April 2022

Essays

The psychic terror wrought by palm-oil production

By Sophie Chao
Photo of Marind community members sharing dreams of being eaten by oil palm

Photograph by Vembri Waluyas

How oil-palm plantations have uprooted the lives and dreams of a Papuan community

Nausea. Anger. Grief. Driving through oil-palm plantations with my Marind-anim companions in rural Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province, brought home to me the devastation and disciplined monotony of industrial monocrops like no high-resolution drone footage or glossy environmental magazine ever could. Endless rows of oil palms surrounded us. A cortege of trucks rumbled into the horizon, dragging loads of felled woods amid shrouds of stubborn red dust. The palm-oil processing plant, looming on higher ground, spewed smoke and steam throughout the day and night. Illegal land-clearing fires consumed the forest, blanketing the landscape in a choking haze.

Hunched beside the road, young plantation labourers watched us drive by with dull gazes. Paraquat, a highly toxic herbicide, trickled down from rusty canisters strapped to the women’s backs, the blue-green chemical seeping onto their exposed skin. Banned in many countries because of its potentially lethal effect on humans, it is a poison without an antidote. I thought of babies never to come. My friends huddled in the tray of the truck, their faces caked in dust as they watched the passing landscape and wept. Infants retched from the stench of mill effluents as we jolted down dirt roads without stopping, to avoid attracting the attention of military men employed by the companies to guard their plantations. Bunches of oil-palm fruit were strewn along roadsides, mouldering blood-red and anthracite piles, shot through with sharp thorns. Bulldozers and chainsaws ripped through patches of remnant native vegetation. Silhouetted against the bleary sun, helicopters zigzagged above us, spreading a milky veil of pesticides.

In one of these trucks in late July 2015, Paulus Mahuze (names have been changed throughout this essay), a Marind-anim clan leader from Khalaoyam village in the Papuan regency of Merauke, explained to me how oil palm had arrived in his homeland. In August 2010, a delegation of government representatives from Jakarta, led by the then minister of agriculture, Suswono, officiated an inauguration ceremony in a nearby village. They were launching the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), a $5 billion agribusiness scheme to promote the country’s self-sufficiency in basic foodstuffs and make Indonesia a net food-exporting nation. Papuans from across the region were invited to the event, including Marind community members from villages along the upper reaches of the Bian River.

Paulus described the ceremony: “It was a hot day. There was abu [dust] everywhere, raised by the government convoys and military trucks. The dust stung our eyes and made the children cry. The government brought sawit [oil-palm] company bosses with them from pusat [the centre, referring to Jakarta]. They gave us instant noodles, pens, bottles of water. They also gave us cigarettes – the expensive kind. They talked a lot about MIFEE. MIFEE this, MIFEE that… but we didn’t understand what MIFEE was. We did not know what oil palm was because oil palm does not live in our forests. Then the government officials and the oil-palm bosses left. They never returned to the village. They promised us money and jobs. They said MIFEE would provide us with food. I thought that they would plant yams, vegetables and fruit trees. Instead, they planted oil palm. They planted oil palm everywhere they could. They turned the whole forest into oil palm. They cut down all the sago to plant oil palm. This is what happened. Since then, everything is abu-abu [‘grey’, meaning ‘uncertain’].”

By May 2011, the Indonesian government had allocated some 2 million hectares of land in Merauke to 36 domestic and international corporations for the development of oil-palm, timber and sugarcane plantations. Vast swathes of forest had been felled or burned. Major watercourses had been diverted to irrigate the newly established monocrops. Today, Paulus’s village, along with several others along the upper Bian River, is encircled by oil-palm plantations that cover several hundred thousand hectares of former forest and extend north into the neighbouring regency. In the third decade of the third millennium, dozens more companies are applying for operational permits. Agribusiness continues to expand relentlessly across the region.

I first visited the upper Bian in 2011. I was undertaking field investigations with non-government organisations and church institutions to document the social and environmental impacts of oil-palm developments in Merauke. These investigations revealed that agribusiness projects were being designed and implemented without the prior and informed consent of local Marind-anim. Military–corporate collusion was rampant. Consultations, when undertaken, presented projects as a fait accompli, and offered limited information to communities on the potential risks to their food security, land rights and economic livelihoods. Oil-palm projects were routinely framed in corporate and government rhetoric as key to national interests, regional economic growth and the “development” of Papuans into modern, civilised citizens. Yet employment opportunities for local Marind-anim proved limited, as companies preferred to bring in their own labour force or hire migrants. Other grievances shared by Marind villagers included unfulfilled corporate social responsibility schemes, critical water pollution, endemic biodiversity loss and deforestation through illegal burning.

Oil-palm developments in Merauke exemplify what anthropologist Tania Li calls the “dispossessory dynamics” of agribusiness expansion – a process premised upon and perpetuating structural violence in the form of land alienation, growing poverty and intergenerational displacement. The plantations represent a classic case of “land-grabbing”, or the large-scale acquisition of land by multinational conglomerates for agricultural development, intensified by the food, fuel and financial crises of 2008. The dispossessory dynamics of agribusiness in Merauke are not radically dissimilar to what I had witnessed in other parts of the Indonesian archipelago, notably in Sumatra and Kalimantan. But the ways in which this dispossession was being experienced on the ground differed.

