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The Return of the Smallholder

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I have long awaited this book. Rob Cramb and John F. McCarthy have pooled the efforts of a group of leading and emerging scholars of agrarian change to disentangle the intricacies of half a century of oil palm expansion in Malaysia and Indonesia. The resulting collection of 14 chapters exhibits the kind of incisive analysis only possible through rigorous, longstanding engagement with the topic.

Cramb and McCarthy have employed two frameworks to shape the wealth of detail in this volume, both of which distinguish their work from other recent scholarship. The first is their conceptualisation of an “oil palm complex” to delineate the scope of the book’s research agenda, as well as characterise their understanding of the manner through which the oil palm industries of Malaysia and Indonesia have recently developed. They are not the first to use such a term, but their interpretation of it is broader than, for instance, Oliver Pye’s notion of a mutually symbiotic state-business ‘Palm Oil Industrial Complex’ in Malaysia (p. 431). For Cramb and McCarthy, the oil palm complex necessitates a careful reconsideration of the ways in which oil palms have been historically incorporated into production arrangements of varying scales and designs in Malaysia/Indonesia (Chapters 2-7, 11 and 12), as well as the variety of circumstances in which conflicts surrounding the crop’s spread across the countryside are seeded, escalated, and managed (Chapters 8-10, and 13). Their framework therefore includes small producers on the margins and civil society actors: in sum, an “ensemble” of different interests pertaining to oil palms in often conflicting and complicated ways (p. 443). The analysis of the complex in various chapters makes it clear that many rural dwellers and public campaigners have been often complicit in the industry’s regional expansion. McCarthy and Cramb’s first achievement is thus to show, with absolute clarity, why it is so difficult for any party aggrieved by the oil palm boom to assign blame for their predicament to a specific entity.

The editors’ second framing device (and major contribution) is to make the fact that smallholders are responsible for increasing proportions of palm oil produced in Southeast Asia a central analytic theme of the book. In both scholarship and the public eye, the capacity of smallholders to produce some of the modern world’s most important agricultural goods cost-effectively has been overshadowed by the attention commanded by large-scale plantation monocultures. The editors here argue that the ability of the latter to dominate oil palm production has less to do with economic or technical factors than with political favouritism. Since the 1990s, Malaysian and Indonesian state actors have become markedly more pro-business and less committed to rural poverty alleviation, leading in turn to the promotion of new oil palm production ventures which place smallholders (if they are included) at a severe disadvantage in terms of benefit-sharing and control over production. None of this is new knowledge (Pye and Bhattacharya 2012; de Koninck et al 2011). This volume, however, pushes analysis further by presenting readers with a paradox. The political shift towards large-scale private oil palm investments has recently run up against an opposing tendency: that of smallholders, generally beginning to claw their way back into these more remunerative cash crop production systems, often in the face of neglect, and even hostility from official channels. The big question here, as Cramb and McCarthy point out, is whether the recent surge in smallholder oil palm cultivation will eventually lead, as it has in the past with other major cash crops in Southeast Asia, such as Hevea rubber, to a transformation of the industry into one characterised by much smaller-scale production arrangements, especially family-owned and operated farms. Such a shift may well be accompanied by important political, social, economic, and environmental changes that flow beyond the boundaries of the oil palm sector itself.

