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Deforestation and development: A decolonial perspective from Indonesia

'Development' is a much-used term in school geography. But, as Tania Murray Li argues, the current model of corporate-led development is doing more harm than good in Indonesia

At the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021, Indonesia’s Minister of Forests Siti Nurbaya Bakar sent out a tweet that provoked critical scrutiny of the relationship between deforestation and development. Indonesia’s President had just joined more than a hundred countries in a pledge to halt deforestation by 2030 but the Minister insisted that a complete stop to deforestation would be unfair. She argued that Indonesia has a constitutional obligation to develop its economy for the welfare of its people. Hence cutting some forest to build roads (her example) is unavoidable. Her argument had a familiar if superficial anti-colonial ring to it: rich countries that have developed sufficiently to provide a good standard of living for their people should not restrict poor countries from doing the same. Yet she provided no definition of what is meant by “development” or whose welfare is improved (or harmed) by particular development plans.In this short contribution I seek to dig deeper into the relationship between deforestation and development by bringing a decolonial lens to bear.

Since colonial times, Indonesia has pursued a development model in which corporations are granted massive land concessions for logging, mining and plantations. Today these corporations may be owned by multinationals; just as often they are owned by Indonesia’s oligarchs and their military and government cronies. There is no doubt that these corporations are responsible for deforestation. Researchers using satellite data have confirmed that plantations accounted for 44% of the total deforestation during the period 2001 to 2016, with oil palm plantations the most significant at 23%.The puzzle is to explain why this form of corporate-led development is accepted or treated as natural and inevitable. In addition to the sheer coercive power of the corporate-crony-military cabal that has ruled Indonesia since 1966, a racialized narrative that originated in colonial times serves to legitimate corporate-led development in two ways. First, the narrative asserts that corporations are necessary to bring infrastructure and jobs to remote regions; second, it asserts that Indonesia’s rural people are not capable of bringing about development on their own. I will explore each in turn.

Indonesian government support for corporate-led development is officially supported and defended on the grounds that corporations are the best vehicle to meet the constitutional mandate to bring about the “peoples’ welfare” and specifically to bring jobs and infrastructure to remote regions. Is this true?Upon examination the claims about infrastructure and jobs do not hold up. Starting with infrastructure, the Minister defended the need for deforestation by arguing that the government must build roads to serve isolated populations who share in the right to development. Yet research by Greenpeace Indonesia found that during the period 2014-2020 most of the permits granted by the Forest Department to clear protected forests for infrastructure were not for village roads, telecommunications and electricity (covering 14,410 hectares); they were to support mining concessions (117,106 hectares).

The argument that corporate-led development is necessary for job creation is equally problematic. Modern mining needs very few workers, and plantations hire few workers in relation to the very large areas of land they occupy. Oil palm plantations, for example, hire only around one worker per five hectares (rubber plantations hire one worker per hectare, an important difference). The job count also needs to consider the number of jobs that corporate plantations displace. Most people in rural areas gain their livelihoods from small scale farming of food and cash crops. These labour-intensive activities are extremely important in keeping tens of millions of people productively employed in a context where the urban economy does not generate enough jobs for everyone. Diverse and flexible rural livelihoods do not condemn villagers to poverty. On the contrary, Indonesia’s farmers are enthusiastic producers of lucrative cash crops and can make very good incomes, enough to send their children to university. They are held back by government policies that favour corporations and fail to support small businesses and farms.

Increasingly, Indonesia’s small-scale farmers are held back by the squeeze on farmland. The government has allocated one third of Indonesia’s total farmland (22 million hectares) to oil palm plantations, leaving less space for small scale farmers (and their children and grandchildren) to farm on their own terms. Farmers are also negatively affected by the effects of forest loss in terms of climate change, species reduction, the fires used for plantation land clearing, and the pollution and rerouting of rivers and streams. Further, many experience the degradation of their customary institutions, as corporations hold formal, state-granted land concessions that do not recognize customary territories or jurisdictions. Even for communities that don’t fit the model of customary communities or indigenous people, citizen’s rights are diminished because local government officials and politicians are officially tasked with supporting corporations .

For people living in the vicinity of plantations, the ecological, economic and social harms imposed by corporate presence are extreme; and with so much land under plantations, their predicament is becoming widespread. The harms imposed on the people of Papua are especially violent.It is important to recall, however, that these harms are “licensed:” corporations are permitted to cause harms as a necessary side effect of their state-granted mandate to bring development to rural areas. Recognizing this fact is an important counter to the argument that corporate-led development can be made “sustainable” so long as proper safeguards are in place. No “sustainability” policy or program compensates for the losses imposed. Even the most well-meaning corporation is still a giant, and when giant corporations clear forests and transform the landscape into a site for logging, mining or plantations, little else can thrive there.

So far I have shown that the argument that corporations bring jobs and development to remote areas and that deforestation and the other harms imposed are necessary to achieve “the peoples’ welfare” does not hold. Here I want to address the second thread of the legitimating narrative: the suggestion that Indonesia’s rural people are not capable of bringing about development on their own. The core of the narrative was memorably captured by Southeast Asia historian Syed Hussein Alatas in what he called “the myth of the lazy native”. According to this myth, the natives on the spot are assumed to be bad farmers and bad workers, so they can legitimately be displaced by corporate plantations. According to this narrative, only corporations can get the job done. The narrative is an example of what Ann Stoler calls “imperial debris” – the racialized residue of colonial rule that was sustained after independence and still guides government policies . Today’s “natives” may technically be national citizens with equal rights under the constitution, but they are still subject to a discourse that treats them as backward people who are incapable of contributing to national development. Moreover, the harms imposed on them by corporate-led development are discounted because the value of the people whose livelihoods, institutions and forests are destroyed is discounted: they do not count.

The myth of the lazy native is the perfect alibi for corporate-led development, and for licensing the harm that corporations impose on rural people.A decolonial reorientation would involve identifying and rooting out the imperial debris that is embedded in national laws and popular discourse, where ideas about the backwardness of people in remote areas is entrenched. It would demand a revaluing of their ways of life and their relationships with forests. It does not demand that they be perfectly in tune with nature: they too cut down trees to make gardens, collect forest products to use or sell, and they often clear forest to grow cash crops since they too need money to send their children to school and – if possible – to university.Yet the harms they create are miniscule in relation to those caused by corporate-led development, and they have capacities to manage forests and secure their own livelihoods that merit far more respect than they were granted by the colonial power or its successors.Some deforestation is necessary for development, but it does not have to be the massive deforestation caused by corporate land concessions. Despite the Minister of Forests’ defense of deforestation as necessary to secure the welfare of its people, corporations - whether transnational or Indonesian-owned - do not secure the peoples’ welfare. Indonesia’s farmers deforest much more modestly and they secure their own welfare quite effectively; they could do even better with more government support.

Tania Murray Li Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto. She has written or edited several books on development, indigeneity, land rights and politics in Southeast Asia, with a particular focus on Indonesia. Her most recent book, co-authored with Pujo Semedi, is Plantation Life: Coprorate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone. The introduction to that book can be read via the Duke University Press website here, and Tania’s personal website can be found here.

A guided reading version of this article for use in classrooms can be found here.


Alatas, Syed Hussein (1977), The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to the 20th Century and Its Function in the Ideology of Colonial Capitalism London: Routledge

Li, Tania Murray, and Semedi, Pujo (2021), Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indoensia's Oil Palm Zone. Durham N.C. : Duke University Press

Stoler, Ann Laura (2008), "Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruination." Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 2: 191-219