Ryan Edward’s research visit to Indonesia

Ryan Edwards during field trip to palm oil plantation in Riau.

Ryan Edwards during field trip to palm oil plantation in Riau.

I visited Indonesia from 24 January to 1 March 2015 to conduct fieldwork, meet Indonesian and expatriate researchers and policy-makers, present my research to a wide variety of audiences, and learn about Indonesian language, culture, and society. This research, which is almost complete, provides the first systematic empirical investigation of the welfare impacts of Indonesia’s rapid oil palm expansion using panel data econometrics. Following on from this research, I am now investigating how different local economies and employment opportunities relate to human capital development, and investigating the relationship between resource-based expansion and local conflicts.

I spent my first few days in Bogor, West Java, where I reconnected with ex-ANU PhD graduate and staff member, Dr Daniel Suryadarma, and presented my ongoing research at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). CIFOR scientists provided useful feedback and I had several useful meetings with their palm oil experts. The second stop was Jakarta. Hosted by the spatial team at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia, I was based in South Jakarta for several weeks to work on my research and assist WWF with economic issues. I also met with staff from the Australia Indonesia Project for Economic Governance, the National Team for the Acceleration of Poverty Reduction, SMERU Research Institute, the major palm oil industry associations, and the World Bank where I delivered my second seminar. The following day I presented my oil palm research in a Forum Kajian Pembangunan (FKP) seminar at Bank Indonesia, where it was well received and a lively discussion followed. At the end of my second week I travelled to Riau, where most of Indonesia’s palm oil is produced.

WWF Indonesia kindly hosted me at their field office in Pekanbaru, taking me to visit several palm oil plantations and oil palm-focused villages and cities across Riau. I met with village heads, district officials, members of local oil palm cooperatives, company workers, and many oil palm farmers. Oil palm farmers included experienced Javanese migrants from Instruksi Presiden (INPRES) programs decades ago, nucleus estate and scheme smallholders, and rubber farmers only just moving into oil palm. It was useful to discuss how they came to be involved in the industry, how it has affected their communities, and their thoughts on future prospects, among other things. I visited Indonesia’s first cooperative to gain certification under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Scheme, whose yields were higher than some of the private company plantations nearby. This village had been completely transformed by oil palm. The whole community was financially well off, and reported all their children away at Indonesia’s best universities. Banks even set up mobile offices for this rural community, otherwise financially excluded. There was immense variability in the yields of the different smallholders: some barely earn more income than from other lower yielding crops, like rubber, and were incredibly sensitive to the price.

I flew back to Jakarta for my fourth week. I visited the University of Indonesia Faculty of Economics (LPEM) to present some of my forthcoming research on the social impacts of mining. My partner joined me at the end of my fourth week once I had finished my work with WWF, and we spent my last week in Yogyakarta, where we caught up with Associate Professor Chris Manning, visited all the cultural sites, and paid too much for my first batik shirt. Overall the trip was extremely useful to help me better understand the context of my research, and meet many new friends to work with in the future.