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  • Between Globalization and LocalizationThe Case of Dutch Civil Engineering in Indonesia, 1800–1950
  • Wim Ravesteijn (bio)

Globalization, understood as the process of absorbing people all over the world into one global network of economic and other ties, began roughly when Europeans started exploring the world through sailing the oceans (from the fourteenth century onward). The subsequent processes of colonialism and imperialism are stages in the unfolding globalization process. Technology made this globalization possible, but also developed in connection with it. This paper discusses globalization and technology development, focusing on colonial state formation and civil engineering development in colonial Indonesia, the former Dutch East Indies. Dutch East Indies state formation took place between 1800 and 1950, and civil engineering works were dominant in the technology involved. Dutch engineers in public service constructed 67,000 kilometers of roads, 7,500 kilometers of railways, many large bridges, modern irrigation systems covering 1.4 million hectares of rice fields, several international harbors, and 140 public drinking water systems in the archipelago. With these public works, Dutch engineers constructed the material base of the colonial and postcolonial Indonesian state. This paper shows that the case of Dutch civil engineering in Indonesia contradicts the idea that globalization implies a simple processes of diffusion from the West. Dutch East Indies civil engineering development appears to be a process in which Western technology had to be adapted to local natural, social, and cultural conditions, and was shaped by a variety of Western and non-Western actors. In addition, parts of this colonial technology diffused back to the Netherlands and elsewhere in the world.

I read Wim Ravesteijn's article, "Between Globalization and Localization: The Case of Dutch Civil Engineering in Indonesia, 1800–1950," as an environmental historian who has worked extensively in the heavily engineered water landscapes of the Mekong Delta and in the archives of French, Vietnamese, and U.S. engineering agencies. In Cochinchina, colonial public-works engineers worked with a French construction monopoly to dig a network of canals that quadrupled the region's population from 1880 to 1930 and brought the colony's rice exports to about 3 million tons by 1940. This work began falling apart during the 1930s due to ecological, economic, and political factors; and after 1940, the region was immersed in warfare lasting approximately three decades that saw continued deterioration and outright destruction (by all sides) of key canals, dikes, and other structures. The flat, relatively open environment of the Mekong Delta and traditions in French engineering produced very different outcomes with regard to the diffusion or globalization of water-engineering technologies compared with the island of Java. Dutch engineering institutions in contrast responded to a densely populated, historical agricultural environment on Java where local regents exercised considerable power. One concept that deserves more attention is the preoccupation among all colonial engineers—Dutch, French, U.S., and others—with permanence. Various colonial attempts to render naturally fluctuating water systems into more predictable water "machines" typically resulted in monumental [End Page 64] constructions, especially during the 1930s, with sea dikes, hydroelectric dams, and pumping stations that since decolonization have, more than any other products of colonial engineering, continued to split control of water and other resources unevenly in favor of the state and large corporate enterprises.

The article's key argument, that Dutch experiences in colonial Java in turn produced a very different form of Dutch engineering at home (one that in turn produced the world's pre-eminent water experts in postcolonial development programs), is I think especially unique to the Netherlands where water engineering remains a fundamental facet of everyday life. Dutch institutions and companies born out of the colonial experience continue to dominate this market, and have since refracted their expertise in water engineering back out across the world. While the Dutch may have a hold on water engineering, however, this form of globalization–localization–refraction is now quite common among many developed nations and might include U.S. engineers traveling from the country's arid West to the Blue Nile and the Mekong in the 1950s, Japanese construction companies moving from postwar Japan to contracts in Southeast Asia in the 1960s, and new companies in China...


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pp. 64-65
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