I was struck by how Marind people in the upper Bian region conceptualised the arrival of oil palm. The stories I heard in the field were not about global markets, corporate interests or food security. Nor did they primarily revolve around the issue of land rights, human rights or Indigenous rights. Instead, cryptic statements abounded in villagers’ reflections on their present condition, which were invariably preceded by the temporal marker “since oil palm arrived”. Oil palm, people told me, was a modern totem that had made time come to a stop. The forest had become a world of straight lines, haunted by a rapacious and foreign plant-being. Cassowaries and crocodiles were turning into plastic and weeping like humans as their native habitats disappeared. At night, oil palm depleted the flesh and fluids of dreamers in their sleep. Meanwhile, the skin of animals and plants was drying out as oil palm sapped wetness from the earth and devoured the forest.

Oil-palm expansion, I came to realise, could not be framed as either a social or ecological problem. Nor could it be addressed purely through the discourse of human rights or environmental justice. The industry expansion was radically reconfiguring Marind-anim’s sense of place, time and personhood – their bodies, stories, even their dreams. And it was a more-than-human existential crisis, leaving no sphere of life or species untouched. In their anti-oil-palm campaigns, NGOs targeted the Indonesian government, international corporations and investors. Yet the affected communities seemed more interested in oil palm itself – where it comes from, what it wants, how it differs from native species and, most importantly, why it is so destructive.


A group of Bayau villagers and I were bivouacking in the forest following a day of hunting and fishing. It was the beginning of 2018, the last year of my fieldwork in Merauke. A heavy haze draped the landscape, hot with fresh ashes from land clearing in nearby oil-palm plantations. The children and dogs lay beside the fire in a warm tangle of bodies and breath. Hushed conversations mingled with the crackling of dying embers, until eventually the melancholic hoots of a solitary owl lulled us to sleep. In the middle of the night, I was woken by a panicked hiccupping-weeping and sweaty little hands digging into my arm. Fourteen-year-old Rosalina buried her head into my chest and sobbed: “I had a dream, sister.” Her face glistened with sweat. Her body, frail from a recent bout of malaria, was trembling. I drew Rosalina into my arms and rubbed my cheek against hers to comfort her. Eventually, the child calmed down and began to share her dream.

Her words trickled out hesitantly: “I died in my dream. Me and several other family members, and others that I do not recognise. It was the middle of the night, and we were on the PT PAL plantation [a large privately owned development]. We were all on our knees in a big circle in the middle of a clearing, surrounded by oil palm. Our heads were bent, and our hands were tied behind our backs. We were barefoot. It was very quiet. There were no birds or wind to be heard. I could feel my father beside me, even without looking at him. I do not know who the others were because they had plastic bags over their heads, tied around their necks with rope.

“Everyone was silent. It was hot and dry. My lips were cracked like I had not drunk water in days. I had no more wetness in my body, and my skin was broken. At one point, I changed into the skin of a kewekawe [olive-backed oriole], perched up on the highest branch of an oil-palm tree, looking down at the circle of people kneeling on the ground in the clearing. When I was kewekawe, I could see the moon clearly, level with my eyes. At other times, I was an anim [human] in the circle. I could see myself as kewekawe up in the tree. I changed from kewekawe to anim and back, over and over again. My head was spinning. Nothing happened for a long time. It was like time had stopped.

“Then I saw that some of the oil-palm trees surrounding us were not oil palm. I had to squint because they were black and green and tall and strong in the shadows, and if you didn’t pay attention, you wouldn’t have seen that some of them were military men. The colour of oil palm at night is like that of soldiers’ uniforms – black and green. And the spines on the fruit – you have seen them – sharp like the blades of their bayonets. And the fruit, like bullets. Hard. Round. Black. Sometimes red – like blood.

“Looking down as kewekawe, I could see the soldiers in between the oil-palm trees, standing around the group. It was so silent, so quiet, out there in the plantation. No one was moving. Not even a little. They were so still I did not know if they were even breathing. Then I heard a gunshot in the darkness. Pang! My father’s body collapsed beside me. Black blood flowed from the back of his head as he lay face down in the soil. Pang! The person beside him fell to the ground too. Again, and again, oil palm shot us and the bodies collapsed. Or maybe it was the soldiers shooting. Still, no one moved.

“As kewekawe I could see the bodies crumble. I could see myself down there – the last to be shot. I did not fly away. I could see my anim skin on the ground below, bleeding. I sat there for a long time, but I never saw the sun rise. It lasted forever – like time had come to a stop.”

