Indonesian oil palm plantations urged to tighten Covid-19 curbs as infections climb

Indonesia is the world's top producer of palm oil.
Indonesia is the world's top producer of palm oil.PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - The Indonesian palm oil association (GAPKI) is urging oil palm plantations to tighten Covid-19 protocols in the country's top-producing province of Riau after a surge in infections in the area, an official at the industry body said.

The South-east Asian country is the world's top producer of palm oil, used in everything from soap to ice cream and fuel, with exports in 2020 estimated at about US$23 billion (S$30 billion).

Riau is located on Sumatra island and accounts for 3.38 million hectares, or about a fifth of the country's 16.38 million hectares of oil palm plantations.

The province has seen a surge in coronavirus infections in recent weeks, reporting an average of around 522 cases per day since May 16, and ranking among the worst-hit provinces.

"There has been an increase in cases in these (palm plantations) with loose protocols, though they are operating normally," Mr Jatmiko Sentosa, head of GAPKI's Riau chapter, told Reuters.

Some plantations had already adopted measures since the beginning of the pandemic, including Covid-19 testing and not allowing workers to leave the plantation, but they were not always standardised or enforced in the same way, Mr Jatmiko said.

"With cases increasing, we are compiling and providing detailed health protocol referrals, which we will urge all members to refer to," he said, noting that such measures should not affect the output of plantations.

Farmers had been encouraged by high palm oil prices to ramp up production, making it more crucial to avoid a spike in infections, Mr Jatmiko said.

"If employees are exposed, production is disrupted. They cannot take advantage of this good price moment," he said.

Epidemiologist Wildan Asfan Hasibuan, an adviser for the Riau Covid-19 task force, said outbreaks in plantations should be easier to contain than in urban areas.

"Our biggest problem is in the cities.... in rural areas, it's relatively safer," he said.

Indonesia has suffered the worst coronavirus outbreak in South-east Asia, reporting 1.87 million infections and 51,992 deaths. On Wednesday (June 9), it recorded the highest daily rise in cases since Feb 26.