A tale of Bevak: Impact of forest foodways on Marind indigenous women

July 9, 2023
12 mins read
Image: Marlon del Aguila /ASL-CIFOR

As the sun dipped below the horizon, Helena Ndiken has just arrived in front of her house from the Timber Plantation (HTI) area owned by Selaras Inti Semesta Ltd, which surrounded her village, Zanegi. While carrying a white sack on her shoulders, the exhaustion was obvious from her face. “These are acacia seeds,” when I asked what is in the half-quintal-sized sack. She then entered her house and took a blue tarpaulin and a light green bucket.

In the yard, she laid out the fairly large tarpaulin and emptied all acacia leaves from the sack onto it. Helped by three daughters, the group began to split the dry leaves in half and release out that tiny acacia seeds from inside. I also joined them and worked with them for almost two hours, while listening to her talk on how the collection and gathering of acacia seeds, is now ubiquitous among Marind-Anim women in Zanegi.

Zanegi, which is located approximately 100 km from the center of the capital city of Merauke, Papua, is inhabited by the Marind-Anim indigenous tribe, consisting of seven clans: Gebze, Kaize, Mahuse, Ndiken, Samkakai, Basic-Basik, Balagaize. Dutch anthropologists and missionaries in the past describe Marind people as indigenous explorers who traverses southern Papua (from Kali Fly on the border of Papua New Guinea) to Kimaam Island, reaching almost all of the interior areas up to the upper reaches of the Maro, Kumbe, Bian, and Bulaka Rivers.

Jan Boelaars (1986) put them under the category of hunter-gatherer tribes with the main mode of production of hunting, gathering, and fishing. They are spread out and living in two types of topography: the coastal-sandy beach areas where the coconut trees grow and allow them to catch fish and shrimp, and the mainland which is dominated by forest and swamps, where sago trees grow in abundance, and are hunting grounds for wild boar and kangaroos. Zanegi occupies the second type of environment and way of life.

With the passage of time, Marind Anim experienced a transformation of social life marked by various critical junctures and events. The encounter with the Catholic mission in the early 19th century, for example, opened the door for introductions to ‘Malay culture’ through objects such as petromax lamps, clothes, etc., which were also brought by Gujarati traders and newcomers from the Maluku islands circa the 1940s. This period also signified a transition and adaptation of their belief system and culture as indigenous tribes towards Catholic values and principles.

Another pivotal moment is the Act of Free Choice in 1969, which led to West Papua’s integration into Indonesia. This serves as a gateway for Indonesian government initiatives, including transmigration, village development through military operations, and various forms of development assistance, which Gietlzelt (1989) referred to as a process of Indonesianization. Furthermore, the most recent transformation has been driven by the introduction of large-scale land-based businesses through the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Program Estate (MIFEE) in 2010. This program aims to acquire 1.5 hectares of indigenous land belonging to Marind Anim, and Zanegi is one of the expansion sites for the industrial plantation forest company, owned by a giant company of Indonesian tycoon, Medco Group.

MIFEE was announced as one of the Indonesian Government’s crisis strategies which relied on the extensification of agriculture and plantation in dealing with a global food and energy crisis where the price of food commodities such as wheat, rice, and corn soared dramatically, and it was predicted that 963 million people would become victims of world hunger in 2008 (FAO, 2008). MIFEE was projected to bring a series of benefits to the regional and national economy: Merauke’s per capita Gross Regional Domestic Product (GRDP) would increase to IDR 124.2 million per year in 2030 and the state budget would be saved up to IDR 4.7 trillion through reducing food imports.

This project involved 36 large companies such as Medco, Wilmar International, Rajawali, and Murdaya and planned to allocate the concessions between food estate (50%), palm oil plantation (20%), and the sugar cane industry (30%) (Ibid). In early February 2010, coinciding with Merauke’s 108th anniversary, MIFEE was inaugurated by the Regent of Merauke.        

