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Transition to Crisis in the Indonesian Countryside

Transition to Crisis in the Indonesian Countryside

Anna L. Tsing (Anthropology, UC Santa Cruz) discusses connections between globalism, rural chaos, and environmental destruction.

Representations of Indonesia in the United States typically portray an abrupt change between the peace, order, and prosperity of the late twentieth century and the violence, illegality, and economic disruption of the last few years. Yet chaos in the Indonesian countryside in the early twenty-first century draws directly from the resource extraction policies of the New Order regime of President Suharto (1966-1998). In a talk for the Center for Southeast Asian Studies on January 22, Professor Anna L. Tsing (anthropology, UC Santa Cruz) analyzed the transition from the New Order disruption of local resource access conventions to the post–New Order chaos. Her talk focused on sense disorientation as a key aspect of the making of natural resource frontiers.

Globalism and Resource Management in Indonesia

Professor Tsing began with the puzzle of the destruction of the Kalimantan rain forest on the island of Borneo. The forest is enormously rich in resources, but it was devastated in a remarkably short time. How was this possible?

The Kalimantan forest is remarkable for its biological diversity. It is home to a vast variety of trees and fauna, and also to people, in villages, towns, and cities. Commercially, its greatest resource is its timber, but wax, rubber, resin, lacquer, and other forest products are also all of great value. Yet, one is tempted to put all this in the past tense: to say that the Kalimantan forest was once staggeringly rich. For today the wealth of Kalimantan has been severely degraded. At the same time, and in a related process, the people of Kalimantan have in many ways lost control over not only their resources but their very lives.

This destruction, Professor Tsing emphasized, is not so much the result of what has happened locally, in isolation from the outside world, but rather it has international connections. And those connections reach back to the Suharto era and before. However, Professor Tsing suggested it would be wrong to attribute all that has happened to Kalimantan to the policies -- and greed -- of the Suharto regime or to some global scheme that was imposed on Indonesia. Instead, “a series of historical accidents, contingencies, and conjunctions laid out a track in which both Indonesia and international trade were remade.”

The story starts with the Japanese soga shosha, or general trading companies. During World War II, the Japanese government and these trading houses worked hand-in-glove. In that environment, the soga shosha prospered and grew into economic giants. They also “came to embody a particular model of giantness, which, in terms of import-export trade is not about controlling production, but about bulking and controlling trade.”

These trading companies first got involved in Southeast Asian tropical timber in the Philippines. There, the combination of the Japanese market-driven demand for timber and the eagerness of Filipinos to clear the forests—rather like the American frontier model of clearing the forest, almost as a patriotic duty—made “very fast work of the Philippine forests." Indeed, the soga shosha had fully exploited the forests of the Philippines and then moved on to Malaysia before Indonesia showed any interest at all in the tropical timber trade. In the 1950s and 1960s, Indonesians had very different ideas about nation-making, including such things as mobilizing the masses. Cutting down the forests was irrelevant to this project. However, in 1965 and 1966, General Suharto came to power in Indonesia in a great bloodbath, inaugurating what was known as the New Order, which “promised to solve the country’s problems through the magic of foreign investment and loans."

As part of the New Order, the Indonesian government offered generous incentives to foreign loggers. Logging became in many ways the preserve of the Indonesian army, which ran the logging concessions, contracting out forest lands and raking in a huge income, including bribes and kickbacks. The army had already developed techniques of what analysts politely call “off-budget financing": money raised and spent outside the official state budget, by means not fully under public control and usually free of any official, public oversight. The army also played a crucial role in the logging since in many cases removing the residents from the land was a necessary precondition to removing trees. The army often achieved the former by force.

Professor Tsing explained that “the specific features of this international arrangement had ramifying effects. A new business culture and a new resource-management regime grew up in Indonesia. And the condition of the Indonesian countryside today has everything to do with the ramifications of this particular global connection." Three particular features sprang from this connection:

  • The mystification of the rain forest as a sustainable resource;
  • Confusion between public and private that “came to characterize the national economy leading to a nation built on what Indonesians today call KKN: corruption, crime, and nepotism";
  • Collusion between legal and illegal entrepreneurs, as well as the army, police and gangsters, which has been “the trademark of the countryside in the post-Suharto era."

By the time the exploitation of the Kalimantan rain forests started in the 1970s, the global movement to protect the world’s rain forests was in full swing. Indonesian loggers responded by claiming they were environmentalists. The slogan of the Indonesian timber industry was “Indonesian forests forever!" In fact, as Professor Tsing argued, “perhaps the biggest scandal that came out of this rhetoric was the national mandate to replace tropical forests with monocrop plantations of exotic, fast-growing species. . . . Sustainability was a chimera allowed by the simplified international-trade model of forests."

