Photo: Sutami Amin

Demystifying indigeneity


The majority gaze towards indigenous communities is often romanticising, portraying them as static and homogeneous, and isolating them from the much more complex history and relations of re/production. Many interventions, advocacy, and campaigns are based on “big companies vs indigenous communities” narratives; “morality tales”—which, although ideologically appealing, does not really help understand the complexities and contradictions of capitalist realities that shape indigenous lifeworld dynamics [1]. In these narratives, capitalism is frequently reduced into corporate entities and indigenous communities are assumed to exist and operate in “non-capitalist” mode of production. In Indonesia, it is partly due to the legacies of colonialism and Suharto’s authoritarian New Order that constructed and promoted a romantic myth of rural and indigenous communities. In this particular myth, villages and indigenous people are often depicted as undifferentiated, living in harmony, and upholding mutual cooperation for the common good [2]. 

Against the myth, our preliminary discussion illustrates that indigenous communities have been and are increasingly entangled in capitalist relations. Through the case of Wambon indigenous communities in Papua, we focus on two things that indicate these entanglements. First, we discuss how commodity relations and market compulsion shape and permeate their everyday life. Second, we note several factors that might shape different possible routes to class differentiation. 

We acknowledge that there have been massive and blatant land grabs by the state and big companies, and they have become the main focus of news coverage and activism. But we also want to highlight the mundane and not-always-spectacular processes through which capitalism expands and operates [3]. It is these very processes that Sutami first encountered in his fieldwork when he left for Aiwat in Boven Digoel regency, a village where Wambon indigenous communities live. Located at the south-eastern tip of Papua province, Boven Digoel is directly bordering Papua New Guinea.  

Geographical location of Boven Digoel, Papua. Source: The Gecko Project

Sutami flew from Jakarta and travelled across the island by car. He then took a motorboat down the Kali Digoel—a river surrounded by wilderness and swamps inhabited by the endangered Mandobo, Kaoh and Muyu crocodiles—and imagined the times when the Dutch colonial government made this place an internment camp for political prisoners who are exiled for disturbing the rust en orde [4]. Kali Digoel springs from Mount Maoke and empties into the Arafura Sea. According to local folklore, the river is a flowing sago water [5]. Along its stream, Aiwat sits in the Subur District along with three other villages: Subur, Kaisa and Waghai.  

During Sutami’s stay and interaction with Wambon communities in this village, he called Giovanni to discuss what he had observed and learned. When he returned to Bandung, we two critters trying to study capitalist processes in agrarian and socio-environmental relations continued to chitchat. We wrote this article to note our discussion.

Aiwat village. Photo: Yayasan PUSAKA

In the beginning was commodity

What makes capitalism unique is generalised commodity production, with “… specific laws of motion that … compel people to enter the market, to reinvest surpluses and to produce ‘efficiently’ by improving labour productivity” [6]. Productive forces (such as land, labour, tools and technologies) and means to satisfy reproduction needs are increasingly transformed into commodities and privatised. Commodification of subsistence is one of its implications, in which the reproduction of everyday life cannot take place outside of commodity relations and the disciplines they imposed. Market increasingly transforms into a “compulsion” rather than “opportunity”, under which all communal values, customary rules, and indigenous views on subsistence are subordinated [7]. 

The transition to capitalism proceeds in historically-specific situations. It is geographically uneven, because the pathways and the degrees of commodification can vary widely across different time-spaces [8]. In Aiwat, colonialism played an important role when the Dutch government (and later the church) introduced rubber as a “cash crop” for the local community. It has deepened their involvement in market and money relations, and transformed them into petty commodity producers

A woman tapping rubber in the forest. Photo: Sutami Amin 

Today, almost all villagers in Aiwat still cultivate small-scale rubber plantations scattered in the village or in the nearby customary forest. As a means of livelihood, villagers consider the labour involved in rubber cultivation an easy job. They also think that rubber promises a guaranteed yield, hence a reliable and quick source of money. People with rubber plantations close to their homes will usually tap the tree every day. However, those with faraway groves will not, and are usually more eager to tap when the price of rubber increases.

Beside cultivating small-scale rubber groves, they also engage in diverse livelihoods, such as hunting animals in the forests, raising pigs, catching fish, planting fruits and vegetables, processing sago, and/or opening kiosks in the settlements. Some people work as village officials, manage village-level economic units, such as coconut oil production, and drive boats that transport people to Asiki and Prabu–the economic centres located on the other side of the Digoel River. Of these various options, they usually undertake pluriactivity with one main job and several side jobs. A small portion of the population migrates and works as wage labourers in the neighbouring private oil palm plantations and timber companies—signalling a degree of commodification of labour.

