The dominant view among policy-makers in Sarawak, a resource frontier state in Malaysian Borneo, is that the only viable way to involve smallholders in the oil palm boom that has transformed the agricultural economy of that island is to consolidate them into larger production entities with externally provided management and finance. However, despite lack of government support, the area of smallholder oil palm has increased dramatically in the past decade in those regions with access to roads and palm oil mills. We argue that, once processing infrastructure is in place, oil palm smallholders can readily take advantage of this infrastructure to pursue a profitable livelihood option, with lower cost and greater flexibility than large-scale operations. In this paper we explore the characteristics of oil palm smallholders in Sarawak and the complex and varied processes by which they have inserted themselves into the rapidly expanding landscape of large-scale plantation development. We develop a typology of oil palm smallholders and present a case study based on a questionnaire survey of 72 farm-households in five longhouse-communities in northern Sarawak. The analysis shows the economic viability of independent oil palm smallholders and identifies appropriate means of support that could raise incomes and spread benefits more widely.


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