Posts A + C: Making Palm Oil Great Again; Surmounting unsustainable cultivation.

Edgar Su – from Reuters article (Ananthalakshmi & Chow 2019)

“My father is a middleman of sorts in the Palm Oil Industry, they aren’t all corrupt swindlers as is commonly thought. Definitely the tobacco industry has it’s issues, as does the Palm Oil industry…”

How is it that a conversation with a sixteen year old Indonesian begins with a story recounting his peer, who at 15 years of age sadly passed away from preventable illness due to smoking, divulge into an informed perspective that details perhaps Indonesia’s most wicked problems in industries of cultivation dating back decades? The young man who will be referred to as ‘Nasa’ provides a unique outlook into the scarce regard for ethical industrial regulations that plague more than just the tobacco industry, thus suggests a more wicked set of problems that perpetuates the already controversial problem of tobacco and palm oil in Indonesia.

Nasa is very close with his father, (referred to as ‘Mr. Red’) who is an astounding figure within the Palm Oil Trade; his benevolent ethos goes against the problematic nature of palm oil cultivation, heavily criticised by western media for it’s history of deforestation (Ananthalakshmi & Chow 2019).

Having studied forestry in the late 90s, Mr. Red continued with his masters degree once Suharto’s presidential term came to an end in 1998, resulting in change of policy regarding forestry management from centralised to decentralised. As a consequence, regulations that existed or would be “implemented” in following years were often not enforced by private entities and smallholders (Indonesia – Freedom in the World 2007 2007), thus deforestation became a massive ecological issue that concerned Mr. Red. Following his masters, he was fortunate to be Invited to participate in MYRLIN, a training workshop hosted by Oxford University wherein forest yield regulation in naturally moist-tropical-forested-areas were discussed, and sustainable models were presented by Dr. Denis Adler (Adler, Baker & Wright 2002). Mr. Red would implement what he learnt from the MYRLYN workshop as a University lecturer and smallholder consultant in order to be a polarising force against his observations of corruption, negligence regarding foresting guidelines, and how this affected local communities; all of which were confirmed as a broad transnational issue in MYRLIN (ibid).

Participants of the MYRLIN training workshop (Adler, Baker & Wright 2002)

Both palm oil (Singh et al. 2013b, p. 5) and tobacco (Rondhi, Wardhono & Prakoso 2010, pp. 8-11) industries have arduous levels of processing from farm to factory: cultivation and processing segments reside largely between smallholders, middlemen and numerous processing factories (Tobacco) / mills (Crude Palm Oil); thus, similarities between both industries can begin to be observed. Mr. Red states that: 

Flow chart of palm oil production and bi-products (Singh et al. 2013b, p. 5)

“The palm oil industry relies largely on middlemen as a primary method of transaction and logistics between the large number of independent aforementioned smallholders and varying degrees of palm oil processing plants, this leaves open the possibility for inefficiency and mismanagement, as the sheer difficulty of enforcing mandated regulations opens up the opportunity for self interested entities to exploit”

This is what I can best explain metaphorically as an “anarcho-capitalist wild-west”. 

Following 1998, former President Suharto’s Industrial-Oligarchy was “decentralised”, however many industrial monopolies were prior given to his children and nepotist cronies (Freedom House, 2007). This allowed big players to remain big, often graft in their business dealings, resulting in controversial proceedings such as the case of Hutomo Putra (Tommy Suharto), who was sentenced for corruption charges, then went on the run, and ordered the assignation of the very judge who convicted him (Agloinby 2007). The ongoing result of decentralisation is corporate governance, this has both negative and positive outcomes. Mr. Red explains that “large companies and foreign corporations hold the power to dictate the value of [palm oil precursor] – FFB (Fresh Fruit Bunch)” exported by smallholders and larger plantations, similar to what was seen in Tommy Suharto’s clove monopoly dealings (ibid). This is also made worse due to the numerous processes within the chain of production of FFB into Crude Palm Oil (CPO) for commercial goods. Prices for FFB from smallholder communities are often re-negotiated by the manufacturing facilities, down to processing plants, through middlemen, and finally back to the smallholder. 

“There are millions of independent smallholders, thousands of CPO mills, hundreds of refineries, and dozens of manufacturing plants. This chain of supply relegates the smallholders to the smallest cut of the profit. Independents need to be supported in the developing world, that’s where I come in.”

In 2005, MR. Red decided to start his own business delegating between smallholders and CPO mills, which later in 2007, the company would have the majority of its shares purchased by Tommy Suharto. MR. Red remained company director thereon, the refined business model saw a three way profit split: 30% to local community smallholders; 30% returned to investors; and 40% profit remained as fluid capitol within the business. This sustained the community and kept investors as well as company profit split fairly, sustaining all stages of the industry. 

