The Forest Farms Still Stand: Indonesia’s Krui Forest Farmers Persist in the Face of Capitalism’s Relentless Squeeze

David Gilbert | 09.11.2019

One January morning in the middle of Indonesia’s rainy season I joined a few activist-ecologist friends for an eight hour drive across the center of Sumatra to Krui, an expanse of forest farms in the foothills of the Bukit Barisan mountains. I wanted to learn more about how the agriculturalists living there cultivate their forest farms—human planted stands of valuable tree crops planted in a way that resembles a forest. Over the years Krui’s agriculturalists have gained attention for the ways that they avoid industrial development’s degradation of the land and nurture many forms of life. Krui’s forest farms are a form of agroecological farming that supports local watersheds, biodiversity, and global climate cycles. I figure I should see Krui for myself, and wonder what is going with the forest farms now, since the last reports about them were written a decade ago.

We spend the first hours of our long day in the car in Sumatra’s coastal plain, watching green lines of oil palms pan across the car windows. Heading east, the one-lane highway climbs up into the foothills, leaving the oil palm plantations behind. Nearing Krui a caravan of four-wheel drive SUVs with tinted windows passes us, heading back out for the nearby gritty port city Lampung. One of my buddies turns to me, “See? Krui’s forests go into the sawmills and the SUVs come out.”

An agriculturalist harvests fruit in her forest farm plot. Photo courtesy of David Gilbert.

The comment is this activist’s way of telling me that the pressures are strong here in Krui for agriculturalists to sell their land and their remarkable Krui working forests that grow on it. Palm oil plantation developers and timber merchants will pay cash for both the land and the timber.

It seems every few minutes a few more fancy SUVs pass us heading back to the big city, or overtake us at speed as they head to Krui. Their velocity belies their urgency. These are free-wheeling men in search of profits. And many of them, the owners and traders that buzz around the plantations and sawmills, have become rich buying up the Krui agriculturalists’ trees for timber and the land for still more oil palm plantations.

We make the busy sea-side town of Krui to meet up with a forest-farmer that will be hosting us for a few days further up into the hills. Rather than get out and talk in the busy town, where word of visitors talking ecology spreads like forest fire, the forest-farmer piles into our slow truck. Within a minute of getting in the cab with us, the fifty-five year old man dressed in a t-shirt and plastic flip-flops, who has cultivated Krui’s diverse agricultural forests his entire life, told me, “The price of damar is too low, and has been for too long. So people are cutting the trees for timber.”

The damar the forest-farmer is referring to is a local rainforest tree that produces a crystalline yellow resin, called ‘cat eye’, that commands an international market for a handful of uses from incense to feedstock for high-end cosmetics, paints, and varnishes. Krui’s forest farmers have planted damar in these agroforests, along with fruit trees like durian, jackfruit, and mangosteen. And between these trees are still more timber species, along with plants and palms that produce vegetables, fiber, and medicine. Forming a closed canopy more than one hundred feet up, and supporting a breathtaking biodiversity, visitors often make the mistake of thinking they are walking through an ancient rainforest when they visit these planted forests. But these forests are cultivated, starting first around the end of the nineteenth century in response to rising global demand for the damar resin.

Krui’s yellow ‘cats eye’ damar resin is sold across the world for its pleasing scent and shine, in products ranging from lip gloss to incense and paint. Photo courtesy of David Gilbert. 

By the early 1990s the Krui agroforests spread to about 75,000 hectares, the size of nearly two hundred fifty Central Parks in New York City. They are all the more remarkable for having taken form during the same time as the relentless expansion of industrial farming for rubber and palm oil across Sumatra. With their agroforests and rejection of oil palms, Krui joins the rising chorus of oil palm protest and dissent that has for generations been commonplace in Indonesia’s countryside.

Krui’s forests are bustling, working forests. Walking along a well-worn dirt track through the agroforests I greet women and men carrying baskets of fruit, returning to their homes for an early lunch. A few men scale their damar trees with a rattan rope-belt to fasten themselves to the tree trunks, as they use a special-made adze to score the tree’s bark and coax out more resin for harvesting along each tree’s length. I stop to watch and chat with a young forest farmer. Reflecting on how the damar forests seem to be shrinking around him, the man tells me, “The government takes advantage of a difficult circumstance to take profits from [damar] timber.” The man’s feeling of being ‘taken advantage of’ reflects the complex forces Krui’s forest farmers perceive to be squeezing them, pushing them to sell their agroforests for fast cash.

A few minutes later, ensconced in the agroforests that spread across the low foothills of this part of Bukit Barisan range, I hear the metallic whine of unseen chainsaws in the distance, signaling the disappearance of another damar agroforest.

