- Dependence on Green Gold: A Socio-Economic History of the Indonesian Coconut Island Selayar (review)
- Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
- ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
- Volume 18, Number 1, April 2003
- pp. 160-163
- View Citation
- Additional Information
160Book Reviews Dependence on Green Gold: A Socio-Economie History ofthe Indonesian CoconutIshndSelayar. By Christiaan Heersink. Leiden: KITLV Press, 1999. xiii, 371 pp. The island ofSelayar lies offthe southern tip ofSouth Sulawesi, and is perhaps best known to the outside world for the presence there of a magnificent Dong Son bronze drum, which must have reached there along the trade routes from northern Vietnam some 2,000 years ago. The island has not been intensively studied, however, and this book breaks new ground in offering a detailed economic and political history of the period 1600-1950 in this somewhat neglected corner of the Indonesian archipelago. At the same time, Heersink sets out to situate Selayar within an Asia-centric historical perspective, one designed to produce a more integrated picture of both indigenous and external actors and relationships. Considerable documentation exists for the historian to draw on, since Selayar, in common with other parts of South Sulawesi, had its own well-developed historiographical traditions and court chronicles, while its local Dutch colonial archive escaped destruction in World War II and the Independence struggle. Heersink explains the ups and downs of Selayar's economy in relation to its location as a marginal maritime zone in the "periphery of the periphery" of Indonesia and of the capitalist colonial world. This marginality, he argues, should not be judged as pure disadvantage, since Selayar's lack ofwealth or natural resources tended to deflect interference from more powerful outsiders, which allowed its inhabitants a greatet measure offlexibility in their responses to changing economic conditions. Although Selayar was one of the earliest Dutch possessions in eastern Indonesia (from 1670), its malarial climate and poverty of natural resources ensured that it remained a low colonial priority, and very few Westerners were stationed there. Its arid soils and fragile agriculture encouraged an orientation to maritime trade long before the penetration ofa colonial export economy. Its strategic location between Makassar and the Moluccan islands gave it a well-integrated position in local eastern Indonesian trade networks, its merchants ensuring a flow of maritime and forest products to Chinese traders settled in Makassar. Book Reviews161 During the seventeenth century Selayar was also a major exporter of locally produced coarse blue-and-white cotton textiles to other regions of the archipelago. By the early nineteenth century, when the market for its textiles was reduced by competition fromWestern manufactured cloth, trepang (sea-cucumber) and coconut products became Selayar's major export commodities, and by the 1850s, Selayarese ships were trading as far afield as Irian, Sarawak, and Singapore. From 1860, the Dutch intensified their presence on the island and made a number of attempts to promote the production ofcash crops such as teak, cotton, kapok, and coffee, all ofwhich failed. The relatively high population of the island meant that there was litde unoccupied "waste" land for Dutch authorities to requisition for the introduction ofa plantation economy. Moreover, the labour-intensive character ofall these projects represented a real threat to subsistence for peasant farmers (though predictably, Dutch officials blamed their failure on the "lazy" and "superstitious" character ofthe Selayarese). The crop that was to provide Selayar with its extraordinary "boom" years was the coconut. From the early twentieth century, the demand grew for a new vegetable fat in industrialized countries, whose urban workers could not afford to eat butter; a useful by-product ofthe processing ofcoconut oil was glycerine, used for soap and the manufacture ofexplosives. The coconut's adaptation to sandy soils, and its low-energy technology of cultivation, could be easily integrated with Selayarese patterns of subsistence agriculture. Significantly, coconut cultivation was never organized on a plantation basis, but remained in the control of local élites and smallholders. Besides their commodity value, coconut palms also gained social importance, since they were used in the payment of bridewealth, and thus came to play a crucial part in the local status system. So it was that from 1900 to the Great Depression of 1929, Selayar's economy became heavily, even dangerously, dependent on copra production, at the expense ofother economic activities. This was the "Green Gold" era of prosperity to which the book's title refers. It was an era which was to prove...