Resource simplification of this sort made possible private control of public resources, or in Professor Tsing's words, "the confusion of public and private so central to the making of the KKN nation. . . . The KKN nation was made by nationalizing the soga shosha model of trade control." This involved, among other things, a ban, instituted in 1981, on the export of tropical logs. Thereafter, Indonesian firms—not Japanese firms as in the past -- processed the logs into plywood. This was generally welcomed by environmentalists outside Indonesia, and in fact Bob Hasan, Indonesia’s top timber tycoon and a confidant of President Suharto, won several international environmental awards. But, in fact, the result of the Indonesianization of the timber industry was that more timber than ever was being cut.

Right from the start, illegal loggers joined legal loggers in exploiting Indonesia’s forests. "Legal" in this case simply means that the activity is approved at the national level. "Illegal" means that approval comes from one or another local level, even down to the individual village. A consequence of the combination of legal and illegal logging was the disenfranchisement of local people, that is, the displacement of local residents’ rights.

Some activists believe that the solution lies simply in ending illegal logging, which should involve privatizing the forests. But Professor Tsing argued that this sort of thinking evades the real issues: the disenfranchisement of the local inhabitants and the ecological disaster that has befallen Indonesia.

Chaos in the Countryside

In Indonesia today chaos, panic, and despair accompany the denuding of the landscape. In 1997-98, the Indonesian economy was hit by the great Asian financial crisis. In the village of Kalawan, where Professor Tsing has conducted field research, the crisis has been deep and enduring. It is not something that can be solved by a stabilization of the Indonesian rupiah or even by a change in the regime. Since "the late 1980s, logging has opened the region to armed men, legitimate and illegitimate; to entrepreneurial thieves, big and small; to migrants and transmigrants, with their superior citizenship claims; to proselytizing Pentecostals; to the destruction of subsistence livelihood and the voiding of local rights; and, indeed, to panic and despair."

Professor Tsing argued that this crisis has been long in brewing. Indeed, there is "a basic continuity between crisis and development. Development required the making and using of resources, and resources cannot be made without violent upheaval."

Professor Tsing’s then turned to the sensual features of chaos in the countryside. First, smoke. The smoke of the devastating fires of 1997 and beyond "created a crisis of visibility." In Professor Tsing’s analysis smoke became a metaphor for the dark, obscured, unclear relationship that spread among the people of Kalimantan, natives and outsiders alike -- a relationship marked by jealousy, suspicion, and anger. Second, rats. In Kalawan, following the fires that devastated forests and orchards, a seemingly endless army of rats descended on the fields. The people applied poison, which effectively kills village cats and dogs, but to which the rats seem to have developed an immunity. Like the unchecked and unwelcome arrival of creatures from the devastated forest, outsiders -- principally from the islands of Madura and Java -- have descended on Kalimantan. Some, particularly the Madurese, have come as workers on the tree plantations. Others have come to claim land, land that by tradition belonged to the local Dayak people. Officials, for instance, have denied traditional, local claims to land, land that officials now say is "state land." This has made it easy for local police to sell plots to Javanese immigrants; that is to say, to sell plots from under the Dayaks. All this has led to bloody clashes between the local Dayak population and the Madurese, and the environment has suffered in consequence.

Third, sin. In Kalawan "family values were asserted in a defensive spasm of fear. When almost everything has been lost, it is easy to demand more and more control over less and less." Professor Tsing spoke of a teacher, a Christian (all the teachers in Kalawan are either Christians or Muslims), who caught a student having sex with her boyfriend. The teacher called an emergency village meeting. His report provoked a crisis. The Dayaks saw themselves in the gaze of others. In their own eyes, either they were capable of moral standards or they were not. In fact, the villagers had become "small-town moralists." They condemned the "immoral" activities of their youth: "Teenagers who go to school should mind their morals." As Professor Tsing put it, "when there is nothing left, there is still the shadow of piety."

Fourth, body odor. By the year 2000 "whiffs of pious violence could be detected across Indonesia, pitting ethnic and religious groups in new, morally inspired hatreds." In west Kalimantan, bloody clashes between Dayaks and Madurese proliferated. In Kalawan, which had no significant Madurese population, inhabitants said that the Dayaks of west Kalimantan could identify Madurese by their odor. Madurese and Dayaks mixed in public spaces, such as buses. It was difficult for strangers to tell one from the other. "But when buses were stopped by militants during these wars, Madurese and Dayaks were separated, despite attempts on each side to disguise their names, their clothes, and their language abilities, but they could not change their body odor." In Professor Tsing's analysis, this sort of madness, as it has been termed by some observers, is the product of "an assault on the senses, the frontiers of capitalism spun out of control."


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Anna Tsing teaches anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her new book, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (forthcoming), situates Indonesian environmental crises and mobilizations within an analysis of global relations. She is the author of In the Realm of the Diamond Queen: Marginality in an Out-of-the-Way Place (Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), and coeditor of Nature in the Global South (with Paul Greenough) and Uncertain Terms: Negotiating Gender in American Culture (with Faye Ginsburg).