Picturing the Plantation as a Site of Displacement
This is the fourteenth piece in a series on the Plantationocene—an alternate name for the epoch often called the Anthropocene. The Plantationocene Series aims to create a conversation about multiple forms of plantations, both past and present, as well as the ways that plantation logics organize modern economies, environments, and social relations.
Oil palm plantations have radically altered the social, economic, and ecological environment of previously remote and forest-covered areas in Southeast Asia. The Baram and Tinjar river catchment in Sarawak, a state of Malaysia on the island of Borneo, is among the places affected by this process. The photos in this essay illustrate the disruption and upheaval caused by large-scale logging operations and conversion to oil palm, and document the material culture of the operations, the trucks, buildings and roads. Images of littered roadsides and transient settlements hint at the violence of dislocation obscured by the disconcerting atmosphere of control and order of the plantation landscape. At the same time, the images also show the resilience of the people and of the environment as well as the beauty and abundance of the region.
The Baram River is Sarawak’s second longest. Its catchment and tributaries extend all the way to the most remote highlands. My first visit to Sarawak’s fourth division was in 2007, while I was working and studying in the state capital, Kuching. After this, I came back again and again. Over time, I made friends with people who lived and worked there, and came to know the roads, the villages, the rivers and creeks. Many people in the area still live in communal longhouses with an apartment or ‘door’ for each family and a shared outdoor veranda. Many practice traditional shifting agriculture with rice as their main staple, along with the cultivation of cash crops. Others have moved to the city or migrate back and forth.
I eventually completed research for my Ph.D. and a three-year postdoctoral research project in the area. During this time, I learned that the relationships between the people, the environment, companies and government in the region are complex with many different interests at stake—not all of which I understood. On an experiential level, I developed a strong interest in the tangible sense of transformation I encountered. Every time I visited the area between 2015 and 2017, I documented its landscapes and material culture through my photographs.
Make Way for the Plantation
Plantations are sites of displacement on many levels. Animals, people, even features of the landscape are removed, unsettled, rearranged and relocated in a strategic effort to organize the environment. Claude Levi-Strauss likened plantations to “a Nature so ruthlessly put to work in our service that the result is more like an open-air factory than a landscape.” Like a factory, a plantation requires a complex system of infrastructure to enable the exchange of money and goods and the movement of workers and supplies. The first actor in this process and the first visible sign of the changes to come is arguably the road.
The road is the key to displacement. It allows heavy machinery to penetrate the otherwise impenetrable forest. It enables the extraction of trees. It facilitates the ingress of foreign workers to fill the jobs the locals do not want to do. Even before the road reaches a village, it dominates local concerns and desires, and is a constant topic of conversation. The road also provides a route for local people to travel to the city, to access schools and hospitals and to look for work. This is why most local communities welcome the construction of roads connecting their villages to the city in spite of the local environmental impact. In this sense, the roads are where government responsibility, capitalist self-interest of the big logging corporations, and local hopes and ambitions collide.
The region is close to the frontier between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It could also be seen as a “resource frontier,” defined by Anna Tsing as “an edge of space and time: a zone of not yet—not yet mapped, not yet regulated.” There are no publicly accessible maps of these roads. Local drivers know the roads well and navigate by memory, but it is difficult for outsiders to access the region. The roads are built by logging companies. They deteriorate quickly and are often impassable after heavy rain when bridges wash away and landslides block cars’ passage. Feeder roads from the main logging roads to the villages are particularly precarious, as these are not essential to the logging operations. When feeder roads become impassable, villages must negotiate with the logging companies to convince them to send in their heavy machinery to clear the roads for traffic.
All sorts of things are moved on the main roads. Heavy machinery, workers, people, even whole houses are displaced from one site to the next. Local villagers are allowed to use the roads, but the logging companies maintain ultimate control and the ability to charge commercial operators who enter the region. At the same time, logging operations often take place near traditionally owned land, so the logging companies have a commercial interest in maintaining good relations with local communities. In this way, roads are actors in local social, economic, and political structures, often before they come to physically exist.