Selling fish in the market. Photo: Sutami Amin

Without having to experience direct land grabbing, petty commodity producers in Aiwat are slowly being separated from the access, autonomy and politics over the means of reproduction of their lives. Market compels, shapes, mediates, and permeates everyday life reproduction and needs: when people produce and sell commodities, in Mama-mama’s kitchens and shopping lists. The fruits of their labour are increasingly difficult to enjoy or consume directly. They need to be transformed and frozen first into commodities, to then be circulated in a wider market. In these commodified and marketised relations, producers/workers must first sell their labour and/or its products to the market, to obtain the means to fulfil their reproduction needs, again, in the form of commodities.

For example, Wambon people need to sell the rubber they tap or the animals they catch as commodities to the middlemen to get money. Only then do they use the money to buy commodities that can satisfy their needs—everchanging and increasingly expanding. The change in their indigenous staple food from sago to rice—only possible through their intensified interaction with the market—is an important factor that raises their need for money. Beside rice, they regularly buy cooking ingredients and spices, kerosene, toiletries, clothes, phone credit, internet and transportation needs.

A villager carrying three pockets of rice. Photo: Sutami Amin

In certain situations, Wambon indigenous communities are pressured by the increasing living costs, sometimes-sick family members, their children’s formal education costs, or other unforeseen conditions; which cause them to reduce their costs of living, cut consumption, and take out savings (if they have any). Debt also becomes a strategy; which again encourages villagers to follow market disciplines, such as efficiency, increased productivity, and profit maximisation. In these situations, Wambon people will usually intensify their pig hunting, hoping to get more prey. “Sometimes we hunt more pigs than allowed and even hunt cassowaries even though our custom forbids it”, said Fransiskus, a man living in the village. His statement shows an interesting insight: when the necessities of life become urgent, under capitalism the indigenous people are “compelled” to violate their customary values regarding the metabolic cycle of animal populations and forest ecosystems.

Products bought from Asiki – Note that the ‘Otsus’ on the backpacks refers to Papua’s “otonomi khusus” (special autonomy)—related to the Indonesian government’s military operation in the region. Image: Sutami Amin

The roads to class differentiation

Conceptually, petty commodity producers (PCP) are characterised by a contradictory combination of class positions: those of capitalist and labourer. PCP in Aiwat have access to capital: they control some plots of land and have their own seeds, fertilisers and tools to produce their commodities. However, they also use their own labour (along with their family members’) to undertake their production activities. As the scales and levels of success of these activities vary, the most successful PCP may transform into capitalists and those who aren’t may have to lose their land and rely on selling their labour. This is what critical agrarian scholars theorise as the tendencies for class differentiation [8]. In different places, these tendencies are shaped by context-specific and interrelated factors. 

In Aiwat, a factor we observe that may contour the routes toward class differentiation is around the specific commodities they produce. The input costs and risks of commodities may influence the success and failure of agricultural households. For Wambon people, however, the costs of rubber input and replanting, and their associated risks, are relatively low (compared to cacao and oil palm, for example). For them, the risks are more related to price volatility. Amidst the trend of decreasing rubber price, some people have started to experiment with gaharu (Aquilaria malaccensis) and speculate about their higher sales compared to other plants. Hence, their farming income, survival, failures and successes will be more related to these commodities’ ups and downs in the market.

Planting and speculating about gaharu. Photo: Sutami Amin

The next factor we discuss is a possibility of diversification for accumulation. With livelihood diversification, petty commodity producers may use their income from certain sources of livelihoods (usually outside farming) for “consumption funds” (reproduction as labour) and “investment funds” (reproduction as capital). “…rural ‘livelihood diversification’ connects with tendencies to class differentiation, which it might intensify or impede, according to circumstances” [9].

In Aiwat, Sutami observes a possibility of diversification for accumulation in the livelihoods of the village head—which happens to be the head of the clan himself. The (male) clan head was ordained to represent the clan who controls the land, hence authorised to grant permits of management rights to those requesting. He has a significant political influence. Once, a palm oil company donated a boat to the villagers. As the head of the village, he handles the management, charges rent, and appoints his younger brother to be the boat driver. Control of this boat is important as it is a substantial means of transportation to the neighbouring villages across the river.

An unanswered question so far: to what extent the village head’s diversification of livelihoods enable and lead to capital accumulation and exploitation?

Down the Digoel river. Photo: Sutami Amin

Another factor that potentially shapes class differentiation is competition for land. In Subur District, competition for land is currently apparent in the expanding corporate control of land, both for industrial forestry and oil palm plantations, to the indigenous communities’ customary forests. In Wambon customs, everyone may ask permission from the head of the local clan to obtain the right to access and manage land plots in the customary forest. Although it is perceived as “communal” lands, in practice, control and management of the land plots is individual (or household-based, usually with a male head). 

Their customs forbid community members to sell land. However, in the 1990s, a corporate group successfully obtained concessions for land included in the customary forest area, along with the permission of the clan heads. As a consequence, lands previously managed by people who hold the customary permits are now incorporated into the nucleus-plasma plantation scheme. Although they don’t formally “sell” their plots, the customary lands become integrated in the global circuit of commodity production. These permit holders do not know anything about the plasma parcelling on their land. Based on a vague “profit sharing agreement”, they get shares distributed by the company through a cooperative. Nevertheless, they lose control over the management of their means of production and the surplus derived from them. 

