World Rainforest Movement

Papua New Guinea: Women most affected by oil palm plantations

Extensive areas of PNG’s tropical forests have been cleared to give way to export-oriented oil palm plantations, which have been established under the “Nucleus Estate Smallholder Scheme”. This means that a central company having its own plantation also contracts small farmers to supply it with oil palm fruit. The structure of the Nucleus Estate Smallholder Scheme and the nature of oil palm itself are raising serious concerns amongst civil society.

Most of the social and environmental impacts of oil palm plantations have been well documented (see WRM bulletins 104, 86, 74). However, one issue that has received little attention is that oil palm plantations have differentiated gender impacts.

For instance, the oil palm companies only pay the men, although women –and even the whole family- also work in harvesting the oil palm fruit. This means that the men can spend the money they receive in whichever way they see fit, while women are left without payment. Additionally, the fact that women work long hours doing back-breaking work for little reward within oil palm plantations, means that at the end of the day they are too tired to carry out properly the extra burden of cooking and taking care of the children.

Growing, collecting and hunting of food is an important part of PNG culture. Women sell goods in the village markets, thus obtaining an income. At the same time, this activity provides for a valued time for socialising with other village women. When customary lands are converted to oil palm, many of these age-old traditions are lost and women find themselves left without both the income and the opportunity of socialising.

Concerned about the changes that oil palm is generating in their community and about pollution from the oil palm mill affecting their rivers and their children’s health, local women established the Sorovi Women’s Association. The Association aims at bringing women together to discuss and find practical solutions to these issues.

The activities of the Association includes capacity building regarding the social and environmental impacts resulting from oil palm plantations and palm oil processing. At the same time, the Association is also working to help women to develop small-scale income generating activities that they can undertake to reduce their reliance on growing oil palm to earn a living and support their families.

There is no need to convince local people of the value of their natural resources – they depend on them every day for their survival. They need land to make bush gardens, which still supply the majority of Papua New Guineans with their daily food needs. They need access to forests to gather fuel wood and timber for building houses and canoes. They depend on healthy rivers for drinking, cooking and bathing. The saying in Papua New Guinea is ‘Graun Em Laip’ – land is life! As long as you have land and forests you’ll always have a roof over your head and you’ll never go hungry! Unfortunately, oil palm plantations have negative impacts on all these aspects and it is women who suffer the most.

Article based on information from: Australian Conservation Foundation, http://www.acfonline.org.au/default.asp?section_id=96, “Anatomy of a Campaign”, by Andrea Babon, http://www.acfonline.org.au/uploads/res_Habitat_AP_3.pdf