The best books on Indonesian life & policy

Carol J. Pierce Colfer Author Of The Longhouse of the Tarsier: Changing Landscapes, Gender and Well Being in Borneo
By Carol J. Pierce Colfer

Who am I?

I worked in Indonesia much of the time between 1979 and 2009, with people living in forests. As an anthropologist, my work was initially ethnographic in nature, later linking such insights to policies relating to forests and people – as I worked at the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor (1995 – the present). Although later in my career, I worked in forests all over the tropics, my real love remains with Indonesia, where I worked the longest and learned the most. My most recent research was in 2019, when I returned to the first community I studied ethnographically in 1979-80.


I wrote...

The Longhouse of the Tarsier: Changing Landscapes, Gender and Well Being in Borneo

By Carol J. Pierce Colfer,

Book cover of The Longhouse of the Tarsier: Changing Landscapes, Gender and Well Being in Borneo

What is my book about?

This book pulls together a series of articles about the Uma’ Jalan Kenyah Dayaks from Long Segar, East Kalimantan (Borneo). They are an ex-head-hunting group who have long adopted a peaceful way of life. This book explores aspects of their lives that intersect with the tropical rainforest, including agriculture, non timber forest product use, nutrition, time allocation, gender differences (women’s status, men’s migration), resettlement, fire and climate. An important and desirable aspect of their way of life has been the egalitarian way that men and women interact with each other. They also have much to teach us about living with and within tropical rainforests.

The books I picked & why

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Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection

By Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing,

Book cover of Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection

Why this book?

I love Tsing’s Friction, because of its focus on how policies play out in the real world. She is able, through her in-depth understanding of life in rural Central Kalimantan, to show us how Indonesian national policies are adapted, implemented, and perverted in the field. She talks about policy implementation as seeing ‘how the rubber hits the road,' and at the same time she provides the reader with a growing understanding of the lifeways of the people of that province.


The Banana Tree at the Gate: A History of Marginal Peoples and Global Markets in Borneo

By Michael R. Dove,

Book cover of The Banana Tree at the Gate: A History of Marginal Peoples and Global Markets in Borneo

Why this book?

This book builds on Dove’s longstanding involvement in research on Borneo and his in-depth knowledge of the history of agricultural and nontimber forest products there. His work shows how the people of Borneo have long been involved in international trade, alternately expanding and contracting their attention to rice production as other opportunities (high prices, high demand) wax and wane. His insights contributed to my own research, showing how longstanding and ubiquitous the international involvement I have seen has been.


Land's End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier

By Tania Murray Li,

Book cover of Land's End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier

Why this book?

Tania Li shows the impacts of the capitalist process of a highland group’s attempts to adopt commodity production of cacao in central Sulawesi, building on her two decades of ethnographic research there. The book shows how, in this process, relations among people and with their environment change as the forest disappears and land ownership and wealth become more inequitable – not particularly pretty. It taught me how the Sulawesi situation differs from the Bornean situation I know so well.


The Fourth Circle: A Political Ecology of Sumatraas Rainforest Frontier

By John F. McCarthy,

Book cover of The Fourth Circle: A Political Ecology of Sumatraas Rainforest Frontier

Why this book?

I share with John McCarthy an interest in how power operates in Indonesian communities and forests and this book provides a view of this as it plays out in northern Sumatra, ‘up close and personal.’ For me, it provided glimpses of very different ethnographic realities than what I had seen myself in other areas of Sumatra (West Sumatra, Riau) where I had lived for four years and supervised others’ research (in Jambi) as well. The recency of the 2004 tsunami and the separatist movement underway when the book was published lent urgency and excitement to McCarthy’s observations.


Rich Forests, Poor People: Resource Control and Resistance in Java

By Nancy Lee Peluso,

Book cover of Rich Forests, Poor People: Resource Control and Resistance in Java

Why this book?

Although I have done very little ethnographic research in Java, I worked closely with Javanese transmigrants in West Sumatra. Peluso’s book provided me with additional understanding of the world from which these folks were likely to have come.  It also provided useful historical and contemporary material on Indonesian policies relating to forests that were very useful for me to know. The book has become a classic in the field!


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Indonesia, land use, and Borneo?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Indonesia, land use, and Borneo.

Indonesia Explore 23 books about Indonesia
Land Use Explore 8 books about land use
Borneo Explore 11 books about Borneo

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Decentralization of Forest Governance, Stealing with the Eyes, and The Ten Thousand Things if you like this list.