While many local people benefit from the roads and comply with their construction, others put up fierce resistance in the knowledge that logging will likely destroy local livelihoods and shatter the ecological equilibrium on which people’s material and spiritual lives are based. This dynamic has made the region politically sensitive, with ongoing friction between government, companies, grassroots organizations, communities and individuals. The proposed construction of several hydroelectric dams has augmented this tension further. Where contestation of dams stands in the way of generating profits, the people and their concerns become problems to be managed rather than individuals with traditional rights and with homes and livelihoods at stake.
The removal of timber can be a key component in the economic rationale for a new plantation, as the clear felling of timber on the plantation site results in revenue exceeding the profits for regular logging activities where only the most valuable trees are harvested. The roads have their own rules aimed at prioritizing heavy logging vehicles, which means that private vehicles must sometimes drive on the left-hand side and other times on the right-hand side. As one friend from the region explained, this makes the roads more dangerous: “[For] some people from town who have never driven here, it’s difficult, and people can easily have accidents.”
Once the trucks have delivered their cargo to the log pond, the reservoir in which the logs are stored, they make their way back up to the coupe, the site where the logs are cut. Drivers are paid according to the amount of logs they shift per day. Thus, some drive recklessly, during bad weather or at night. More accidents result.
The logging companies operate internationally, including sending their workers overseas. One of the two workers in the photograph above, whom I met in a little rest area on the way to a more remote village, told me that he had been sent to work in Africa and Papua before. “I prefer to be working closer to home now,” he said.
As truck after truck make their way downriver to the log pond, fewer precious tree species and large specimens remain. After the third or fourth time an area is logged over, the area will hold little value for the company unless it is cleared for plantation.
The degradation of this interstitial zone is apparent everywhere—in the lifeless tree trunks chained to trucks, in the roadside rubbish and dust covering secondary vegetation, in the exposed earth cut through by deep ruts from heavy vehicles. As Anna Tsing describes in her affective narrating of resource frontiers, engagement with such spaces brings up difficult questions: “How does nature at the frontier become a set of resources? How are landscapes made empty and wild so that anyone can come to use and claim them? How do ordinary people get involved in destroying their environments, even their own home places?”
The logs from the coupe are collected in a log pond, then brought further downriver to eventually be carried to the coast via the river. Once at the coast, they will be loaded on barges to be shipped to buyers overseas. Timber has been harvested in Sarawak for decades. More recently, the region has seen the clearing of large swathes of land for plantation, both oil palm and pulp and paper. The rapid increase in forest area converted to plantation has led to, in the words of Noboru Ishikiwa and Ryoji Soda, “the temporal compression of succession—the transplanting and mobilization, proliferation, reduction and extirpation of plants, flora and people” through which local systems of livelihood, social coexistence, and engagement with the environment have been overturned.
Clearing for plantation requires the removal of all vegetation and the construction of terraces for easy access for plantation workers to clear undergrowth and harvest fruit. The whole landscape is rearranged, becoming unrecognizable. As Donna Haraway put it, “[t]he plantation system depends on the relocation of the generative units: plants, animals, microbes, people.” At the same time as the erasure of its landmark features, the landscape becomes inhospitable to most people and most animal and plant species.
Malaysia is the world’s second biggest producer of palm oil, which is extracted from the fruits of the palm, after neighbouring Indonesia. The two countries together produce 85% of global palm oil. This year, Malaysia alone accounts for 28% of world palm oil production. The price of palm oil has gone up and down in recent years, but, with large swathes of land already converted or earmarked for conversion, the trajectory of this region toward a landscape dominated by oil palm plantation seems set.
While oil palm originates in West Africa, it grows well in Southeast Asia’s tropical forests. These seedlings will bear fruit after around two and a half years and have a productive lifespan of around 25 to 30 years. Other cash crops cultivated in the region, such as rubber, coffee and cacao, are also imports from Africa and South America. Rubber in particular has provided incomes for local people for generations. “My parents put us through school and Uni(versity) with this,” a friend once told me as we were walking through his parents’ rubber plantation near the village of Long Sobeng. As local people have become more affluent, many now employ migrant workers to tap their rubber or have just stopped tapping altogether.
