May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Of money and trees: a 19th-century growth triangle

Published: Sep 30, 2007

In 1989 the Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore launched the term 'growth triangle'. The term indicates that Singapore, the Malaysian state Johor, and the Indonesian islands Batam and Bintan of the Riau archipelago should pool their comparative advantages to form a larger economic region. Singapore could bring in capital, managerial skills, and a high-grade infrastructure. Johor had land and a semi-skilled labour force to offer, and Riau could provide land and cheap labour. The names of the three envisaged partners were combined in the acronym 'Sijori'.

Since 1989 economic cooperation has indeed increased. Singapore, for instance, has invested in industries and tourism on Batam, and Indonesia provides a labour force for those businesses and sells drinking water to the city. The integration, which does not proceed without problems, is in a sense a return to a former state of affairs. One century ago the political boundaries did not form economic obstacles. The production of gambir, a natural ingredient taken together with the chewed betel leaf (sirih), dominated the whole region. Both then as today the economic development had detrimental effects for the environment.

Colonial divisions

In the mid-sixteenth century the region was one state. The kingdom of Johor covered the southern tip of Melaka, the Riau archipelago and the adjacent Lingga archipelago, and held suzerainty over parts of east Sumatra. In a political sense, the Straits of Melaka were an inland sea of Johor. The Sultan of Johor moved his residency repeatedly between Johor, Riau and Lingga.

The territory became divided by a complex process of dynastic quarrels and Anglo-Dutch competition for dominance of the region. In 1819 a dispute in the royal family ended with a split of the dynasty, with the result that one sultan ruled over the Riau-Lingga archipelago, and the other over Johor on the peninsula. The sultan of Johor immediately ceded Singapore to the British in return for their support during the dispute.

The Dutch became sovereign over the Riau-Lingga. They ruled Tanjung Pinang, the capital of Bintan, directly, and returned the rest as a 'loan' to the sultan of Riau-Lingga. In practice, the administration of the Riau archipelago, apart from Tanjung Pinang, was in the hands of the viceroy of Riau. The division between a British sphere of influence on the peninsula and in Singapore and a Dutch sphere in the Riau-Lingga archipelago and on Sumatra became fixed until the Second World War by the Treaty of London (1824).


The new political boundaries were ignored by Chinese immigrants. They probably first came to Riau to work as labourers in the gambir plantations of the Malay chiefs. Around 1800 the Malay chiefs fled from Dutch attacks, and left the Chinese to fend for themselves. The Chinese took over the gambir cultivation and expanded it. In the nineteenth century thousands of immigrants arrived in Singapore from China. From Singapore, many moved on to Riau and Johor to work in the gambir plantations. Everyone working in the plantations was Chinese.

The gambir cultivators opened new plantations with credit from big bosses in Tanjung Pinang and Singapore. They sold the harvest to these creditors to repay their debts. Most cultivators probably never knew whether they lived under the administration of the sultan of Johor, the British, the Dutch, or the viceroy of Riau. They only dealt with their creditor in one of the two towns of the region.

Gambir is the boiled-down juice of a shrub. It is sold in the form of small cubical or round cakes. As an ingredient of the betel drug it was mainly exported to Java. It was also used as a medicine against a range of ailments. In the course of the nineteenth century, Europe developed a new demand for gambir in the tanning, dyeing and brewing industries.

The soil of Riau was well suited for gambir. Singapore and Tanjung Pinang were the most important exporters of gambir in the world, because the creditors of the gambir cultivators resided there.

Non-stop enterprise

A gambir plantation was laid out in a forest by slash-and-burn. First, seed was sown in a small bed. After two months the young plants were replanted in the actual garden. A gambir shrub could be harvested for the first time after 18 months and was productive for 20 to 25 years.

In order to extract the gambir, leaves were stripped from the twigs and boiled in water. Within an hour all the juice had been dissolved, but the kettle remained on the fire for another four hours in order to evaporate surplus water. The resulting sludge was put in reservoirs for further drying and finally cut into small cakes. The residue of leaves was used as fertiliser in a pepper garden. Every gambir plantation always included a small pepper garden. The fires in the ovens were fuelled with wood.