Through its subsidiary company, Selaras Inti Semesta Ltd, Medco Group managed to hold a Business License for the Management of Timber Forest Products (IUPHHK) with a total area of 169,400 hectares under MIFEE’s scheme in 2009. They then started the process of introducing the project to the people of Zanaegi and promised prosperity to the people: improvement of the quality of life, provision of funds for education, and creation of employment hub(s) for the local people, including other benefits. However, the sweet promises remained unfulfilled.

Some studies have discussed MIFEE’s multidimensional impact on Marind Anim, and analyzed how this project actually marginalized and put the Marind people into a socio-ecological crisis instead of empowering them into development discourse. Other literature has uncovered policies and legal legitimacy which have justified the process. More recent studies have explored how it leads to ecocides (ecological destruction) for natives. Meanwhile, attention to the impact of this giant food and energy estate on the daily lives of Marind Anim women stays unexplored, yet they play a central role at the household and social scale: ensuring and maintaining the reproduction of social life. 

Helena’s story of gathering acacia seed, a commodity tree in this timber plantation, might help us to understand how this giant business has transformed the dynamics of social reproduction experienced by Marind Anim’s households and communities. This essay would like to highlight the dynamics experienced by indigenous Marind Anim women in facing large-scale food and energy projects using the lens of social reproduction theory to reveal how capitalistic food and energy projects accumulate benefits from women’s unpaid reproductive activities.

From Village to Bevak: Reconcentration of Marind women’s social reproductive activities and how plantation capitalist benefits from it?

Gathering acacia leaves (and seeds) is one of the seasonal jobs currently available to women in Zanegi Village, which mostly takes place during the harvest season from September to October. Equipped with sizable sacks weighing up to 50 kg, they traverse the terrain to collect precious acacia leaves and seeds. There are two ways of gathering acacia leaves from the trees. The first involves cutting down the trees directly and collecting the fallen leaves from the ground. The second method entails climbing the trees and plucking the leaves from the branches. The latter method poses greater risks in terms of safety and security, as the trees are typically infested with aggressive fire – ants that are capable of delivering painful bites. Nonetheless, the first method is not entirely risk-free either, as some companies caution against and forbid locals from cutting down trees.

After picking the dried acacia leaves either by cutting down, or climbing the tree, they would put them in sacks. With these full sacks, they walk home. Arriving home, the sack is opened, the dry leaves are taken out from it and put in a container such as a bucket,  or sometimes it is just scattered on the ground. After sorting and releasing it from the leaves, the seeds are cleaned of fibers and dried in the sun, then it is ready for sale. This work can take hours or even days depending on the number of “help” she might have.

In the case of Mama Helena, the work could be easily completed the next day due to the help of the children. The domestic workload within households stands as another significant factor in determining this job. The demanding domestic tasks assigned to women necessitate their skill in efficiently managing their time between household duties and income-generating work.

Mama Helena, for instance, would start gathering acacia leaves only after ensuring that all domestic chores had been completed. When considering the duration of work from walking to the plantation area until the seeds are prepared for sale to collectors, it roughly spans two to three days. From one sack containing 50 kg of dried leaves, Mama Helena usually manages to get 1 kg ready-to-sale of acacia seeds. Then what is the price for this very tiring, risky job with long working hours? Several years ago, collectors bought acacia seeds at a fairly good price: around 300 thousand rupiahs per kilogram (more or less 20 euros). “Now the price has fallen down a lot,” she says. Recently, they buy it at a low price: only 75 thousand rupiah per kilogram (approximately 5 euros).

In the months when acacia seeds are not yet ready for harvest, the women in the village carry out various other livelihood activities in the forests. During the rainy season, for example, which happens between November and March, they catch fish by using hooks. While in the dry season, from June to July, they fish using nylon ropes. If their husbands are still actively hunting animals, the women and their children will also go into the forest, set traps for wild boar and deer, look for cassowary eggs, and gather sago for several days.

However, women whose husbands work for wages on timber plantations, have to come and live in Bevak to ensure the supply of food for all family members involved in the work. Bevaks are wooden huts used and built by the local community as temporary shelters for Leles Workers. Leles is a manual sort of work involving cutting and gathering small remnants of wood from the activity of land clearance. The company allocates this type of work to the local, Marind people.

