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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection

Why did I love 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.

By Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Friction as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A wheel turns because of its encounter with the surface of the road; spinning in the air it goes nowhere. Rubbing two sticks together produces heat and light; one stick alone is just a stick. In both cases, it is friction that produces movement, action, effect. Challenging the widespread view that globalization invariably signifies a "clash" of cultures, anthropologist Anna Tsing here develops friction in its place as a metaphor for the diverse and conflicting social interactions that make up our contemporary world. She focuses on one particular "zone of awkward engagement"--the rainforests of Indonesia--where in the 1980s and the…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Michael R. Dove,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Banana Tree at the Gate as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The "Hikayat Banjar," a native court chronicle from Borneo, characterizes the irresistibility of natural resource wealth to outsiders as "the banana tree at the gate." Michael R. Dove employs this phrase as a root metaphor to frame the history of resource relations between the indigenous peoples of Borneo and the world system. In analyzing production and trade in forest products, pepper, and especially natural rubber, Dove shows that the involvement of Borneo's native peoples in commodity production for global markets is ancient and highly successful and that processes of globalization began millennia ago. Dove's analysis replaces the image of the…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Tania Murray Li,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Land's End as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Drawing on two decades of ethnographic research in Sulawesi, Indonesia, Tania Murray Li offers an intimate account of the emergence of capitalist relations among indigenous highlanders who privatized their common land to plant a boom crop, cacao. Spurred by the hope of ending their poverty and isolation, some prospered, while others lost their land and struggled to sustain their families. Yet the winners and losers in this transition were not strangers-they were kin and neighbors. Li's richly peopled account takes the reader into the highlanders' world, exploring the dilemmas they faced as sharp inequalities emerged among them.

The book challenges…

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

Why did I love 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.

By John F. McCarthy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Fourth Circle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book addresses the politics of environmental change in one of the richest areas of tropical rainforest in Indonesia. Based on field studies conducted in three agricultural communities in rural Aceh, this work considers a number of questions: How do customary (adat) village and state institutions work? What roles do they play in managing local resources? How have they evolved over time? Are villagers, state policies, or corrupt local networks responsible for the loss of tropical rainforest? Will better outcomes emerge from revitalizing customary management, from changing state policies, or from transforming the way the state works? And why do…

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

Why did I love 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!

By Nancy Lee Peluso,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rich Forests, Poor People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Millions of Javanese peasants live alongside state-controlled forest lands in one of the world's most densely populated agricultural regions. Because their legal access and customary rights to the forest have been severely limited, these peasants have been pushed toward illegal use of forest resources. Rich Forests, Poor People untangles the complex of peasant and state politics that has developed in Java over three centuries. Drawing on historical materials and intensive field research, including two contemporary case studies, Peluso presents the story of the forest and its people. Without major changes in forest policy, Peluso contends, the situation is portentous. Economic,…

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