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Industry-backed plantation museum opens in Indonesia

Many rural Sumatrans see orangutans not as important endangered species to be protected, but rather as garden and farm pests. Local organizers like Rudi Putra and T.M. Zulfikar are building a homegrown Sumatran conservation movement that relies heavily on litigation over the potential loss of Leuser’s ecosystem services. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

  • The museum was inaugurated by the North Sumatra provincial government last December.
  • The idea came from the CEO of Bakrie Sumatera Plantations, a major oil palm grower.
  • It is Indonesia’s first plantation museum.

MEDAN, Indonesia — Sumatra is haunted by a raft of environmental problems. There are the annual fires that burn across the island’s vast peat swamp zones, which have been widely drained — and rendered highly flammable — by the palm oil and paper industries. There are the ubiquitous land conflicts pitting communities against companies, the state and each other. There is the sky-high rate of deforestation; over the past two decades, Sumatra has lost an area of forest the size of Kentucky, with the jungle giving way to endless stretches of plantations.

The Indonesian Plantation Museum, launched here in the North Sumatran capital last December, shows the sector from a different perspective, focusing not on its environmental or social fallout but on its importance to the nation’s economy.

“Plantations have always been a source of livelihoods for the people of Sumatra,” museum chief Sri Hartini said in an interview. “Humans opened the land because they had to live. As population increases, we need more space.”

Hartini designed the museum with posters on the history of commodities like tobacco, tea, coffee, rubber and oil palm, mostly made up of infographics on their economic value.

“This museum was built for educational purposes,” she said. “The young generation should understand the contribution of plantations to Indonesia’s development, especially here in North Sumatra.”

The institution has already received more than 3,000 visitors, most of them schoolchildren and college students.

The idea for the museum, she said, came from Soedjai Kartasasmita, CEO of Bakrie Sumatera Plantations, a major oil palm firm. Hartini called Kartasasmita “the Indonesian plantation expert.”

The museum functions as an independent foundation but collaborates with the Indonesian Oil Palm Research Institute (IOPRI) and with plantation firms such as Socfindo and London Sumatera, Hartini said.

An oil palm plantation in Sumatra’s Riau province. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Humans have cultivated lucrative crops in Sumatra for hundreds of years. In the 7th century, the island was known for its camphor, an aromatic solid derived from the Cinnamomum champora trees then abundant in the region. The substance was used in medicine and preservatives. But the real transformation of the landscape began in 1869 when Dutch colonialists began opening large swaths of land along Sumatra’s eastern coast for tobacco estates. It was the beginning of large-scale exploitation of the island’s resources.

Sumatra’s forests continued to be cleared for rubber estates. By 1920, the island’s eastern coast was one of the world’s most important sources of the commodity.

Indonesia’s plantations were also rife with forced labor. This phenomenon is well documented in Tropic Fever: The Adventures of a Planter in Sumatra, by Ladislao Szekely.

“The island [Sumatra] is wild, pretty, and illiterate. In the eastern coast, there is a small spot compared with the size of the island,” Szekely writes. “The rest is a pristine rainforests, jungles which has never been touched by human….White men are needed here in the island. You don’t need an education, just just have to yell at the koelies.”

The quote above depicts the cruelty with which the colonialists treated their “coolies,” a name given to Javanese and Malays who were forced to work as slaves on the plantations. If a coolie tried to run away, he would be hunted, tortured and killed.

The museum should give this side of history more play, said Carlo Nainggolan, head of the environment department at Sawit Watch, an NGO focused on the palm oil industry.

“The history of Indonesia’s plantations was filled with repression, the grabbing of indigenous lands, and human exploitation,” he said. “The eastern coast of Sumatra was the destination of a great number of coolies from Java. They were forced to work in Dutch plantations. This can be seen as slavery.”

In this context, he continued, we should learn from the past. The bad systems which were done by the Dutch colonials such as land grabbing, unfair partnership with smallholders, and workforce exploitation must be stopped.

“If those practices are not stopped, there will be no good improvement from colonial era until now,” he said.

Oil palm fruit in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

After Indonesia’s Independence in 1945, many Dutch companies were nationalized. The dominant commodity shifted as well. As natural rubber began to compete with a synthetic kind, Indonesian agribusiness began to shift to another commodity: oil palm.

Imported from Africa, the oil palm tree was first cultivated in Sumatra as an ornamental plant. In 1911, Belgian company Socfin began to grow it on a larger scale. Oil from the tree’s fruit has since come to be used in a huge number number of products.

Erwinsyah, one of the lead scientists from Indonesian Oil Palm Research Institute (IOPRI), thinks that oil palm is now the most prospective and attractive for Sumatra’s people. The commodity can give a promising economic gain not only for private and government-owned companies but also local people. Currently, around 41 percent of Indonesia’s oil palm plantations are owned by smallholders and they contributed nearly $20 billion for Indonesia’s foreign exchange.

Being asked about the environmental problems of oil palm, Erwinsyah thinks that it could be avoided through education and consultancy. IOPRI itself, which is the nationalized Dutch research agency, is the agency that manages the museum. It granted one of its colonial building for the museum, including the renovation spending.

“We have a big concern for Sumatra’s plantations. It has supported our livelihoods for centuries and we should educate our children about their significant role,” he said.

Banner image: A Sumatran orangutan. The endangered species has dwindled in numbers as oil palm plantations have replaced its forest habitat. Photo by Rhett A. Butler