Part 1: Stories from My Dad’s Plantation

“Sunar got stomped over by elephants, causing three broken ribs and four broken back bones. He needs a ventilator to breath,” Dad told me over a text message. My Dad is a palm oil farmer. He hires three laborers to help him take care of an eight hectares farm in Duri, Riau province. Sunar was one of them. Although the animals are considered as deadly pests, the palm farmers and laborers in this area agree to not kill them as they will also not allow others.

Dad often fell asleep om a bed of dirt and falling leaves because he was too exhausted

As employer, it was our family’s responsibility to take care of the laborers. The hospitals estimated Sunar’s medication will cost around IDR 30 million. It was a lot of money for a palm farmer in the early 2000s. Fortunately, solidarity level among palm farmers and laborers was high. According to Dad, Sunar’s friends donated to help. A total amount of IDR 12 million was collected to ease the medication cost. That is what the relationship looked like among the palm land owners and their laborers, although they are all laborers. Of course, not all of them are the same.

Speaking of elephants, we are not talking about cute circus creatures as seen in Dumbo cartoon movie. They are part of the wildlife. Their sizes are many times bigger than men. And never think that they are slow. When they are running to chase someone, it’s unlikely that someone will get away. They also have amazing memory to hold grudge. If their family member was killed, they will return in some other time and rampage in that same land. Facing elephants is as dangerous as facing tigers, both are fine thin line between life and death.  

Nevertheless, there is a very strong caution among farmers not to kill elephants or any other wild animals, because they are part of nature that need to be protected and it is unlawful.  There is almost no farmer that has the courage to break that rule, because they are also afraid to face the sentence. Although randomly, elephants can come to rampage and take away small farmers’ crops. Their trunk can easily pull out a small palm tree to eat. This of course bring tremendous loss for farmers that most of the times only have budget for one-time planting, no other reserves.

When they are snoopy, it is not enough for elephants to destroy a farm. They can also tear down the farmers’ home.

Elephants tend to enter traditional farmer’s farms because farms that belong to corporations are usually equipped with electric fences and deep canals to prevent elephants and boars to cross. That is why small farmers take the toll because the elephants’ migration path is cut and they will switch to unfenced path. “Usually we try to scare them with fireworks and cables linked to bells, so that when elephants enter the farm, all farmers around the area will burn torches and scare them away with fire,” Sunar explained. 

But these bright animals can learn and keep in their memories. They learn the weakness of that tactic and no longer afraid of the heat and light of fire. That was happened to Sunar. He got chased when he tried to scare them away. Unfortunately, he stumbled upon the swamp, giving the chance for the chasing elephants to stomp him over. Sunar still felt fortunate because that stomp “only” crushed his chest bones due to falling over a mud puddle. Usually, rampaging elephant stomp will instantly kill the victim and leave the remaining body in miserable condition. The victim’s body might be crushed to pieces so that it can no longer be recognized.

Nature Pests Must Not Be Terminated

Elephants are not the only challenge for traditional palm farmers. Boars and snakes are as life threatening as well. Sometimes bears and leopards come across, but they are rarely seen in the last few years.

Isah, Sunas’s wife, told us another animal that is also dangerous, snakes. Cobra snakes could kill farmers that step on them, especially during the night when farmers were chasing away elephants. “Yesterday, a friend from Sebanga had a leg bruised black and eventually amputated. He was treated for a long time, but was not getting better. So instead of losing his life, he’d better lose his leg.” told Isah. Although the wounds from the amputation healed, but farming is physical work. Losing a body part will surely make working for a living become harder.

When I took occasional stroll around my family’s palm oil field, I can still see snakes passing by. Although their presences are threatening, these animals don’t have any intentions to disrupt the palm trees. As a matter of fact, they live from preying on birds and mice that live prosperously among the thick palm trees. In Indonesia and Malaysia, it is very common for farmers to use pest predators like snakes and owls. 

Harvesting fresh fruit bunches in our plantation

There is also another kind of pest like “ulat api” worm (family of Limacodisae). With thick short body and striking colours, they look alluring. But touching this worm can have a fatal impact due to the toxin stored in the thick thorns on their body. One touch and you will end up with a swelling and unbearable pain up to weeks. It will take some time for the worms decided to feast upon a palm field, until there are only bald palm trees left. Trees in this condition will usually stop bearing any fruit.

But farmers found a way to face this pest. Natural pest control can be done by using carnivore birds or using predator insects like Sycanus.

Misunderstood on The Faith of Orangutans

I would like to specifically discuss about farmers and Orangutans because I often read in the media about farmers that are blamed for the death and abuse of Orangutans. I myself spent two years of my childhood observing my parent’s palm field openings. I swear that never have I seen any Orangutans. 

Natural Resources Conservation Center in Riau stated that Orangutan’s population in Sumatera island is around 6,600 individuals. But when I hang around the palm field, all I can hear was sounds of apes or siamangs (black furred gibbons) which are friendlier with farmers. Sometimes when you manage to tame them, beruk primates can be helpful to pick coconuts.

This is a proof that animals in the middle of palm or rubber field can actually live side by side with humans whom run the field. As far as I remember, they are not eyeing the palm, but other sweet tasting fruits. I have never heard of any Orangutans within our area being harmed, abused or even killed as viral in the news. It is not that easy to subdue Orangutans because they are much smarter than apes. Their body is much bigger and equipped with strong arms. They are able to kill their attackers when they are being assaulted. They are as dangerous as elephants or boars as I mentioned earlier. Therefore, farmers prefer not to disturb them.  There are others interesting things from the life of palm laborers. I will tell you in the next article.

Author: Hariadhi (born and raised in an oil palm plantation)