MR. Red with Tommy Suharto

Mr. Red suggests that Palm Oil can be sustainable, and help in further developing Indonesia’s economy, suggestible as an alternative crop to tobacco, as renewable bi-prodicts can be utilised from palm oil processing: Palm fibre can be used as fertiliser; palm shell can be used as a substitute for coal (Singh et al. 2013a). He also states that with proper management of where the palm is cultivated, and by using less fertilisers which corrupt the soil, negative ecological effects can be spared in future sustainable cultivation (Darras et al. 2019). Lastly, Mr. Red claims that a system based on MYRLIN that can track FFB output through the processes of CPO production would greatly increase yield regulation and sustainability, this is where Mr Red’s company, along with benevolent corporate governance can save Palm Oil from scrutiny, and can bring it forward into sustainability. It is reported that the Palm Oil companies fear the fate of tobacco industries, and that perhaps it should act in similar methods to maintain an ethical yield to quell the wicked problem of tobacco (Ananthalakshmi & Chow 2019).

Mr. Red with farmers

Currently, Mr Red manages a new business after resigning from the company owned by Mr. Suharto, his new company is a continuation of his sustainability ethos, acting as a benevolent middleman for a sustainable future for all aspects of the palm oil industry.

Thank you to “Nasa” and “Mr. Red” for sharing your valuable insights with me.

Me and “Nasa”


Adler, D., Baker, N. & Wright, H. 2002, Report of a Training Workshop on Methods of Yield Regulation in Moist Tropical Forest with minimal data, Oxford Forrestry Institute, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Agloinby, J. 2007, Suharto’s son named in corruption case, Finnancial Review, <;.

Ananthalakshmi, A. & Chow, E. 2019, Fearing tobacco’s fate, palm oil industry fights back, Reuters, <;.

Darras, K.F.A., Corre, M.D., Formaglio, G., Tjoa, A., Potapov, A., Brambach, F., Sibhatu, K.T., Grass, I., Rubiano, A.A., Buchori, D., Drescher, J., Fardiansah, R., Hölscher, D., Irawan, B., Kneib, T., Krashevska, V., Krause, A., Kreft, H., Li, K., Maraun, M., Polle, A., Ryadin, A.R., Rembold, K., Stiegler, C., Scheu, S., Tarigan, S., Valdés-Uribe, A., Yadi, S., Tscharntke, T. & Veldkamp, E. 2019, ‘Reducing Fertilizer and Avoiding Herbicides in Oil Palm Plantations—Ecological and Economic Valuations’, Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, vol. 2, no. 65.

Indonesia – Freedom in the World 2007 2007, Freedom House, <;.

Rondhi, M., Wardhono, A. & Prakoso, B. 2010, ‘Instituional Arrangement of Indonesian Tobacco Farming’, paper presented to the 2010 International Conference on Institutional Economics, Shandong University, Jinan, China, <;.

Singh, P., Sulaiman, O., Hashin, R., Peng, L.C. & Singh, R. 2013, ‘Using biomass residues from oil palm industry as a raw material for pulp and paper industry: potential benefits and threat to the environment’, Environmental Decelopment and Sustainability, vol. 15, pp. 367-83.

Post D – Java tobacco culture: “Will Someone Please think of the Children!?”

Tobacco culture has Indonesia firmly in it’s grasp, so tight that it’s economy is dependant on multinational tobacco corporations which exploit it’s poorly enforced laws and developing farmland regions, leading to “inadequate regulations and poor enforcement of the law, particularly in the small-scale farming sector, leave[ing] working children at risk” (Wurth & Buchanan 2016). As well as exploiting child labour, the tobacco industry utilises overt and ubiquitous advertising via multi channel media across the nation, most notably targeting to impressionistic young adults, and children by proxy. Indonesia holds the highest percentage of young male smokers on earth (Senthilingam 2017), as well as being one of the worlds highest prevalence of male smokers next to China and Russia (Drope & Schluger 2018, p. 20)

(Senthilingam 2017) via The Tobacco Atlas

[Smoking] make[s] me look cool” says a young boy who is brand loyal to Djarum Super, the commercials “are cool, hip [and] really stylish, the actors are very cool” (Brabazon 2012, 7:00 – 7:17).

“Ompong, which means ‘toothless’, has a cigarette” (Siu 2014-2015)

Children see adverts on television admittedly designed to reach the younger generations: Cigarette companies do this by also sponsoring football, badminton, cycling and adventure sports (Ibid, 2:48 – 2:55).

“This cigarette advertisement in #Yogyakarta urges smokers to ‘never quit’ #Indonesia” (Strangio 2017)

The effect of tobacco culture on children in Indonesia is widespread, so much so that not only are children buying into the influential habitual trend of smoking, but in rural areas they’re faced with economic pressure to work at plantations harvesting tobacco leaves, the leaves of which have been reportedly sold directly through tobacco merchants to British American owned companies which produce many of the cigarettes in Indonesia.