Meanwhile, other work, such as harvesting timber and clearing land using heavy equipment, is carried out by non-Papuan small business entities (contractors) from outside the village. In these Bevaks one to several nuclear and extended families live and share tasks. Women are tasked with ensuring the availability of food and clean water, as well as taking care of and socializing with children. The men work on the timber plantations: cleaning, cutting, and stacking wood.

The presence of this timber plantation company has caused changes in women’s social reproductive activities at the household and community levels. Marind women’s work has increased and is concentrated in plantation areas (Bevak). They are compelled to participate either directly, engaging in unpaid labor, such as Leles work, or indirectly, serving as household workers to fulfill various domestic needs in Bevak. Unfortunately, their involvement in Leles work has never been acknowledged with monetary value, as their labor is perceived merely as an “additional” contribution and not recognized as the primary work.

Changing conditions of natural forests also weaken the ability to produce food subsistence. Household members, who are usually seconded for foraging activity, such as harvesting sago – the staple food of West Papuans – are no longer available and are absorbed in paid jobs in plantations. Whereas in the activity of gathering sago, males are primarily responsible for some physically heavy physical jobs, such as,  cutting down the trunk of the sago palm trees,  cutting them into manageable pieces, and removing the outer bark. Therefore, women must consider alternative solutions to meet their households’ requirements. They are left with two feasible options: engaging in additional employment to earn a livelihood or seeking loans from external sources.

One common source of income for women is the collection of acacia seeds, as described earlier. This work entails numerous risks, low pay, and demanding hours. However, despite these challenges, they have limited choices and must seek additional sources of income to ensure their households’ needs are adequately fulfilled.

Marx defines social reproduction as the cultural, economic, and political processes necessary to sustain the social production relations of the present society. In defining ‘social reproduction’, Marx is certainly well aware of the centrality and uniqueness of labor power in that it can be produced in a non-capitalistic way, precisely at a ‘kinship-based’ locus. However, his emphasis on this idea is still focused on production and lacks elaboration on how the two sites are interconnected with one another.

Feminist conceptual criticism and debate have contributed to broadening the definition of social reproduction. Wells (2009, p. 206) defines social reproduction as a ‘social wage’, in which activities such as the provisioning of food, housing, clothing, socialization, education, etc. contribute to material and discursive practices that enable the reproduction of people’s social formations. These activities are mostly considered domestic or household work which patriarchal society tends to associate with women.

In the context of an agrarian society, the concept commonly associated with the contextualization of the notion of social reproduction is generation. The concept of generation will help us to understand the processes required by agrarian households to reproduce themselves every day and study the dynamics and changes in an agrarian society. In a situation of massive land grabbing in the global south, agricultural work can be a key point for studying the profit-making of agrarian capitalism and its survival and also reproduction of workers around the world. The massive penetration of supposedly idle and marginal lands in the global south, which is currently underway, relies on the accumulation of profits from sites of social reproduction. As stated by Naidu and Ossome (2016) that capitalists in the design of an agrarian society accumulate benefits from non-capitalist social formations of households and family labor consisting of unpaid productive and reproductive types of labour.

Reproductive work carried out by Marind Women, in the pre-capitalist condition,  where the land is not fully commodified yet, is meant to ensure the sustainability and survival of family and members of society, as described by Boellars on their centrality among the indigenous society in the past, “After all, those Marind people now realize that economically and socially, women are superior. Her contribution in providing food and caring for children is far from overcoming his own accomplishments as a hunter and protector of the environment”.  However, under the logic of resource exploitation surrounding their living space, these social reproductive works are reoriented to support the process of capital accumulation and profits by the company. These works of provisioning food, fetching water, caring for the husband, and raising and socializing children in Bevak ensure the reproduction of health, sanity, and labor power of the wage worker to always be available in order to be exploited for daily plantation work.

