare per year, through the provision of superior seeds as well as the application of Good Agricultural Practices.

The program, however, as yet to achieve its target, because the process involves not just technical, but also cultural and mindset problems.

“Sometimes, there is this mental attitude of ‘why should I achieve eight tons when two tons is enough’. This is the same problem we find with rice farmers because our people are always grateful for their situation. It is a challenge, how to encourage our farmers to be more advanced,” she said.

The Agriculture ministry is also encouraging farmers, including smallholders to keep looking for suitable intercrops for their oil palm plantations. Machmud argues that different locations provide different challenges, but in general nuts are seen as suitable for palm oil plantations because they are rich in nitrogen which is good for the soil.

“Sometimes corn is good. Other times, fruits are good, although they bring their own pests which might be harmful to palm oil,” she explained.

Palm Oil as an Alternative to Clean Energy

The State Electricity Company (PLN) has started trials on the use of pure Crude Palm Oil (CPO), also known as B100 as a substitute for diesel fuel. Machmud is optimistic that Indonesia could eventually substitute the use of fossil fuel.

The deputy minister also said that the government has had discussions with fellow palm oil producers Malaysia and Colombia to start trials on the use of palm oil as a fuel for airplanes, or bio-avtur.  With continuous innovation and technological advances, Indonesia may in the future have no need to import fuel anymore, she said.

At the end of the day, Machmud believes that producers should be united in facing the negative sentiments against palm oil, which she once again stressed, was caused by nothing but a commodity competition. “Because they want to protect their farmers, so we too, have to protect our farmers and our country”.

“It’s called a fight: we fight continuously because they also struggle to eliminate oil palm in the context of global trade. We fight, they fight. Palm oil producing countries must work together to maintain the existence of palm oil in the global market,” she said.

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