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Timber plantations in Indonesia: approaching the predicaments of a modern utopia

CollectionsANU Resources, Environment & Development Group (RE&D)
Title: Timber plantations in Indonesia: approaching the predicaments of a modern utopia
Author(s): Bubandt, Nils
Keywords: timber plantations;Indonesia;government;modern utopia;HTI-Trans;integrated timber estates;total institution;heterotopia;work schedules;transmigration;organisational structures;social inertia;estate management
Publisher: Canberra, ACT: Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program (RMAP), Division of Pacific and Asian History, Research School for Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University
Series/Report no.: Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program (RMAP) Working Paper: No. 15
The plantation is, I believe, an excellent prism for looking at the politics of society. Because the plantation is about the administration of a community, I feel it gives me an opportunity to look at the specific and often highly exotic workings of government bureaucracy in Indonesia as well as its way of implementing ‘development’, a key term in Indonesia politics, on the one hand, while continuing my interest in the local conditions of life in Halmahera, on the other. In the plantation one gets a digestible serving of the national and the global cooked to the specifications of a local cuisine. The suggestion I would like to make here is, quite simply, that the plantation as a form of social organisation is uniquely modern. I see the plantation as a model for administrative, bureaucratic modernity. With apologies to Philip and a recent British movie, I think that in the plantation one can see modernity ‘go the full monty’. It is a place where the dreams and hopes for a particular kind of society have been able to evolve. The plantation expresses the utopian ideas inherent in modernity and may be seen as a concerted institutional attempt to implement these ideas. The utopia, however, always recedes as the implementation proceeds because ‘something’ seems to transform the process of ordering into disorder at another level. With examples from the plantation in Halmahera, I will describe the forever frustrated and unfinished process of ordering in modern institutions. By looking at the plantation ‘from below’, from the perspective of those managed by the institution - in the case of the timber estate, transmigrants from a variety of cultural backgrounds - one can see that the attempts of social ordering continuously fail because the transmigrants navigate the rules and structures according to a multifaceted array of cultural strategies aimed at optimising their own livelihood on the estate according their varied perception of ‘the good life’. In order to highlight the plantation as a modern utopia, I will concentrate my talk on one kind of Indonesian timber estate in which the utopian ideas are most clearly expressed, namely the so-called HTITrans (integrated timber estates). There are roughly 200 timber plantations in Indonesia today, by far most which are located in the Outer Islands. When they are built to their full extension, they will cover well over 7 million hectares (70,000 square kilometres, almost twice the size of Denmark). The process of converting forest into plantations continues at a rate of about 400,000 hectares a year. To date about 2 million hectares have already been established, not a mean feat considering that the plantation effort in the form of HTIs only began in earnest in 1990. In that same year (1990), the total area of plantations in the world was estimated at 135 million hectares, 90 % of which are timber plantations for industrial use. Like those in Indonesia, the timber estates of the rest of the world supply the wood industry, predominantly the paper and pulp industry as well as plywood factories and the sawn wood industry. Indonesian plantations may account for only a small proportion of the global plantation area, but the pace of plantation build-up in Indonesia is one of the highest in the world.


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