Field notes from West Kalimantan: The unmet needs of rubber farmers
In February, a team of four Kopernik analysts, including myself, travelled to West Kalimantan, Papua and West Papua to meet with farmers and discuss the challenges and gaps they face in agricultural value chains. The fieldwork is part of the Unmet Needs Papua Kalimantan (2018) project, an initiative supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
We focused on four commodities for West Kalimantan - rubber, palm, coconut and rice - and as the top commodity in the province, natural rubber presented us with the most interesting insights.
Natural rubber has been cultivated in West Kalimantan’s local plantation as early as the turn of the twentieth century (Setyamidjaja, 1993). Some of the smallholder farmers we met inherited a part of their rubber plantation land from their parents or grandparents, who passed on traditional planting and harvesting practices.
Natural rubber liquid is commonly collected by slitting the tree bark usually every three days. The liquid will be left to coagulate into a small cup for 3-7 days before being sold to middlemen. From our observations, the rubber yields come in two types: (i) rubber lumps or as the locals like to call it bakwan, and (ii) rubber sheets.
Natural rubber is the top commodity in West Kalimantan (Photo credit: Nanda Riska/Kopernik)
A race against the weather and pests
As we met with farmers, we found that they are more inclined to sell their natural rubber in the form of rubber lumps rather than processing it into sheets. This is because rubber lumps can be sold as soon as the liquid hardens, requiring less labor and time compared to rubber sheets. However, rubber lumps are worth less than sheets when sold to middlemen as the former contains higher water content. Farmers can receive at least 1,500 rupiah extra income per kg of rubbers they produce if they chose to process it into rubber sheets.
We also learned that weather plays a key role in rubber cultivation. The sun expedites the rubber drying process, decreasing the water content. Rain, on the other hand, spoils the collected liquid. One farmer indicated that just a single occurence of heavy rain can wash away his entire harvest. Since farmers depend on their rubber plantation as their main source of income, unpredictable weather, especially in the context of climate change, significantly affects their livelihood.
Aside from the weather, farmers also face problems in increasing crop productivity and treating pests. Fertilizers, especially the recommended ones by farmer trainers, are too expensive for farmers, causing them to apply an insufficient amount of fertilizers — a practice that does not effectively improve crop productivity. Pak Andi, one of the farmers we interviewed, explained that covering half a hectare of land with fertilizers costs him approximately 1.5 million rupiah. However, most of the time, he can only afford a ceiling of 1 million rupiah worth of fertilizer.
Pesticides are costly and rarely available in the market, discouraging farmers from using them early in the cultivation process. This leads to higher risks of Jamur Akar Putih (Rigidoporus lignosus) outbreak, a deadly fungal pest common in the area which causes tree dysfunction.
Finding what works for rubber farmers in West Kalimantan
In addressing challenges due to weather changes, a possible solution we discussed with a farmer in West Kalimantan is the installation of a simple tool to protect the collected rubber liquid from rainwater. However, we also noted that introducing this solution will likely take time as most farmers in the province are already used to generations-old farming practices.
With this in mind, our initial observation suggested that the most significant need among rubber farmers is likely in the form of agricultural training. Acquiring proper farming knowledge and techniques can guide smallholder farmers to increase crop productivity which in turn can improve their livelihood.
Our comprehensive findings, as well as our recommendations, will be published in a report this June outlining the current conditions and main challenges of farmers growing these four commodities. Stay tuned!