Pilang is a traditional village in the Pulang Pisau regency of Central Kalimantan. Two-thirds of the regency is comprised of peatlands, and Pilang is no exception, with 20,994 hectares out of the total village land area of 28,114 hectares covered by shallow peat soils.
Using participatory research methods, the Gambut Kita project recently invited the Pilang community to engage in a week of knowledge-exchange led through ‘Community-Led Analysis and Planning’.
Through the participation of smallholders, this rural socio-economic analysis quickly showed that most people in this peatlands village still rely primarily on rubber production for their livelihood.
Rubber on shallow peat
Most of the smallholder rubber grows in the transition zone between shallow peat soils and mineral soils along the river. It is important to recognize that the trees grow without drainage canals, and they form an actively managed buffer zone that protects the village from encroaching fires.
Drainage canals and peat fires
Peat fires are a big management problem for rubber plantations. The greatest fire affecting Pilang occurred in 1997, following the failure of the Mega Rice Project. The unrealized goal of this Suharto-era project was to create wet-rice (padi) fields across vast areas of peatlands in Central Kalimantan.
The residents of Pilang say that the large number of drainage canals created for the project have created dry soil conditions which make fires very difficult to control. The 1997 mega-fire not only destroyed their rubber plantations but also most of their cultivated agricultural area.
Despite the fires, the majority of the residents managed to re-establish their rubber smallholdings over the years and these now occupy 754 hectares of village land (only 3% of the total area). Every household in this village now owns a rubber farm, and some households even own plots of up to 25 hectares in size. Both men and women work together to maintain their plots and to tap their rubber.
Seasonal livelihood strategies
The dry season is ideal for tapping rubber. Every day, people go to the garden to care for the rubber trees. But during the rainy season, the trees produce far less latex, plus the quality of the latex is very poor as it has high water content. For these reasons, people do other jobs during the rainy season.
Besides the rubber, rattan is another commodity crop that is planted and harvested both in the forest and in ‘jungle-rubber’ plots. Due to the low levels of latex production in the wet season, rattan harvesting and processing provides an alternative livelihood that can be pursued during the wet season.
The community harvests and processes the rattan to be used as a raw material for handicrafts, and this is quickly sold to collectors that come to the village to purchase it. Most other residents will spend their time fishing if they find they are unable to go rubber-tapping due to prolonged periods of heavy rain.
Although rubber has occupied most of the community’s working hours (60%) over the last two decades, rattan collecting (5%) and cutting timber (5%) have also been minor but significant village occupations. And, during this period, the community has completely moved out of wet rice agriculture (formerly 15%) and into sand mining (10%) and fisheries (15%) as well as raising seedlings in nurseries (5%).
Impact of the no-burning policy for peatlands
In 2015, the government banned the use of fire for shifting cultivation. This has prevented the community from planting any new rubber trees, as this was previously done in the swidden plots (ladang) following the rice harvest. Both traditional rice-growing and new rubber have thus been prevented by the ban.