Climate Change is not like the Dutch

2008 Floods in Central Jakarta (from Triastuti et al, Indonesia Climate Change Sectoral Roadmap, 2009)

Climate change will have dramatic consequences for Indonesia, including increase frequency of both floods and droughts; changes in the seasons; and of course, higher temperatures. Among the most vulnerable will be farmers, smallholders, fishermen, and those who depend directly on the production of food from the land. A sensible national policy for climate change should focus on helping such communities adapt to these challenges. But this impulse is directly in contradiction with the most important lessons that we hope to have learned about the problems of state intervention in the livelihoods of traditional agrarian communities.

As it turns out, Indonesia’s colonial period taught us a lot about these lessons. I am thinking here specifically of the tragic consequences of the cultuurstelsel, or Cultivation System, that the Dutch implemented in the early 19th century. The Dutch had an idea–which despite what many critics will tell you, was not entirely evil as a concept, even though it was completely odious as a policy–that Javanese should devote more attention to producing crops for export. As a concept, I emphasize, this is not unreasonable. But as implemented, it was a disaster. Yes, there was rampant corruption and conditions verged on slavery for hundreds of thousands of people (which prompted Eduard Douwes Dekker to write Max Havelaar). But I want to emphasize something else: rice, the mainstay of the subsistence economy, was neglected. Even worse, Javanese were “encouraged” to switch from hardy, traditional rice varieties to new varieties that could be double- or triple-cropped.

The problem was that these new rice grains were not quite as hardy. During good years, rice was abundant. But during years that were too dry or too wet, rice crops failed or rotted, and hundreds of thousands starved to death (something that is truly shocking in Java, one of the most fertile places in the world). The cultuurstelsel system therefore generated huge profits for the Dutch, but at the same time, took relatively stable subsistence agriculture and turned it into volatile plantation-style agriculture.

It’s important not to romanticize the subsistence model. But I want to focus here on the relative stability of food supplies under subsistence agriculture, and to contrast that to the volatility of food supplies under the cultuurstelsel. One of the great insights from Southeast Asian studies–something that has made careers from Furnivall to Scott–is that subsistence farmers are not irrational. Instead, their folkways are finely tuned to respond to their natural environment. Hardy rice is preferred because it is hardy, and even though it doesn’t produce as much rice as other varieties, because when the crops fail, people die.

The policy conclusion drawn from this, not so much by the Dutch but certainly by generations of anthropologists, ecologists, and others, is that we should understand the relationship between peasants and the land. Peasants actually know how to keep themselves alive, far more than even many well-meaning agronomists do (see Green Revolution, criticisms of). Agricultural policy should be careful not to disturb traditional lifeways for the purpose of helping farmers to engage “properly” with the modern global economy. It’s hard to argue with this as a general point, although one can quibble with lots of the details in specific cases. But the concluding message is this: if the problem is the Dutch, then solution is to get rid of the Dutch. No cultuurstelsel, no mass starvation.

When we look at climate change in vulnerable countries like Indonesia, most people who care about farmers and the communities that depend on them are well aware that adaptation will require assistance. This, though, requires really significant amounts of technical knowledge and extension service that can only be provided by crop and soil ecologists, agronomists, and other professionals. It means strangers driving around in Toyotas, peddling science to skeptical peasants. It means policies that favor things that are unfamiliar to peasants–dynamic seasonal modeling to figure out optimum planting times that differ from traditional lunar calendars, new types of crop rotation that differ from traditional methods, the list goes on.

Two features of this will make many in peasant studies uncomfortable. First, these professionals, and the policies that they implement, will come from the state. There’s no two ways about it. Second, the state’s policies will be disruptive to traditional folkways. For example, local understandings of rain and wind patterns that are intimately tied to folk religions will have to be adjusted. These will generate social dislocation, and resistance.

But climate change is not like the Dutch. You can’t remove climate change the same way that you could, in principle, remove the cultuurstelsel. Yes, peasants have embedded within their traditional social structures a wide array of mechanisms for dealing with the variability of local climates…but only on what amounts to a decade-long timeframe. The types of variability in rainfall, seasons, winds, etc. that will accompany climate change are going to place peasant communities outside of the scope of variation to which local communities are accommodated. One hopes that there is a way for these communities to adapt, but I would not bet on indigenous knowledge alone to do this.