This illustrates how capitalism does not necessarily entail full scale dispossession. Not all elements need to be fully commodified. In this case, the indigenous land plots were not “formally” bought and sold. The current indigenous customary practice (i.e. asking the clan head’s permission and the individual control of land) could in fact be used to help facilitate the entrance of an agro-capitalist scheme.

Expansion of oil palm plantations in Boven Digoel

Source: Nusantara Atlas

Finally, in the aforementioned situations where the Wambon people are squeezed in their everyday life reproduction, the intensified commodification erodes their access and autonomy over the means to meet their subsistence needs. Whether they can overcome these precarious situations will partly determine whether they survive or fall into poverty. If they do fall into poverty, they may have to work harder, become wage labourers (to their wealthier neighbours or private companies), and/or take on more debt to reproduce their lives. The dynamics of impoverishment they experience are closely intertwined with the impacts of the expanding monoculture plantations and national strategic projects around the village and in the Boven Digoel regency—that significantly reduce villagers’ access and control over agrarian-environmental resources. When these projects trigger adverse socio-ecological impacts, they would potentially cause life reproduction problems for some people, especially those relying on forests, rivers and the broader ecosystems for their livelihoods.

A woman and a child pushing a cart of pork. Photo: Sutami Amin

Epilogue: missing alternatives

In a cigarette break they took during a meeting between villagers and an NGO from Jakarta on livelihood mapping, 5 men casually chatted while taking shelter under a tree across the hall. They discussed the impacts of oil palm plantations that expanded closer to their village and imagined (if there’s any) available alternatives for them. One of them enthusiastically asked, “Adik [10]… what is carbon trading? Can we get any monthly income from that? Is it different from oil palm?”

His question leads us to more questions: how do we imagine future trajectories and alternatives for indigenous communities, and for our broader social realities, when capitalism persists and mutates; when many people welcome its various agro-extractive schemes, viewing them as an opportunity to exit poverty and improve their economic conditions; when critical perspectives, alternative imaginations, and experiments to create a society without exploitation are facing erasures?

Endnotes & cited work

[1] Bernstein, H. 2010. Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change, p.10-11. 

[2] However, indigenous and rural communities are also paradoxically perceived as 

‘backwards’, ‘estranged’ and ‘underdeveloped’, thus are in need of ‘development’ or ‘modernisation’. See Sangadji, A. 2007. “The Masyarakat Adat Movement in Indonesia: a Critical Insider’s View”, in Jamie S. Davidson and David Henley (eds). The Revival of Tradition in Indonesia: The Deployment of Adat from Colonialism to Indigenism. London: Routledge, p. 320.

[3] Li, T. 2014. Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier.

[4] Perceived as an ‘isolated’ location far from the capital and the centres of Dutch East-Indies civilization; full of ‘dangerous’ crocodiles and malarial mosquitoes, Historian Takashi Shiraishi noted that the Dutch colonial government saw Boven Digoel as an effective political exile camp with no need of barbed wires and watchtowers.

[5] Rumkabu, E., Amenes, A., Elisabeth, A. and Suryawan, I. 2023. Merebut Kendali Kehidupan: Perjuangan Orang Wambon di Boven Digoel Menghadapi Serbuan Investasi [Seizing Control of Life: Wambon people’s struggles against Investment Rush], p. 16.

[6] Wood, E. 2002. “The Commercialization Model and Its Legacy”, in The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View, London: Verso (Reprinted), p. 16.

[7] Bernstein, H. 2019. Dinamika Kelas dalam Perubahan Agraria [Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change] (Indonesian trans.), p. 142; Wood, E. M. year. Asal-usul Kapitalisme: Kajian secara Menyeluruh [The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View] (Indonesian trans.), London: Routledge. p. 71-74.

[8] Bernstein, H. 2019. Dinamika Kelas dalam Perubahan Agraria [Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change] (Indonesian trans.), p. 145; Muchtar, H. 2022. “Capitalism and Agrarian Change: Class, Production, and Reproduction in Indonesia”, p. 14.

[9]  Bernstein 2010. Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change. p.106

[10] “Adik” (“younger sibling”) is used to address a younger person.

Sutami Amin

Sutami Amin works as a researcher at Yayasan PUSAKA, a research and advocacy organisation for the recognition of indigenous communities rights. He studies financialisation, capitalism and development. He is learning and exploring critical agrarian studies in Agrarian Resources Centre in Bandung, Indonesia.

Giovanni Austriningrum

Giovanni Austriningrum works as a researcher at Dala Institute for Environment and Society. She studies agrarian-environmental issues and the intersections of gender and labour under contemporary capitalism. She is learning and exploring critical agrarian studies in Agrarian Resources Centre in Bandung, Indonesia.

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