Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Dayak anger ignored

Published: Sep 30, 2007

The recent so-called 'ethnic conflicts' between Dayak and Madurese in West Kalimantan are a classic example of economic tensions manifested as ethnic tensions. For three decades, the province's indigenous Dayak have seen their natural resource base steadily eroded by New Order development policies that privileged a national entrepreneurial class over local communities. Vast amounts of Dayak lands and forests have been destroyed or appropriated for logging concessions, rubber and oil-palm plantations, pulp plantations, and transmigration sites.

To the extent that the Madurese have participated in these appropriations, it has also been as victims, namely as participants in poorly designed transmigration schemes. The unfortunate spectacle of victims of wider political-economic forces pitted against one another instead of against their true oppressors is not new. It has characterised ethnic violence in the American South and in America's inner cities.


My purpose here is to look at the impact of the plantation model of development in West Kalimantan. This analysis is based primarily on surveys that I carried out in the early 1980s, when many large plantation projects were being developed in the very same areas that became centres of ethnic violence in the 1990s.

Many of Indonesia's plantations date from Dutch colonial enterprises that were nationalised in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Today, most plantations are para-statal organisations, that is, directly or indirectly controlled by the state. Among them are the government plantation corporation Perusahaan Negara Perkebunan, and the semi-private Perusahaan Terbatas Perkebunan. The development of these para-statal organisations is the result of a wider effort by regional governments to exercise more direct and personal control of valuable commodity production. Para-statal enterprises play a significant role in the 'crony capitalism' that has been so important in the development of Southeast Asia's modern economies.


The drive by the Indonesian government, helped by international creditors like the World Bank, to develop these para-statal enterprises was stimulated in the late 1970s and early 1980s by projections of steadily decreasing oil and gas exports, and hence by the concern to develop alternate sources of foreign exchange.

When international observers raised questions of socio-economic equity regarding this commitment of national and international capital to the plantation sector, some smallholder programs were developed. One of these, called the People's Nucleus Estate (Perkebunan Inti Rakyat), consists of private smallholdings clustered around, and selling produce to, a nucleus government estate.

Beginning in the 1980s, some of these estates were developed in conjunction with outer island transmigration schemes. The hope was that such schemes would not only produce exportable commodities but would also promote social equity, regional development, and the transmigration of Java's population.


The nucleus estate projects proved to be highly problematic. There was conflict between the estates and local communities, especially over the issue of land compensation. Most projects were developed on land consisting of swidden fallows, groves of fruit trees, and rubber gardens developed and claimed by local communities. When such lands were appropriated for nucleus estate projects, the claimants were hard-pressed to obtain any compensation from the estate. Compensation was routinely inadequate and long in coming, if it ever did.

If the claimant joined the estate project as a smallholder, even this chance of partial compensation was generally ruled out, on the grounds that participation in the project was sufficient compensation in itself. The problem with this reasoning lies in the government loans that each farmer had to assume as a condition of project participation (to cover the cost of investment in their share of the project infrastructure).


The size of the loan was the same for the local farmer, whose (say) 5-10 hectares of land were appropriated for the project, as it was for the transmigrant from Java or Bali who brought nothing to the project. The inequity of this lack of differentiation predisposed some local farmers against participation in these projects. And it lessened the commitment of those who did participate to repay their loans.

Even in the absence of problems with local communities, many nucleus estate schemes foundered on their own internal economics or ecology. In some cases, mortality rates for the high-yielding rubber clones provided by the estates averaged as high as 70 percent. In spite of this, the government still insists on full repayment of the loan that was provided to the participants to purchase these clones in the first place. Such problems mean that actual earnings average less than ten percent of official projections, forcing participants into migrant labour or even prostitution to stave off hunger.


Other problems with the nucleus estates involve labour and production relations between the estate and the smallholders. The plantation managers want the Dayak to be completely dependent on the plantation, to facilitate the mobilisation of labour on the plantation's own terms. But they do not want the plantation to be completely responsible for reproducing the conditions of the Dayak' existence, such as housing and social security, in addition to reasonable hours and wages.

The Dayak, on the other hand, want the reverse. They want the plantations to make more commitments to them and assume more responsibility for their welfare. But they still do not want to become completely dependent upon the plantations.

This difference in views is reflected in the rhetoric of the two sides. The plantation managers complain that the Dayak are not always ready and willing to work in the plantations, and the Dayak complain that the work is not always available when they want it. The managers worry that the alternate sources of income available to the Dayak give the latter too much independence, and the Dayak worry that if they lose these sources (dry-rice fields and rubber smallholdings) they will have too little independence.


Perhaps the greatest flaw in the design of the nucleus estate projects is the studied way it ignores the successful experience of rubber smallholders over the previous three-quarters of a century. The nucleus estate projects were designed to take advantage, not of smallholder but of estate experience.

There was no conception whatsoever of the existence of other, more relevant repositories of expertise, such as among the rubber smallholders, because this would have opened to question the captive orientation of the smallholdings toward the state nucleus plantation.

This orientation toward the state plantations is, in fact, less a function of the smallholders' need for plantation expertise than of the plantation's need to publicly represent a smallholder need for plantation expertise that legitimates their control of smallholder cultivation.

The commitment of vast state resources to the development of this experimental and problematic form of cash crop cultivation, in the process ignoring existing and historically successful forms of smallholder cultivation, is a striking example of a state privileging political over economic considerations in what is supposed to be development policy.

Feedback ignored

The negative impact of para-statal plantation agriculture upon the local Dayak communities has been exacerbated by a bureaucratic tradition that is strongly averse to feedback from local communities to state managers and planners. This is especially the case for critical feedback delivered directly to the person responsible. Public demonstrations of Dayak unhappiness with plantation policies are termed mental terrorism (teror mental) and evoke near-hysteria among planters.

The implication is that any plantation worker with a complaint should, at most, make it to his immediate superior. The latter may then pass it on to his immediate superior, and so on, until - and if - the upper levels of plantation management and government are reached. This hierarchical structure shields upper-level officials from contact with the Dayak who bear the consequences of their management decisions. It thereby shields their views of Dayak from confrontation with a contrary Dayak reality.

World Bank

Para-statal plantation agriculture in West Kalimantan was developed in collaboration with international lenders like the World Bank, and does indeed look good on paper. In practice, however, plantation projects proved to be essentially an efficient mechanism for separating the local communities from their natural resource base and also from the full products of their own daily labour.

There is a record of Dayak unhappiness with and protest against this mode of production and extraction that extends back at least to the early 1980s. And there is a similar record of inequitable impacts and Dayak protest in the logging and pulp sector.

However, institutional norms for suppressing information on the deleterious consequences of official policies permitted the national government to continue to think that it was carrying out 'development' when in fact it was engaged in 'under-development.' The current ethnic violence in West Kalimantan is the tragic legacy of this policy.

Fifteen years ago in West Kalimantan, while I was studying Dayak disputes over a nucleus estate project near Sanggau, a traditional Dayak leader (temenggung) told me: 'As long as everyone profits the same and works the same, there is no one who will not want to cooperate with the plantation program'.

His gist was that all will be well if development in the province is carried out with equity and justice. The corollary, of course, is that if development is not carried out with equity and justice, all will not be well.

Michael R. Dove is the director of the Program on Environment at the East-West Center, Hawaii.

Inside Indonesia 51: Jul-Sep 1997

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