Rosalina’s dream kept me up until dawn. Eventually, the other group members began to rouse. The dogs scampered around, licking the children’s faces to wake them up. Only Rosalina remained in a deep slumber. I told Evelina, Rosalina’s mother, about the nightmare that had disrupted her daughter’s sleep. She sighed and said, “She was eaten by oil palm. I knew it would happen eventually. Everybody else in the family has been eaten.” Evelina’s words were interrupted by the ear-splitting explosion of a burning bamboo plant. An acrid smell of smoke soon assailed our nostrils. Corporate land clearing had resumed. Rosalina’s father, Oscar, dragged himself up on his good leg and packed away his betel nuts in his woven sago bag. He stamped out the fire and said: “It is time to move on. I told you, oil palm never stops eating. It is always hungry for more land. Place has changed, time has stopped. Anim have become plastic, and cassowaries eat instant noodles. Oil palm eats land, water and time. At night when we sleep, it comes to eat us too. Since oil palm arrived, there are new kinds of dreams. Oil palm never stops eating. And so, we must move on.”


During the 18 months of fieldwork I conducted in the upper Bian region between 2011 and 2019, I frequently heard of haunting dreams such as the one Rosalina experienced that night in the forest. The dreams are uncanny and dystopic. In them, human bodies become disfigured by oil-palm drupes, proliferating subcutaneously like cancerous tumours. Razor-edged palm thorns incubate between sinew and muscle, perforating dreamers’ skin like arrows shot out from the entrails of their writhing bodies. Women “eaten by oil palm” suffer tortured child labours, deadly haemorrhages, torn wombs and the birthing of monstrously deformed and spinescent fruit bunches, or “oil palm children”, both alive and stillborn. Plant and animal kin, and deceased relatives of the dreamer, appear alongside soldiers, bulldozers, charred sago groves, contaminated rivers and oil palm. Most dramatically, dreamers witness and experience their own deaths repeatedly from the perspectives of diverse forest beings whose existence is jeopardised by agribusiness expansion.

Community members travelled up and down the river and across settlements almost daily to share their nocturnal experiences with kin and friends. Behind closed doors, my English classes turned into dream-storying classes. Some children narrated their dreams, while others preferred to draw the black rivers, felled trees, thorny palms and blotches of blood they had seen during the night. When the rusty school bell rattled, I erased the dark words jotted across the weary blackboard, picked out here and there from the children’s accounts, and replaced them with the anodyne names of colours, animals and foods.

In the villages, the fall of darkness was met with apprehension. People talked for hours in half-whispers about what torment the night might bring, and to whom. At the break of dawn, dream narratives dispersed across homes, as sufferers revealed the harrowing deeds and deaths conjured in their sleep. Following night-long deliberations about strategic campaigning, when the NGO workers wandered the village with their mobile phones in vain pursuit of signal, villagers gathered and shared their dreams in hushed voices next to dying woodfires, sleeping babies pressed close to women’s breasts in the penumbra, the glow of embers shining in the men’s eyes. Some dreams were recounted weeks after they occurred, others the same night. Some were very short – fragments of half-remembered places and events – while others formed tapestries of different dreams woven together over the course of several months. My participation in dream-sharing sessions became more frequent after I, too, was “eaten by oil palm” – a moment that suggested to many of my companions that I had truly become part of their community. By day, oil palm ate the land, as bulldozers razed hectare after hectare of forest. By night, oil palm consumed the bodies of slumbering men, women and children haunted by its ghostly visitations. No one, it seemed, was immune to being eaten by oil palm.


One late afternoon, I sat on the riverbank with Ignatius, an elderly man from Khalaoyam. I read to him a printout of the website of Korindo, the Indonesian–Korean conglomerate operating the oil-palm concessions near his village. Twice, Ignatius asked me to translate the slogan running across the header of the website: “Planting seeds of far-reaching dreams in Papua.” He said, slowly and in a soft voice: “Dreams, they say. Seeds of dreams. Oil-palm dreams. There are so many dreams these days. Time-capsule dreams. Company dreams. Government dreams. But dreams can kill. People are dying every night, eaten by oil palm. There have never been so many dreams. There have never been so many deaths.”

Ignatius went silent. The sun was sinking, the clouds turned incarnadine by its descent. A solitary egret swooped across the sky as the intermittent croaking of toads rose from among the thick clusters of reeds lining the riverbank. Ignatius watched the last sliver of gold disappear, smiling sadly. His hand went limp on mine and his shoulders sagged. In the fading light, Ignatius looked smaller, thinner. The hypertrophic scar left by a wild boar attack on his left clavicle was a deep, dark clot on his diminished frame. For a moment, I thought I glimpsed fresh blood upon its mottled surface.

As we made our way back to the village, I asked Ignatius whether he believed Marind-anim would someday be able to stop the expansion of oil palm and the destruction of the forest.

Ignatius replied: “Dreams, dreams… Sometimes it is hard to see hope. The government and the companies are powerful. Oil palm is their weapon. You never know who will be eaten next. But as long as Marind-anim continue to share their dreams, then there is hope. By dreaming together, we may find ways of living together. For now, there is no future to be had – only dreams to be told.”

 

This essay is drawn from material in Sophie Chao’s forthcoming book In the Shadow of the Palms © Duke University Press, which will be published in June.

Sophie Chao

is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Sydney, and the author of In the Shadow of the Palms.

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