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  • The Banana Tree at the Gate: A History of Marginal Peoples and Global Markets in Borneo by Michael Dove
  • Hatib Abdul Kadir (bio)
Michael Dove. The Banana Tree at the Gate: A History of Marginal Peoples and Global Markets in Borneo. Yale Agrarian Studies Series. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011. 352 pp.

A number of common themes running through The Banana Tree at the Gate are about two fundamental types of household production. One system relies on “non-monetized” swidden plantings, crops that are not intended to maximize profits. Instead, they are for private consumption and used to fulfill a household’s subsistence needs. These products, such as rice, maize, wild yams, taro, and cassava, are for people’s daily needs. Such non-monetized cultivations also have a strong relationship with the ritual and cosmological order because these kinds of crops require long-term cultivation. By comparison, cash-crop cultivation systems focus on generating revenue and are intended for the short-term maximization of profit. These non-swidden crops have less of a relationship with the long-term reproduction of the traditional social and cosmological order. Rubber resin, pepper, and cloves, for example, are considered to be “ritually neutral” because they are quickly harvested, contrary to swidden production that includes rituals during cultivation.

In his discussion of dual economies, whereby a family relies on both cash crops and subsistence farming, Dove refers to a study by the Dutch historian and economist J. H. Boeke. However, unlike Boeke’s approach, Dove remarks that the dual economy strategy is complementary rather than oppositional. He does not believe that cash crops and subsistence agriculture are separate and distinct from one another. Smallholders may combine different systems of cultivation and swidden agriculture. Although traditional subsistence crops, such as rice, needs community cooperation and are heavily ritualized, smallholders may also participate in modern cultivation systems, such as rubber production, which are practical rather than ritualistic and focus on the short-term economic interests of individuals.

Dove argues that the combination of market-oriented rubber production and subsistence-oriented swidden agriculture has not only empowered Borneo’s smallholders to become actively involved in the global market economy, but also allowed them to avoid daily social insecurities, such as the volatility of world demand and price fluctuation. Cash crops and swidden agriculture are complementary because when the price of cash crops, such as cloves and pepper, goes up, native Borneans tend to focus on those cash crops, but when the price goes down, they return to cultivating swidden crops. Dayak households may tap rubber in the morning, and then work in their swiddens in the afternoon. In addition, rubber harvesting ensures a family’s ability to buy rice during famine (masa lapar) or when swidden crops are less productive than expected (pp. 159–61). People also tap rubber when they need cash to buy goods from market, or to pay children’s school and other expenses. Dove concludes that participating in both economic systems simultaneously is a way for a family to balance its sustainable resource management. In other words, the orientation toward both local and extra-local needs is a sustainable system that balances the cost of living and the benefits that people get from both economic systems (pp. 190–91). [End Page 147]

State–Society Relations

Dove focuses on the cash-crop system of cultivation since the state has an interest in regulating and controlling all of the production and the management of market-oriented cultivation, such as planting, spacing, and weeding, and the tapping schedules of rubber. The aim of state oversight is to make smallholder’s activities tractable and controllable. In addition, the state needs to implement the knowledge that is produced by the state apparatus, such as engineering expertise in agriculture. Additionally, smallholder’s economic activities should not be alien and unfamiliar to the state’s “experts.” To make smallholder’s activities visible and compliant, the state creates “nucleus estates,” such as Perkebunan Inti Rakyat (PIR, People’s Nucleus Estate), that not only ensure the dependence of the smallholders on the state but also standardizes the authority of the state’s regime of knowledge, a regime that determines...


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pp. 147-151
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