The Plantation Dream

The Indonesian version of this essay is available on Indoprogress (March 12, 2017).
Picture source: “Kolonisten uit de Kolonie Toegoemoelja at Loeboek Linggau, Palembang” from Kolonisatie Bulletin No.5: Een Desa Eemigreert. De Centrale Commissie voor Emigratie en Kolonisatie van Inheemschen. (1939). Batavia. The bulletin collection is available as a special collection at the library of University of Leiden.

The son of Mr. Karyono died in 1996, drowning in a small fishpond that his father had created before the harvesting season in their palm oil zone. People sympathized with him, but they also could not hold their snarls: if only he never made that pond… we are going to harvest in two years anyway. Karyono did plan to sell some fishes before reaping his palm oil plots. Karyono’s family and his questionable neighbors moved from various villages in Java to this village called Desa (village) Bangun, created from the backbones of the evicted indigenous people, to cultivate palm oil.

This backdrop is just another day of development projects for a postcolonial country like Indonesia. The people were promised 2 hectares of palm oil plots and 0.5 hectares of land, wooden house/barrack included. The whole village is comprised of 10.000 hectares of plasma palm oil plantations; plasma means the divided share between the state, the farmers, and the company that funded the estates. Remember this program’s name because it may come up again when there is no oxygen left: transmigration. Or transmigrasi in Indonesian, and colonisatie during the Dutch colonialism.

Of course others questioned Karyono’s intention; it was weird among his peers. They have a monthly wage, have a house, and contribute to the country’s most significant commodity. Indonesia has hailed palm oil farmers and palm oil economics as its fiscal champs. Are these not enough for you, Karyono? They asked him. When Indonesia faced the 1997 financial crisis and urbanites in Jakarta lost everything, the palm oil farmers enjoyed one of the most prosperous times in their lives. Karyono’s neighbors conflated his simple interest in diversifying his income as greed.

Palm oil farmers and workers are not incredibly hospitable to something other than palm oil in the palm oil zone. Either way, their geographical deadlock reflects that; what else can you plant between this water-hungry commodity? Would your mothers’ and aunts’ simple garden be enough? Palm oil is a faith, is an act of belief, is the conduct of observing such a faith. Ms. Ratman told me that she had nothing but iman (faith) and sawit (palm oil).

Mr. Ratman only brought two clothes and his wife in 1992, and now he is a hajj*. He never saw an elephant before, but he and others now had killed one for an elephant is a pest in the palm oil zones. “I could have had become a brigand, but I do not,” pride Mr. Ratman, from any possibilities to a singular identity of an obedient palm oil farmer. No escape, for the question where to has no answers. We will laugh at the Tatcherian dictum of “there is no alternative” nowadays, but it is not a joke for many palm oil farmers and cultivators. Karyono’s neighbors questioned not only his intention but the future of such a promise of economic diversification. Where are you going to sell your fishes, Karyono? We live so far away from the cities, let other people do that to us, but not you or us, the palm oil farmers. The capital city is a four-hour drive from here, on good days, not when it rains.

Be careful with that, Karyono; other people might be jealous of you; you know what happens when they are jealous. A machete would go right through your arms.

The prosperity of palm oil planters transforms into beautiful houses that may not fit the rural sceneries. Neon pink and green baroque pillars, blue marbles for the floors are everywhere, or they can send a lot of money so their children can become soldiers, police officers, and other civil servants to guard these palm oil of ours. In 1967, as a price for the successful anti-communist purge, the American government supported by the World Bank, granted General Soeharto, our dictator, for 32 years, a large amount of money for transmigration. Each year, Desa Bangun always votes for the Golongan Karya party, the political party of Soeharto, even as the authoritarian regime broke down. The world seems to stop at our “smiling general” in this plantation.

Discomfort in plantation zones may be interpreted as a sign of indolence; 30% of the transmigration plot should go to the native people – whose land was replaced by palm oils. They went away, for a forest should be alive and dwelled, instead of waiting months for unfamiliar people with uniforms on the harvest day. A forest also needs a river, not a meticulous irrigation system designed and blueprinted by someone outside this island. Laziness is a recipe for land concentration. Many people resold their plots, hoping for better jobs. They couldn’t find any, jobs in this province are terrible. These resellers failed, went back to plantations, and this time instead of plot owners, they became daily laborers without any properties.

Karyono still thought of his son and other things that could have happened. His son could be a soldier, a police officer, or a government official. He no longer continued his fishery interest as he started believing that, indeed, his son’s death was his. I returned to Desa Bangun in 2016, I saw Mr. Karyono. He looked at me and wept, for I was born two weeks after Karyono’s son, and the whole village celebrated our birth. He told me that his son and I used to together often when we were infants. We would run away to the palm oil plots and were not afraid of snakes because we all should believe that there are only blessings in this place.

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