TRANSFORMING THE INDONESIAN UPLANDS: Marginality, Power and Production

Down to Earth No. 42, August 1999
Book Review:

Marginality, Power and Production

Tania Murray Li (ed), 1999, Harwood Academic Publishers. ISBN: 90-5702-400-4

Much has been written about the effects of the modernisation of agriculture, deforestation and the Green Revolution on lowland communities, but the uplands of Indonesia have been relatively neglected. This book addresses the need to pay greater attention to the processes which are changing the lives of highland and mountain peoples and the ways in which they have responded to these processes.

The indigenous peoples of Indonesia's highlands and mountains are indeed marginalised, but more by the state than by geography. The Indonesian development paradigm labels them all as backward, ignorant, impoverished and hidebound by tradition. As such, they are typically considered as politically and economically unimportant. Where upland communities are considered at all it is as the passive targets of government 'development' initiatives such as population control, transmigration and agricultural commercialisation.

This book deconstructs these myths through a series of case studies which draw on different academic disciplines and methodologies. Contributors including Michael Dove, Joel Khan and Ben White discuss how and why outsiders have distorted our view of upland peoples and their relationships with their local environment and the wider economy. They show that uplanders are not simply 'innocents, victims or villains' and give some indication of the complexity and diversity of their interests and concerns. They recognise that these people are highly active in transforming their own realities – taking certain influences from the lowland, urban and even the international community and using them to their own advantage.

Interesting though these papers are, Transforming the Indonesian Uplands is more than a collection of papers on the social anthropology or political ecology of highland communities in Java, West and North Sumatra, Central Sulawesi and South Kalimantan. Through her introduction and first chapter, Tania Murray Li provides both an academic framework for the study of upland development agendas and places practical concerns in a broader political and economic context. This book should be read not just by Indonesia specialists, but by anyone with an interest in development studies, ethnology, history or ecology.