Empowering community farmers to be the catalyst for change in sustainable agriculture

This article is sponsored by Asia Pulp and paper.

Agus Suryono was a struggling oil palm farmer in his Indonesian village where the economy was dependent on palm plantations. He earned $150-200 a month (converted from Indonesian rupiah).

Five years ago, he joined a locally operated social economy program to educate farmers on best practices for community agriculture and forestry. He learned environmentally friendly methods to improve fertilizer, grow seeds and use equipment.

Since his time in the program, Suryono switched from farming oil palm to vegetables and livestock. Today, he’s grown his chili pepper farm to earn $3,000 a month and employs 15 fellow villagers. He even speaks internationally, including at United Nations events, about supporting local farmers in taking up eco-friendly, forest-based livelihoods.

This is just one of many stories about how supporting local farmers can lead to lasting change for both the individual and the environment as a whole.

The program Suryono participated in was Asia Pulp and Paper’s Integrated Forestry and Farming System (IFFS) Program. You might ask, "Why is a forestry company teaching farmers to grow vegetables?"

Subsistence farming is important to us in the business of growing trees for pulp and paper. Conversion of crop land to pasture, while separate from pulp and paper production, is the single largest direct cause of tropical deforestation. Agriculture drives 80 percent of tropical deforestation and generates as much as 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. As neighbors, it is vital to establish shared sustainability values.

Smallholders are the base of the pyramid of agricultural producers and companies with a major stake in the world’s ecosystem should care, even if it seems outside of the commodity of their supply chain.

Revolutionizing sustainable farming

We need a new "green" revolution in agriculture that does not pit forests against crops or people against plants. We can take the following steps to build community engagement programs that address social issues impacting deforestation:

  • Self-reflect. The first step is always self-refection. APP continually reviews its operations to assess how to achieve a deforestation-free supply chain. With significant risks related to land conflict, forest encroachment and fires for agricultural land clearing, we see the need to work with each village impacted to build more forest-friendly livelihoods so communities can thrive.
  • Consider diversity among communities. Companies may operate across vast areas of land — APP’s concessions spread across five provinces on two islands and cover over 6.42 acres — so it’s important to recognize each village’s diverse cultural and geographic characteristics when building community engagement programs. Each community has different priorities and ways of affecting the environment. 
  • Build community ownership. Each village must help build a flexible program so the community will own it and sustain it over time. The IFFS program provides funding to each village to start the initial project of their choice and then participants expand the program by paying it forward, such as giving a cow to a neighbor to begin a livestock farm.
  • Measure impact. Quantifying the reach and impact along the way is necessary to see if the program is beneficial to community farmers and the larger ecosystem. Since implementing the IFFS program, APP has reached 189 villages and more than 13,800 households with the goal to reach 500 villages by 2020. We are also working with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) to measure the environmental and social impact of IFFS program. The program has taken us outside of our comfort zone and measuring our results has taught us we need to hone the program, and sometimes seek external expertise, as we help support small-scale farming.

It will take time to achieve the next green revolution where forests, businesses and agriculture work together to mitigate deforestation. Along the way, corporations must think beyond their own supply chains to address risks across the landscape.