Podcast Episode 1: Histories and futures in monocrop palm oil plantation

In the 1st episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews Anthropologist Tania Murray Li on the history and future of palm oil plantation in Indonesia and other parts of the world. Professor Li explains what monocrop palm oil plantation may be revealing about economic inequality and why is it so important to pay attention to dominant conception of development.


SP: Could you share with our listeners a little about your research on palm oil plantation, what is the history of monocrop palm oil plantation in Indonesia, your place of research, and how did you come to write about it?

Professor Li: Okay, thank you. So, I started this research in 2010, together with an Indonesian colleague, Professor Pujo Semedi, from Gajdah Mada University. He had a history of studying plantations in Java. Indonesia has a history of large monocrop plantation going back to at least the 1870s Dutch colonial land law that enabled large land concessions and encouraged foreign investors. The main plantation site historically was in the island of Sumatra. The main crops were tobacco, rubber, and oil palm. We decided to study one of the new oil palm frontiers, which was relatively new in the island of Kalimantan. So, we chose a research site, which had different kind of plantations: one was state-owned, another was privately owned, while another area was based on contract farming and out-grower scheme. The spectrum of oil palm growing was part of our evidence. The main reason we decided to study this topic is its enormous importance in Indonesia. There was now at least 12 million hectares of oil palm in the country and most of it was under the control of corporations—large monocrop plantation style. Another 8-10 million hectares has already been leased to these corporations and they’re waiting for further expansion. It has a massive footprint: 30-40 percent of Indonesia’s farmland is now dedicated to this one crop on a monocrop basis.  Although this had become a huge element of transformation of Indonesian countryside and rural life. There had not been any ethnographic research on the topic. So, there were studies by NGOs and there have certainly been some work on the ecological impacts, forest loss. Research of different kinds have looked at this usually finding that the impacts were very troubling in terms of forest loss, species loss, environmental ruin, loss of livelihoods and so on. The focus of our research was a little different, we decided that we will not just focus on what was lost when large monocrop corporate agriculture came to dominate massive swathe of the countryside but what was installed. So, our focus was on what kind of life was it when you live in a plantation zone. So, our forthcoming book is called Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone, and that’s what we are trying to do. We are trying to say what is the life, we recognized at least 15 million people now living under the shadow of this kind of corporate agriculture, whether as workers on plantation or as original landholders who are still living in this landscape but are living as residual synchronies here and there trying to eke out a livelihood with very little access to land. All of those people are living a plantation life or life dominated by corporate plantation—what is this life, is it a good life, a bad life, who experiences it in different ways, sure, its varied, some people are going to benefit profit, some people are going to lose relentlessly, what is that sort of social map, the diversity of experience of people in the plantation zone. Our discipline is anthropology, and we are trying to give a texture of everyday as well as trying to contextualise the everyday in the forces that are producing that everyday life, that’s been our focus. 

2) Plantation economy has a lot of appeal in developing countries (with the Indian government recently laying out a plan for palm oil cultivation in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, threatening its biodiversity). The argument goes that if land is collectivized and brought under monocrop cultivation it will generate a lot of profits and increase employment opportunities—a “win-win” situation. How do you locate your own research in the context of such arguments?

Professor Li: Well, this is sort of the key question, and I will have to say that part of our goal has been to put that claim that this is a “win-win” that it generates jobs, that it generates development—to put it to empirical test. There has been large-scale plantation agriculture in India and Indonesia and in other parts of Asia for more than a century so if we look at the evidence in those areas where it has been long established, are they in fact, prospering? Are the workers prosperous? Do children get education and go off to universities? Is the economy diversifying? Are there lots of spin offs? Secondary forms of employment, are there little businesses? Basically, is the plantation zone a thriving zone, a zone of development not only for the crop but also for the people and communities living in and around it. Or is the plantation zone a desolate space in which workers are underpaid, poorly paid, local people are not given jobs, but migrants are because they’re easier to manage and control. India has a long history of this. Though the workers are not doing especially well, the local people may initially like the idea of a plantations when there is just one, because they see it bringing infrastructure to remote areas. But what has historically happened over time is that, and our research mainly focuses on this is that the initial pioneer plantation is followed by one, two, five and twenty more until the entire area is saturated with plantations and the people on spot have nowhere to farm. Though corporates especially benefit from the scenario, but its extremely doubtful and I would say the evidence does not confirm that you get good jobs and a livelihoods and sustainable forms of development in this plantation path—there is no historical example of it. Why should it suddenly happen now in the Nicobar Islands when it has never happened anywhere else? I think this is a really important kind of reality check, which needs to happen behind these arguments.

Another point to make about this is that the assumption is that large-scale monocrop cultivation will be highly efficient. You know, surely, all those rows of crops lined up neatly, those workers in their uniform saluting the company flag, subjected to discipline and the technical departments suggesting that surely this will be a highly efficient technically driven enterprise. But what we have found in our research, and others have found similarly including research in India is that plantations are often corrupt and leaky machines in which workers, managers and local villagers, no one is really committed to the corporate enterprise and why should they be because it doesn’t treat them especially well. There is lots of theft, there is lots of various kinds of resistance, and the level of productivity that we have found in plantations is sometimes lower than what smallholders can achieve in the surrounding site if they are given access to good quality seeds and infrastructure. So, the argument for plantation efficiency that somehow these are going to be super productive machines again must be put to empirical test and the point is that they aren’t. Small holders produce as much palm oil per hectare, and they do so at a much lower cost because they do not have to pay to administrators and managers, accountants, and security guards, and all that apparatus you need to run a palm oil plantation. Small holders need to have decent, seed, good roads, access to a mill that treats them fairly, and on that basis, they can grow this crop very efficiently at lower cost and prosperity is generated locally and it stays local, instead of being shipped out to corporate profits it stays in local areas where it is reinvested in all kinds of agricultural and other kinds of enterprises. So, the whole favoring of the plantation model in the name of development and jobs I feel is a deeply mistaken one, and it really needs to be subject to a lot of critical scrutiny. In my mind its kinds of extraordinary that the promoters of corporate plantations have gotten away with this for this long with repeating this “win-win” storyline when there is really no evidence to support it and they haven’t even felt obliged to provide this evidence because they seem to feel that a large-scale plantation with its imperial grandeur just speaks for itself—this must be efficient, this must be productive, this must be modern, actually it isn’t. Are there any conditions under which plantation style economy would be beneficial? I would say there are a couple of very limited ones from what I have seen. The initial pioneer plantation could play a role because people learn about the crop and some infrastructure is put in place but allowing entire areas to become saturated with plantations is to squeeze out the local population and the small-holder alternatives. If there’s going to be plantation, not too much, but just one or two, here and there—not too big and certainly not wall-to-wall puppet of plantations. The second thing to really keep an eye on is jobs—are the workers on plantations protected by labor laws, are they going to have stable jobs, with house and accidental benefits, pensions or are they going to be a disposable workforce, that’s in fact not protected and treated poorly, So, countries which have strong and enforced labor laws in the plantation sector those workers might just do quite well. But in Indonesia that’s not the case, because plantations have been casualizing their workforce. There’s a small workforce that has quite good condition but most of the work is done by casual workers who are not protected by the labor laws. So, there working conditions are miserable and these are not good job, there is no win-win there. Those are the two things to watch if your government is determined to go down the plantation path—ensure that the labor conditions are going to benefit workers otherwise this narrative of win-win is really misleading.

Leave a Reply