“A tobacco trader judges the quality of tobacco he purchased from another trader near Sumenep” (Bleasdale 2015)

Tobacco Harvesting without proper enforced safety regulations can cause transdermal nicotine poisoning. “I’m always throwing up every time I’m harvesting” says Ayu, a 13 year old girl who harvests tobacco with her family from a small village near Garut. However, it is her and her families only choice available to earn a wage to survive (Wurth & Buchanan 2016).

Explorers map of the Tobacco industry in Central Java

Through joining the dots, it is clear that tobacco industries are complicit in ethical crimes against children, through actively exploiting child labour via tobacco merchants, and also by advertising / sponsoring multi channel media that directly coerces the youth of Indonesia into the habit of smoking.


Barbazon, J. 2012, ‘Unreported World’, Indoneisa’s Tobacco Children, vol. 24, no 2, Quicksilver Media Productions, United Kingdom, p. 23:31, <;.

Bleasdale, M. 2015, Tobacco Trader, Photograph, Human Rights Watch, <;.

Drope, J. & Schluger, N.W. 2018, The Tobacco Atlas, Sixth Edition edn, American Cancer Society, Inc., Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Senthilingam, M. 2017, Chain-smoking children: Indonesia’s ongoing tobacco epidemic, CNN, <;.

Siu, M. 2014-2015, Marlboro Boys, Photographic series with text, <;.

Strangio, S. 17 July 2017, This cigarette advertisment in Yogyakarta urges smokers to “never quit” […], Twitter, <;.

Wurth, M. & Buchanan, J. 2016, The Harvest is in My Blood.

POST B – Recreational Drugs; Safety in context of Supply and Demand

Straughn, A. 2018, Shambhala Photo, Digital Photograph

The criminalisation of MDMA has not mitigated the social demand and use, despite harsh laws instilling fear of persecution in the user. As a response to this, Australian Federal and State Governments have increased funding to Police, such as in the NSW State Budget for 2019 wherein the NSW Police Force budget was increased by $151 million (+3.8%) to enforce the War on Drugs (NSW State Budget 2019-2020, Section 6 – 7).

Perrottet, D. 2019, New South Wales Budget Estimate 2019-20

An inquest report published by the State Coroners Court of NSW recommended both fixed and on-site drug checking be drafted into policy within New South Wales state law (Grahame 2019, p.119) following the investigation of MDMA related music festival deaths of six young adults. Grahame also noted that the presence of Police and security at festivals instilled fear into drug-using patrons, causing them to not ask for help, and in one case, evidence confirmed that to avoid detection through strip searching and sniffer dogs, one young woman consumed all of the illicit drugs she possessed prior to entering the festival to avoid detection by police upon entry (Grahame 2019, p.16). General fear and intimidation instilled by police strip searching is a phenomenon that is controversial and problematic in regards to vulnerable people, many of which may not even be holding illicit drugs (Grewcock 2019, p.16). NSW State Premier Gladys Berejiklian dismissed the coroner’s call for pill testing prior to the redacted public release of the coroners report, stating pill testing would give “a false sense of security” to drug users at festivals (McGowan 2019). It is startling that despite the advice of qualified professionals such as Grahame and those transdisciplinary specialists in the field of Law and Medicine are more informed in this matter than politicians such as Berejiklian, who still reject this information in favour of keeping drug policy stagnant.

Australia is conservative in regards to drug policy in comparison to the progressive action of other developed nations, which had previously taken many of the measures recommended by Grahame (2019)  into legal policy with the goal of harm reduction. In 1992, the Netherlands Ministry for Health funded Europe’s first public drug-testing system of stationary nationwide facilities to test purity and dosage of MDMA. Since then, other drug-checking systems have sprouted throughout Europe. Furthermore, it has been observed that countries which have established drug checking facilities have recorded and warned of dangerous MDMA batches, yet in the UK, 4 deaths were attributed to one of the same batches of MDMA that was otherwise discovered in progressive countries with drug-checking, resulting in 0 deaths (Brunt 2017, p.13).

The evidence suggests that Australia could do better in its drug policy, based on transdisciplinary research and global studies of other countries response to the issue of supply and demand for illicit drugs.


Brunt, T. 2017, Drug Checking As A Harm Reduction Tool For Recreational Drug Users: Oportunities and Challenges, Research Paper, Eurpoean Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, The Netherlands.

Grahame, H. 2019, Inquest Into The Death of Six Patrons Of NSW Music Festivals, Inquest, State Coroner’s Court of New South Wales, Lidcombe, NSW Australia.

Grewcock, M. 2019, Rethinking Strip Searches By NSW Police, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

McGowan, M. 2019, NSW Premier Dismisses Coroner’s Call For Pill Testing Before Report is Publicly Released, The Guardian, <;.

Perrottet, D. 2019, NSW Budget Estimate 2019-20, Budget Report, Treasurer of New South Wales.<;.

Straughn, A. 2018, Shambhala Photo, Digital Photograph, My Kootenay Now, <;.