Whether the Krui forests will remain standing is a question we should be concerned about because Krui is a place where people do not only see the land as a resource to be exploited, or plants as commodities to be produced. It is place for forest-farmers to nurture their own livelihoods and well-being, along with the well-being of the Sumatran tigers, the gibbons and siamangs, hornbills, and all of the life, including the human, that benefits from the Krui agroforests.

And while Krui’s forests are a form of agriculture, they are a very different way of producing food and other tree crops than industrial agriculture, with its all too often exploited laborers, toxic chemicals, fossil fuels, and giant plantations—biodiversity deserts—of only a single commodity crop. Whats more, over the last long one hundred years of colonial and now neoliberal industrial plantations in Sumatra, the countryside has become a highly monitored, policed, and militarized place, where armed authorities enforce agro-industry’s discipline on its workers.

Krui is an economy different than industrial farming. Krui’s vibrant agroforests have avoided being subsumed by the powerful actors of industrialization: the state, agribusiness, and timber corporations.

During Indonesia’s cruel military dictatorship, in the mid 1990s, the importance of their forest motivated Krui forest-farmers to build a coalition with activists, researchers, and government to turn back state and agribusiness plans to destroy Krui and develop two sprawling oil palm plantations in the forests’ stead. Even as one of the plantations was built, destroying a part of the southern Krui forests, the coalition, called TIM-Krui, blocked the plans for a second palm oil plantation. Not content with this achievement, TIM-Krui mapped, wrote research reports, and protested in the streets for an unprecedented government policy that would protect Krui from any new industrial plantations. With the national government’s Krui Declaration in 1998 the coalition got their ruling. In the process TIM-Krui sent a message to other agriculturalists: turning back the industrial agriculture industry is possible.

The Krui forests’ own history shows us that agroforests are a politically activating form of agriculture, where dynamic, economically productive, and healthy ecosystems have taken root. Growing more like forests than farms, they are a much needed way of working and living on the land that is different from the way we often understand nature.

In fact, the Krui forests offer evidence for the argument that smallholder farmers should be allowed to live on and cultivate the land, not agribusiness and it’s industrial logging and plantation monocultures of timber, oil palm, and rubber in Indonesia, or corn and cotton in the USA.

Even so, over time, after the first palm oil plantation opened in the south of the Krui forests in 1994, the agroforests have fallen. Oil palms grow. Late modern capitalism is complex, and the pressures against Krui’s forests insidious. My own analysis of forest change data derived from satellite photography shows that about fifteen percent of Krui’s forests standing in 1997 have now been cut down. Oil palm, used to manufacture packaged foods, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and, increasingly, biofuels, was the cause of the greatest amount of deforestation (more than one half of the total agroforest loss). Deforestation for timber, farmers’ new plots of coffee, clove, and mixed annuals like tobacco and vegetables made up the rest of the loss of Krui forests. And Krui’s forest-farmers and environmentalists today tend to think more of the Krui forests will fall in the future.

The protracted industrial shift in the Sumatran economy has brought an accordant change in distribution of the profits of the Krui agricultural forests. When once they were a resource for forest-farmers, since the 1990s they are increasingly commoditized for timber, land, and profits for the capitalists. It may be possible to alleviate the inequality already inscribed into the landscape from these changes, but the death of the millions of lifeforms that came with the cutting and clearing of these humid, rain soaked, and sunny hill forests is final.

Only in the last fifteen years has Krui timber been commoditized. Responding to influential traders’ demand for timber, the local government issued permits for the sawmills in return for a licensing fee. For the government, it is a source of income that the agroforests do not provide when standing, because the damar resin trade is virtually untaxed at the local level. Legally, these sawmills are to only purchase damar that has fallen naturally, and not cut, but operators do not ask questions. They simply pay 100-200 USD per cubic meter of damar timber.

Many forest-farmers told me they didn’t want to cut down their forests. It was just that ecological and economic factors aligned against the Krui forests. El Niño droughts hit the Krui forests hard over the last two decades, reducing crop yields. And then the local government began issuing those licensing permits to timber mills in Krui. For the first time, when Krui forest farmers needed cash, for hospital bills or college tuition payments for their children, they could cut their forests and sell the timber into the sawmills for cash. Rather than replant them in damar agroforests though, this time many agriculturalists thought they would try their hand at planting coffee, cloves, or, increasingly, oil palm, or perhaps sell their land outright to the palm oil company or one of the land brokers that operate at the margins of the plantation estates. It was what many Krui farmers call ‘short term thinking.’ Cash poor, selling forests and land becomes the best immediate option for forest-farmers in downward spirals.