The optimum plantation consisted of 60 hectares and was operated by five men. Half of the plantation was cleared to make room for the actual garden, the other half formed a stock of fire-wood. Five men kept each other busy almost non-stop. One man, the head, cooked the leaves, two harvested the leaves, and two collected fire wood to fuel the ovens with the kettles. The morning harvest was boiled in the afternoon, and the afternoon harvest was boiled the following morning. Two men could work through the whole garden in four months, which was precisely the time the shrubs needed to recover from the previous harvest. By the time the two had gone through the whole garden they could start again at the beginning.


A gambir plantation seemed almost a perfect production unit. Five cultivators were constantly at work, the residue of the leaves was re-used as fertiliser for pepper, and gambir and pepper supported each other when the price of either happened to be low. But the process had one major flaw. Boiling the gambir consumed huge amounts of wood. The heat was so intense that the fires could only be approached to a distance of five feet.

The result was that, whereas the shrubs could produce leaves for twenty years, the plantations were deserted after about twelve years, because all the trees in the vicinity had been cut and burned up. Border disputes arose between the plantations about the rights to the trees.

Plantations frequently moved to new land in search of new stocks of fire wood. By this search, gambir cultivation spread from the oldest centres throughout the region, like an ink blot. From Singapore town the cultivation first spread over the island of Singapore and then extended into Johor, following the coast. From Tanjung Pinang and Bintan the cultivation hopped from one island of Riau to another. Production dropped in the older areas where the wood had been consumed, and sometimes the population size declined as well.

The overall impact was severe deforestation. Before natural regeneration could take place, secondary forest was again used for the plantations. The process was accelerated by the rising demand for gambir, when the industrial potential in tanneries, dye factories and breweries became better known in Europe. The final result was probably not only deforestation, but also increased erosion, which reduced the fertility of the soil. In the early twentieth century, shrubs could only produce leaves for five years and then lost their vitality.

Environmental policy

The concessions to begin a gambir plantation were issued by the viceroy, who was supervised by Dutch civil servants. Either could have taken protective measures. The Dutch civil servants in Riau were soon aware of the risk of deforestation. They did not have a modern environmental consciousness, but feared that with the destruction of the resources of Bintan the prosperity of Tanjung Pinang would disappear into thin air. They talked about a strict supervision of the forests, but lacked the power to protect the trees effectively.

It is not surprising that where the Dutch intentions failed in the small area under their direct administration, the viceroy did not succeed in his far bigger territory. The latter repeatedly complained that the gambir cultivators did not obey him but heeded their creditors in Tanjung Pinang and Singapore instead. Furthermore, the viceroy received only a small annual tax from the concessionaires, but a big sum at the time a new concession was issued. Part of this big sum was a fee, and part a gift for the favour granted. Therefore, the viceroy had more interest in granting new concessions than surveying old ones.

The Chinese gambir cultivators had not too much interest in the conservation of the forest. They were like migratory birds, wanting to earn a fortune and then return to their home country. Those who settled permanently, often when they married a woman from the local community, began to invest in a more sustainable land-use. This was exemplified by the Chinese charcoal burners on Sumatra's east coast, who not only burned trees, but planted them as well.

Riau today

Today many things have changed. Gambir cultivation no longer dominates the economy and is of minor importance, Singapore has completely eclipsed Tanjung Pinang and is the undisputed metropolis in the region, and the political borders are much better observed.

Yet it is tempting to draw some parallels with the past. Once again there is a booming economy of which the environmental sustainability is being questioned. The Indonesian government complains about a lack of control, but at the same time seems to ignore its own environmental regulations in the attempt to attract investors from Singapore. Entrepreneurs can only be expected to invest in sustainable resource use when they are held responsible for the ecological consequences of their behaviour. However, a valid comparison between the present and the past can only be made when all conditions have been taken into account, and one must not be misled by superficial historical lessons.

Freek Colombijn is a researcher at the Royal Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology (KITLV) in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Inside Indonesia 49: Jan-Mar 1997

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