The fruit of the oil palm has a higher oil yield compared to other oil crops. The plantation nursery in this photo (below) will provide the seedlings to be planted in the surrounding terraces. The term ‘nursery’ seems a sinister euphemism in the context of the neat and ordered crop rows.
Researchers and advocacy groups have for years been engaged in establishing best practice guidelines and certification schemes for oil palm and continue to pressure governments and companies to comply with these recommendations. Yet, while market demand for unsustainably produced palm oil persists, most companies do not feel compelled to do this.
Plantations could be efficient in sequestering carbon, but not if forest is cleared to establish them. Carbon emissions are even higher when oil palm is planted on peat soils. Peat swamps act as carbon sinks but, when drained, release the stored carbon into the atmosphere.
Oil palm plantations generate biomass in the form of dried palm fronds which are collected and burned. The burning of biomass can set fire to the dried peat and lead to ongoing forest fires which, combined with illegal clearing for new plantations, generates smoke over much of the area of Borneo, Singapore, the Malaysian Peninsula and Indonesia. This haze has become an annual phenomenon in the dry season. Once dried peat burns, it can continue to smolder below the surface for weeks and months.
Most endemic wildlife cannot survive on a plantation. Some more adaptable animals do well. Cobras and pythons feed on rats which live abundantly in the plantations, and wild boar eat the fruit of the oil palm. However, plantations only support about 15% of the more specialized species typically abundant in tropical forests. Ecologists are so worried about the loss of biodiversity due to the establishment of large-scale plantations that many now view logging as ‘the new conservation.’
Where possible, local people also plant small-scale oil palm on their traditional land. This makes commercial sense only where a mill is nearby, because the oil palm fruit needs to be processed within 24 hours of harvesting. In more remote areas, this is often not possible. In one village, where local people had planted oil palm near the longhouse, the headman of the village told me: “They bear fruit, but we can’t bring it down – it’s too expensive. Only the wild boar eat it now.”
Flying from Miri to one of the small rural airports (Long San and Long Banga) in the area, the extent of the newly opened areas becomes evident.
Life on the Plantation
Economic strategies of scale are often based on the exploitation of vulnerable and displaced people. The Sarawak government encourages the plantation industry to employ more local people, but, by one estimate, about 70% of workers employed in plantations in Malaysia are migrant workers from Indonesia. The industry favors migrant workers because they are cheaper. The wage for a local worker is around 20 to 30 Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) a day, but only 12 to 15 MYR a day for migrant workers. As one critic has noted, “Malaysia needs these workers, but does not want them.” Migration agents often charge fees for their services, so migrants are frequently indebted before they even arrive at their new workplace. Workers, housed on the plantation, thus become ‘alienated resources’ at the heart of the plantation project.
Even the gods are not from here. The multiple intermingling sociocultural practices contribute to “the intertwined materialities, actors, cultural logics, spatial dynamics, ecologies, and political economic processes that produce particular places as resource frontiers.” However, the resource frontier as, in the words of Pinkaew Laungaramsri, an “imaginative project capable of molding both places and processes” instated by commercial and political interest groups neglects the ongoing presence of Indigenous communities who have lived in the region on both sides of the border for many generations and who continue to make their livelihoods off the land. This includes local Kenyah, some of whose villages are featured in this essay, as well as Kayan, Kelabit, Saban, Penan and other smaller groups.
The logging and plantations have led to major changes, most of them to the detriment of the human and non-human inhabitants of the area. Local communities and their traditional rights represent an obstacle to the exploitation of natural resources. Positioning the region as a resource frontier thus includes “the framing of these spaces as timeless, unpeopled lands—open to extraction and exploitation of various sorts”.
Not all people who live here contest the exploitation of local land and forests. As long as economic activities are seen to improve economic development and access to services for local people, many welcome them in spite of environmental degradation.