A typical Krui forest farmer has rights to hundreds of mature damar trees, each one typically worth one hundred fifty US dollars. Cashing out an entire agroforest can yield tens of thousands of dollars, a sum equivalent to many years of agroforest income. But over the long-term, a forest farmer can earn three or four hundred dollars a year from their damar agroforest. The full value of the standing agroforest is much larger than its value as timber, but a standing agroforest will never provide such a large amount of capital in one pulse.

A forest farmer’s home below the Krui food forests. Photo courtesy of David Gilbert. 

There are signs that the decision to cut down the Krui agroforests can lead agriculturalists into problematic positions. The first oil palm plantations in the south of Krui went in more than fifteen years ago, when the Eraska Agro Karya Utama plantation began operating its crude palm oil mill. A few years later, men from families who sold their agroforest land to the oil palm plantation have been turning up in the remaining agroforests to the north asking for wage labor. As an elected village representative in one of Krui’s communities told me,

To the south, their land was not safe. It went to oil palm. The people were left unaware. They were told about the smallholder [palm oil] schemes, but they never got benefits from them. They will never got the rights to their land back. Now they come here looking for work… It has not even been ten years and they have already used up all the money they got, and they are out looking for work. We saw that and said no way to the oil palm company. No way!

The lived experiences of those forest-farmers, those who were unfortunate enough to have to face the industrial plantations and agribusiness head-on, now send a valuable signal to those who still have their agroforests: the damar forests are a rich resource, one that oil palm cannot replace. In these farmers’ view, oil palm monocultures can not sustain rural workers’ needs into the long term.

Another forest-farmer explains to me what he has learned about how damar and oil palm compare: “Damar trees are productive for hundreds of years. It is not heavy labor, like construction wage work or oil palm. And unlike oil palm damar does not need to be cut and replanted in twenty years. And now the oil palm price is so low.” The comment underscores Krui forest farmers’ point that their agricultural system is superior over time, as as compared to oil palm.

To produce damar resin Krui agriculturalists planted forest farms the size of two hundred and fifty New York City central parks. Photo courtesy of David Gilbert. 

Hearing I had come to Krui interested in the fate of the forests, one evening a number of members of an old, defunct damar association joined me in discussion. Many of these men and women emphasized their feeling that the damar agroforests would continue to stand if they could bypass local damar traders and sell the resin directly to international buyers. Their voices mixed with interjections:

We are so worried about the damar. The moment the damar leaves the tree it becomes money. But the profiteers, they alone play with the price, we should get a higher price. We are monopolied.

The last comment, about being in a position of monopsonistic commodity relations, where forest-farmers only have access to one damar resin buyer, speaks directly to the political-economic aspects of the capitalist squeeze. With only a handful of traders commanding the local market, damar agriculturalists become price takers.

As the agroforests have fallen, the coalitions built to protect the agroforests and the long-term economic welfare of the forest-farmers have disintegrated. It is not that the coalitions and cooperatives were not useful—far from it. Krui forest-farmers have stopped participating in these organizations only because they realized they could not solve their fundamental problem: while the forest-farmers produce a still-valuable commodity, they remain at the lowest rung of a highly unequal commodity-chain. Yet if a coalition was able to counter the dominating power of the New Order and its plan to establish an oil palm plantation, certainly a rebuilt coalition could counter the powers of a handful commodity traders.

Krui forest-farmers do not have to cut down their forests, if they have a better way to sell their forest crops. But for now they do not have effective cooperatives, or enough market access directly to buyers, to profit from their damar forests. Indonesia’s capitalist political economy is squeezing them from below, with unequal economic relationships within communities and smallholders’ poor market position, and from above, with government and agribusiness’ economic influence and control over ever-larger amounts of land around Krui.

That Krui forest farmers turned back an oil palm plantation before gives reason to believe they could weaken this capitalist squeeze, by motivating a coalition to create producer and trade cooperatives, and forest-farmer savings and loan organizations to help them avoid turning to the cash held in their trees as timber value.

It is not that Krui forest farmers prefer oil palm, it is that the modern capitalist economy binds them so tightly that they feel that they do not have any other, better options. And still, about eighty percent of the Krui’s forests that existed in 1997 stand.

Maybe with a more nuanced understanding of the reasons why smallholder, family farmers turn to industrial agriculture even when they do not want to, we will be able to better find ways to produce our food and other tree crops without the systems that tend to the destruction of the Krui forests, or the exploitation of the people that cultivate and bring in the harvest among them.


This article draws on my peer-reviewed research article, “The ‘Capitalist Squeeze’ and the Rise and Fall of Sumatra’s Krui Agroforests”, in the journal Human Ecology: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10745-017-9932-3

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