Counter-Trajectories of Agrarian Change: Agroecology and Politics in a Sumatran Plantation Zone

Photo of a field.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Starting in 1996, a group of one-time plantation laborers living on the Aren volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumatra joined with a self-proclaimed 'peasant' union to occupy a nearly one hundred-year-old industrial ranch and plantation. With direct action land squats, letter-writing campaigns, and protests in front of government offices, women and men defied the plantation company's state-sanctioned land concession and claimed collective control of the land. More than 250 individuals, families, and cooperatives then went about cultivating diverse, economically-valuable agricultural forests on the erstwhile plantation.

With their land reclamation, Aren's rural workers transformed themselves into agriculturalists and the land into a smallholder agroforest landscape. They acknowledged industrial agriculture's many problems, but also moved beyond them with an especially modern way of relating to the land. This talk posits these workers' transformations to be a counter-trajectory of change that challenges many normative practices and values of rural development. This counter-trajectory is agroecological because rural workers harnessed ecological process to cultivate their smallholder plots, and political because they created collective forms of land control, work, and identity. It is the linkage of these two concepts, ecologically-attune diversified farming and social mobilization, that allowed Aren's workers to create new and durable attachments to the land as smallholder agriculturalists.

David Gilbert is a S.V. Ciriacy Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society and Environment Division of the Department of Environmental Science, Management, and Policy at UC Berkeley. He holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Stanford University. His research focuses on the political economy of environmental change in Indonesia, with special focus on rural social movements and the long history of Sumatra's plantation agricultures. He has published articles in Human Ecology, Journal of Agrarian Change, and the Journal of Peasant Studies.