TRI Field Notes: Arrivals and Encounters in East Kalimantan
By Nina Horstman, 2015 TRI Fellow in Indonesia
It is July in East Kalimantan and the merica (Piper nigrum) harvest has begun. White peppercorns are heaped onto mats to dry in the sunshine, their spicy, dusty scent filling the air. July also brings Ramadan to Indonesia, the holy month of fasting in the world’s most populous Islamic nation. The pace of daily life has turned sluggish, as villagers wait in the dim shade of their homes until the muezzin’s plangent cry signals that they can break their fast. This slack in farming activity has, in fact, proved advantageous for my research; it means that more people are in their homes during the day, willing to welcome me to chat or be interviewed.
My project is an ethnographic investigation of an agrarian migrant community. Since 1905, Indonesia’s transmigrasi (transmigration) program resettled tens of millions of landless migrants from populous islands, primarily Java, to less densely populated areas, such as Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and Papua. These transmigrant communities have largely been excluded from academic research and my project is the first of its kind to conduct ethnographic research on environmental values and land-use practices among transmigrants. The objective of my study is to understand land-use practices, gauge sentimental attachments to land, and illuminate drivers of land-use change and forest encroachment in East Kalimantan.
Within the canon of anthropological literature, the arrival story – a visiting anthropologists’ first encounter with the alien community of study – is something of a cliché. Continuing this tradition, it seems appropriate to share my own arrival story. I drifted gradually into this agrarian community – from the air-conditioned malls of Jakarta where I spent a week with family and friends, to the wealthy mid-size city of Balikpapan, enriched by oil and mining lucre, to Samboja, the location of a government research station on natural resource conservation that is helping me organize my research activities.
In speaking to the transmigrants and their descendants, many volunteer their own stories of arrival to Kalimantan. This was an unexpected trend because none of my interview questions specifically address this topic. Residents tell me how the transmigrants traveled via ship from Java, transferring to a smaller boat up the Bay of Borneo before disembarking at Sepaku and walking for another day on logging roads to reach their new homes. Multiple villagers have recounted this journey to me in such similar language that it seems to have entered local mythology. Another frequent topic of conversation are the other various journeys undertaken by transmigrants, traveling on foot for several days to reach markets, schools, or hospitals. The completion of a paved road (now riddled with potholes) that linked the village to the main road in the early 2000’s has been a much remarked-upon source of satisfaction. Much of their lived experience has been characterized by the remoteness of the village and the difficulty of the surrounding terrain. This has all led me to think more deeply about arrivals and journeys, bodies in motion, and James Clifford’s “view of human location as constituted by displacement as much as by stasis” (Routes, Clifford 1997: 2). I am interested in how travel and physical engagement with the landscape may help to produce sentimental attachment to place and, ultimately, how this may inform the design of future conservation or reforestation schemes.
“TRI Field Notes” share the stories of TRI Fellows as they conduct independent summer research throughout the tropics. The Tropical Resources Institute (TRI) is a center at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. For more information on research and fellowships visit http://environment.yale.edu/tri/