These two frames of reference place this edited volume in a special position among other recent studies of Southeast Asia’s oil palm industries. However, they also draw attention to a number of arguments that could have been tightened and clarified further. First, it would have been useful in the introduction to discuss why exactly smallholder participation in the oil palm sector is important, rather than assume it is self-evident. The reader is thus left to glean clues from comments scattered throughout the book (Chapters 3, 5, 7, and 9). Similarly, no working definition of smallholders, a notoriously ambiguous concept, is provided until Chapter 7. This should have been clarified at the book’s outset. Occasionally this leads to slippages, such as when Cramb and Sujang identify smallholders by their ‘primary reliance on household labour’ (p. 250), while ascribing the same term to the farmers studied by McCarthy and Zen in an earlier chapter (p. 249). Yet within this latter grouping, a significant number depended heavily on hired labour to run their oil palm operations. Some of this labour may indeed have come from poorer smallholder households living in the vicinity of the wealthier farmers, and even those dispossessed of their lands (pp. 124-129). Such class differences are further problematized by Gillespie’s observation in Chapter 9, that smallholders sometimes straddle multiple positions, including that of plantation work and even political office (p. 313). These ambiguities cannot be neatly resolved, but they should have been directly addressed within the concluding chapter. Likewise, the roles played by trader intermediaries, who are often pivotal to the uptake and operation of cash cropping among small farmers, are briefly discussed in Chapters 4 and 7. These should have been expanded on, and followed up with a general analysis of how they seem to be influencing the current “smallholder resurgence” in oil palms. (p. 454).

The editors could also have done more with their material to question the extent to which economies of scale actually underpin the commercial success of the Malaysian/Indonesian oil palm complex. The idea that oil palm processing requires large-scale mechanisation to extract palm oil cost-effectively has long been used as an official rationale to support plantation-style arrangements, and discourage independent smallholders from involvement in the crop, to the extent that some Indonesian smallholders have bought into the argument themselves (p. 123). Cramb and McCarthy take the line that significant economies of scale do exist at the primary processing stage (pp. 32-33), but also briefly acknowledge that others, such as development economist Derek Byerlee, actually do disagree (p. 67, fn. 10).  This uncertainty should have been investigated further, especially given the considerable evidence from other chapters that much of the plantation sector’s continued success stems primarily from easy access to state-backed supplies of cheapened labour, land and investment capital.

For these reasons, and others, I found Lesley Potter’s chapter on oil palm cultivation outside Southeast Asia to be one of the most interesting contributions to the volume. Through a comparative survey of production arrangements in Cameroon, Costa Rica, and Ecuador, Potter shows how much potential there is for more equitable working arrangements with the oil palm in Malaysia/Indonesia, particularly with regards to polycultural farming systems, and interventions at the marketing and processing stages of the oil palm commodity chain. Moreover, Potter’s chapter makes a clear connection between the manner in which palm oil is produced and its final market. For instance, she notes that artisanal mills in Cameroon continue to operate partly because they produce a relatively unprocessed form of palm oil intended for domestic consumption (pp. 168-169). This is not unlike how coconut oil in Southeast Asia and elsewhere is still prized for the unrefined, tangy quality that can be achieved from relatively simple, ‘backyard’ methods of coconut oil extraction. One possible way to make the oil palm complex in Malaysia/Indonesia more humane and ecologically sustainable would therefore involve looking at the manner in which its products are consumed locally. It seems remarkable that natural, unprocessed palm oil has not made more headway into local Southeast Asian cuisines, given how extensively the tree has spread across the region, and how food security continues to be a salient concern in many parts of Indonesia. None of the volume’s contributors highlight this irony directly, but they do show why it is worth investigating further.

Generally speaking, this collection reveals a number of valuable connections and themes that cut across the span of the book. There is an abundance of material within to interest scholars of agrarian change, policymakers, activists, and those drawn by commodities in general. Although at least five of the fourteen chapters have had a previous life as publications elsewhere, they have all been updated, expanded and carefully sequenced with the other contributions to form a coherent whole. The effort to synthesise the volume’s findings into the two primary frames of reference – the oil palm complex, and smallholders vs. estates – will provide much food for thought, both for initiates to the field, and more experienced readers. The Oil Palm Complex is a highly recommended read.

Additional references:

De Koninck, Rodolphe, Bernard,Stephane, and Bissonnette, Jean-Francois (2011) Borneo Transformed: Agricultural Expansion on the Southeast Asian Frontier.  Singapore: NUS Press.
Pye, Oliver, and Bhattacharya, Jayati (2012) The Palm Oil Controversy in Southeast Asia.  Singapore: ISEAS.

Geoffrey Pakiam
PhD candidate, Department of History, SOAS, University of London (

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