Sugar, women, wine, money, men and orangutan

By Meine van Noordwijk and Endri Martini


We need a sophisticated understanding of how socio-ecological systems interact with markets,  policies and cultural norms before we can identify potential improvements to agroforestry systems that have provided livelihoods for farmers for many centuries, say Meine van Noordwijk and Endri Martini

Complex agroforestry systems have been adjusted not only to local environments but also to local cultures and their specific norms of behaviour. A recent study at the World Agroforestry Centre of sugar palm agroforests in Batang Toru, North Sumatra, Indonesia, we took as a lesson in being cautious about thinking a rural landscape was simple and easy to improve.

From the study, it seemed that gender-specific roles in agroforestry systems were influenced by the local culture, with variable opportunities for change. This must also affect all of the bio-physical areas we typically examine because, of course, almost invariably it’s people who implement any change to them.

Male farmer tapping sugar palm, Batang Toru, North Sumatra

Tapping the sugar palm was a task for men because it involved the physically taxing and risky business of climbing trees to tap the sap, for which women’s physique and clothing were not suitable. This could be seen as a ’classic’ gender situation framed in norms of behaviour that couldn’t be easily challenged without serious social consequences.

However, our research revealed that women were not involved in making palm wine not for reasons of physique or clothing but because it required less labour, that is, the men could handle it by themselves. Making palm sugar, though, required more labour so usually the men needed help from their wives. Women were mostly responsible for cooking the sap into caramel while the men were responsible for tapping.

In the study, we also looked at the level of sugar palm domestication, in particular, the intensity of farmers’ management. The level varied from harvesting of wild trees through enrichment planting to intensive management of planted trees on farms.

The economics of domestication (that is, ‘Is it worth it?’) depend on the ease with which the wild resources can still be harvested, the amount of pre-harvesting labour involved in managing wild or on-farm populations, and the returns to labour in the harvesting stage.

For example, if a farmer has to walk a long distance before finding any remaining wild trees they may decide that it would be worthwhile to plant the tree at higher densities in their own garden. However, if the time-lag between planting the tree and harvesting its products was great then the discounted future benefit flow would not easily compensate for the large amount of effort in obtaining germplasm, acquiring and preparing land, and planting and tending the trees in the early, vulnerable stages.

Female farmer processing sugar palm for sugar, Batang Toru, North Sumatra

The analysis of the sugar palm in Batang Toru showed that the return to labour for those who planted the trees on their farms (generally at some distance from the remaining forest) did not (at least not yet) compete well with the return to labour for farmers in villages on the forest margins who had access to naturally regenerated trees. In short, it wasn’t profitable to plant sugar palm when it could be harvested freely in the forest. In which case, we have to ask, ‘Why would a farmer bother to domesticate the tree?’

Another argument for close examination of ‘one size fits all’ ideas is that for farmers who lived on the edge of the forest it was clear that wild animals, including orangutan, were responsible for dispersal of sugar palm seeds. The farmers frequently viewed these trees as a ‘gift of nature’ to the people of the area. They accepted that animals sometimes consumed the trees’ products before the farmers did; it was ‘part of the deal’. Yet, where trees had been planted by farmers, all ‘predation’ by wild animals was considered as ‘pest attack’.

So perhaps not only scientists but also farmers would be wise to examine their assumptions more closely.


Edited by Robert Finlayson


Read the study

Martini E, Roshetko JM, van Noordwijk M, Rahmanulloh A, Mulyoutami E, Joshi L, Budidarsono S. 2012. Sugar palm (Arenga pinnata (Wurmb) Merr.) for livelihoods and biodiversity conservation in the orangutan habitat of Batang Toru, North Sumatra, Indonesia: mixed prospects for domestication. Agroforestry Systems 86:401—417.


About the authors

Dr Meine van NoordwijkDr Meine van Noordwijk, Chief Science Advisor / Leader Global Research Project: Environmental Services

In addition to being Chief Science Advisor for the Centre, Meine van Noordwijk leads the organization-wide environmental services research area.

From 2002 to 2008 he was Regional Coordinator for Southeast Asia. Before joining the Centre, Meine was a senior research officer in the Root Ecology Section at the DLO Institute for Soil Fertility Research in Haren, the Netherlands, concentrating on models of the relationships between soil fertility, nutrient-use efficiency and root development of crops and trees. He also worked for two years as a lecturer in botany and ecology at the University of Juba in Sudan. Meine has a PhD in Agricultural Science from the University of Wageningen, the Netherlands and an MSc in Biology from the Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht, the Netherlands.


Ms Endri MartiniMs Endri Martini, Extension Specialist

Endri Martini is the Extension Specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre’s ‘Agroforestry and Forestry in Sulawesi’ project, which is working to improve the livelihoods of farmers in several districts and provinces of Sulawesi, Indonesia. The project if funded by the Canadian International Development Agency from 2011 to 2016.



This work is related to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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