Changes in ecological landscapes due to large-scale land clearance bring about the impact of losing productive sites of women’s activity such as forests, sago groves, and small rivers, and as well as mobilization of local communities for wage labor in timber plantations influence their capacity to produce food subsistently. Time for self-producing food is replaced by a time for doing unpaid reproductive work in the Bevak, solely to ensure the ‘main workforce’ – leles Workers – stay fit and healthy to do the wage work. Meanwhile, precarious working conditions and low wages force these households to look for ways to patch up their income. Therefore, in addition to doing unpaid reproductive work, women are employed to help their husbands do leles without receiving payment from the company and to do other work, such as looking for acacia seeds.

Another challenge experienced by these families is the socialization problem of children from the household. Through several field interviews, they acknowledged that during the ‘peak season’ (land clearing, timber harvesting), they have no choice but to take their children to the plantation area and leave school, because the women who are responsible for the burden of childcare also have to move to the wooden huts. As a result, children lose important educational moments at school.

From data from the Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS) for Papua Province, the amount of wood chip exports by the Medco Group operating in this village reaches Rp. 12. 737. 250 per cubic meter, while casual workers earn Rp. 60,000 per cubic meter. They do not have contractual ties with companies, nor do they have rights as workers, such as health insurance, leave allowance and rights, or even basic guarantees such as security and safety. Their income depends on the ability to produce as many cubic chips as possible in a given working period. They have no choice but to involve additional workers from family members without wages, to achieve the target. 

Meanwhile, the households experience changes and pressures in social reproduction, especially for women: the decreased ability to provide food subsistence due to massive environmental changes, increased workload in the household and bevak, unpaid productive and reproductive works in timber plantations, and problems with the socialization of children. This invisible assistance from women, in the form of unpaid reproductive work and productive work in leles fields, has benefited companies to extract timber and export it as a global commodity.

Cited works

Bhattacharya, T. (2017b). Introduction: Mapping social reproduction theory, in Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. London: Pluto Press.

Boelaars, Jan. (1986). Orang Irian Jaya, dahulu , sekarang dan masa depan. Jakarta : Penerbit Gramedia.

Borras, S.M. Jr. and J. Franco. 2011. Political dynamics of land-grabbing in Southeast Asia: understanding Europe’s role. Amsterdam: Transnational Institute

Hartmann, H. (2010), The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism: Towards a more progressive union, in Sitton, J.F. (ed.), Marx Today: Selected Works and Recent Debates, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 201–228 

Ito, T., Rachman, N. F., & Savitri, L. A. (2014). Power to make land dispossession acceptable: a policy discourse analysis of the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), Papua, Indonesia. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 41(1), 29– 50. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2013.873029

McDonnell, J. E. (2020). The Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE): An Ecologically Induced Genocide of the Malind Anim. Journal of Genocide Research, 1– 22. https://doi.org/10.1080/14623528.2020.1799593

Naidu, S. C., & Ossome, L. (2016). Social Reproduction and the Agrarian Question of Women’s Labour in India. Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy, 5(1), 50– 76. https://doi.org/10.1177/2277976016658737

Rao, S. (2021). Labor and Social Reproduction, in A.H. Akram-Lodhi et al. (eds) Handbook of Critical Agrarian Studies. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp. 99–108.

Savitri, L. A. (2013). Korporasi & politik perampasan tanah. Yogyakarta : Insist Press. Vogel, L. (2013). Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory. BRILL

White, B. (2021). Generation, in A.H. Akram-Lodhi et al. (eds) Handbook of Critical Agrarian Studies. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp. 150–156.

Wells, K. (2009), Childhood in a Global Perspective, Cambridge: Polity Press.Zakaria, R. Yando, Emilianus Ola Kleden, dan Y.l Franky. (2010). MIFEE: Tak Terjangkau Angan Malind. Jakarta: Yayasan Pusaka.

A version of this article in Bahasa is also available here.


Rassela Malinda

Rassela works on the editorial board of islambergerak.com and part of FNKSDA, the Front Nahdiyin for sovereignty over agrarian resources.

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