Traditionally, the main method of local transport was by river. Once the road reaches the village or longhouse people prefer to travel by car because it is much faster, cheaper and easier to carry cargo. Now, people only use boats to reach nearer destinations, like their farms or orchards, or to go hunting. The river is still important, though, for fishing and for bathing as well as culturally, as it is connected to many traditional beliefs and myths. While driving on the river, my friends and collaborators often pointed out specific sites by the river where mythical events had taken place, where cursed longhouses had turned to stone, where giant mythical beings had crossed the river, rested or fought with each other.
The water of the main rivers in the region has not been clear for a long time. Logging activity caused soil runoff into the rivers, which turned brown and murky as a result. Fertilizer, pesticide and sediment runoff from plantations harm the local rivers and creeks, including the invertebrates living within them. Smaller creeks are still clear, but only if they are not near a plantation.
Most people in the region love fishing and many are very good at it, using lines and cast nets in the smaller creeks and standing nets in the main river. It took Dungau Merang (above) about half an hour to catch enough fish for several good meals using his cast net. Fish can also be traded where good access to markets or to the city is available.
Logging affects the area in many ways. Wood for construction becomes hard to find. People rely on the forest for some types of plants, such as rotan for basketry, which become rarer in logged areas. Some staples, like the tapioca leaves Eno Tanyit is pounding in her mortar (above), are still abundant as they grow in gardens around the longhouse.
Local people are avid hunters and consume many types of animals. While this can be sustainable as long as it is done for individual consumption, road access often means that people are able to sell wild meat and that outside hunters have access to the area. Even though logging workers are not allowed to hunt, this sometimes still occurs. Overall, it leads to increased pressure on local wildlife due to hunting.
Many people in the region practice subsistence agriculture. While their lives in the longhouse seem traditional, they are nevertheless closely connected to contemporary life. Now, some people prefer building their own individual homes, but many still maintain the traditional communal longhouse style of living. Still, with roads and increasing availability of mobile phones and internet connections, remote longhouses are increasingly connected to civic and political life in the state.
The roads that connect villages to the coastal city of Miri offer a pathway to greater job opportunities in the region and easier access to education, healthcare and other services. Many of the younger people migrate to a bigger city like Miri or Kuching to study and work, only returning to their villages during the holiday season. Elder people remain in the longhouse as long as they can. If they require medical care or cannot live on their own anymore, they too might move to the city to live with their children and grandchildren. Grandparents look after their grandchildren in the longhouse while the children’s parents work in the city, in the fields or in their own plantations.
Places of Contradiction
For local people in Sarawak, logging and oil palm may appear an aspect of development, but they come at a high cost. Relationships between companies and local people are fraught with many unregulated practices. Land rights and titles remain a sensitive and contested issue, and some communities continue to contest any ingress into what they consider their traditional lands. Often, the newly available transport infrastructure only leads to increased out-migration, but not to improved opportunities in the region. In the meantime, traditional knowledge and practices relating to the environment are lost.
Plantations are contradictory spaces, at the same time natural and unnatural, impressive and unsettling, quiet but with violent undercurrents. Like many spaces of primary production, their existence and the details of their material culture are mostly obscured for the benefit of the consumer. And yet they are powerful spaces of affect, as the repeated experience of rupture and displacement remains evident in the landscape.
Featured image: Seedlings in the foreground which will soon be planted on the cleared terraces in the background.
All photographs by Christine Horn.
Author’s note: I am grateful to Simpson Njock Lenjau and Clement Langet Sabang for their continued friendship and collaboration, and to the many people in the region who have provided answers to my many questions.
Christine Horn first moved to Sarawak, Malaysia in 2005 to enroll in an M.A. program at the local state university, UNIMAS (Universiti Malaysia Sarawak). She worked and lived in Kuching (Sarawak’s capital) until 2010, when she embarked on a Ph.D. project in collaboration with the Sarawak Museum. After she graduated with her Social Science Ph.D. in 2015, Sarawak and its remote communities continued to be the focus of her postdoctoral research work until 2017. She currently lives in Melbourne, Australia where she works at Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for Urban Transition. Contact.