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Bonnibel Rambatan talks to Lengga Pradipta, New Naratif’s migration researcher, about her work on the intersection of migration and environmental issues in Kalimantan and the myths the government perpetuate.

In this episode, Bonnibel Rambatan talks about New Naratif’s Research Department and the idea of research as activism with Lengga Pradipta, Migration Researcher at New Naratif.
Migration research is an evergreen field of study that has only grown in its breadth of topics and range of micro-disciplines. In line with our approach of research as activism, that by conducting and publishing research that draws attention to such systematic failures of countries, and the consequent price that individual communities and people have to unjustly pay for, that we will embody the metaphorical butterfly whose flapping wings causes a cascading effect, changing people’s attitudes and raising their awareness until this eventually manifests as the healing winds in a reformatory hurricane of social change, whether this is done through highlighting the environmental degradation resulting from reckless policies, the heartbreaking circumstances that lead Indonesian women to seek to migrate, or the self-destructive ways through which governments can actively encourage their people to desire being exploited.

In this interview, Lengga talks about:

  • The history of migration programs in Indonesia.
  • How did the government persuade people to migrate? How did it play out?
  • Transmigration’s major effects on the environment
  • The myth of national development and the new capital city of Indonesia
  • The romanticism of development and national progress in the face of global competition, as if natural resources are infinite
  • How people can see the relationship between migration and environmental degradation?

INTRO

Hi and welcome to New Naratif’s Southeast Asia Dispatches. I’m your host, Bonnibel Rambatan, editorial manager for New Naratif. New Naratif is a movement to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia, and this podcast is one of the ways we attempt to do just that.

In this episode, we’re going to talk with one of New Naratif’s in-house researchers, particularly on the topic of migration. That’s right, New Naratif runs its own research department, which is part of our process of knowledge creation. Conventional research, especially in Southeast Asia, is often top down and quantitative. Statistics, rankings, and so on. It’s dry, distant, aloof from the voices of the people. No, New Naratif doesn’t do that. We believe that the people of Southeast Asia are the best experts on their own lives. When we conduct our research, we ask people directly. In this way, our research empowers people and gives them a voice.

New Naratif is also an actor in Southeast Asia, and as such, we try to bring together fellow independent media organisations and workers. We brainstorm for collective solutions and build a regional consciousness to help us all take collective action to fight for more media freedom.

That’s what we call research as activism.

In line with this, we approach the topic of migration research by drawing attention to the systemic failures of our countries that people and communities have to pay for by migrating around the world in less than ideal conditions. Our research highlights the environmental degradation resulting from reckless policies, the heartbreaking circumstances that lead Indonesian women to seek to migrate, and the self-destructive ways through which governments can actively encourage their people to desire being exploited, among others.

SPEAKER INTRODUCTION

Hi, everyone. My name is Lengga Pradipta, and currently I’m working as a migration researcher in New Naratif, and my field of research is about migration, but particularly more about environmental migration.

That’s Lengga Pradipta, a part-time migration researcher at New Naratif. Previously, she worked in several international organisations and also research institutions. Her latest writing could be found in Routledge book series, Risk Perception and Disaster Management of Women in Dealing with Floods in Urban Indonesia. Today, we’ll be talking about her work on the entanglement of migration and environmental degradation in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo.

INTERVIEW

Okay, so let’s just jump right ahead into your area of research. Can you tell us briefly about the history of migration itself, especially in Indonesia?

If we talk about the migration programs in Indonesia, it actually happens, like, centuries ago. But if we talk about transmigration, it actually started in the 1950s after the Forest Degradation and forest colonialisation happened in Indonesia. So let’s say it’s like more than 70 years until today.

So we are now still in the process of migration.

Can you tell us more about how it got started? In the beginning, what was the program really, and what was the narrative of the government to persuade people to migrate and stuff like that? And how did it play out?

Okay, it actually started when Indonesia got its Independence Day, 1945. So we are actually under the influence of the Dutch system at that time. So even though we got freedom, some of the whispers from the World Bank and the IMF are still like a threat for us because they asked Indonesia to be the center of agriculture and the center of the Forest Degradation.

Why do I say so?

When World Bank and IMF tried to persuade developing countries at the time they are pushing us to produce the timber productions and of course since Indonesia has plenty of island which was still virgin so Kalimantan and Sumatra at that time was chosen to get the timber exploration along with that timber explorations, like 20 years after that, people and government then try to think about another extractive industries that can be conducted in Sumatra and Kalimantan. And then government, because the Indonesian government has turned into a new order era under Suharto.

So it’s like an intention to bring up such oil palm plantations in Indonesia and then to cultivate that oil palm. People from Java Island, which is very populated, are relocating to Kalimantan and Sumatra. So this huge business is actually followed by the transmigration.

As we all know, if there are no more people on that island and people do such business there, who’s going to handle that? Of course they need people, that’s why the government at the time was relocating people to cultivate the land in Kalimantan and Sumatra, especially Kalimantan. 

Would you say they were successful in persuading people to move there? Were there like waves of all of these migrations and they actually got their new economic livelihood and stuff like that? Did it work out for some people? Did it not work out for certain groups of people?

So how did it play out really?

In terms of success, of course, there’s always two sides of the coin if you’re relocating people. Let’s say if the people from Java feel happy that they got the new land in Sumatra and Kalimantan. But then, of course, the government at the time didn’t consider the indigenous people, who cannot be easily adapted to the plantation, to be the new migrants. So it’s like a conflict there like a mental conflict and then social conflict which press people to accepted the newcomers.

So can you imagine how devastated they are, the indigenous people in Kalimantan?

Can you maybe talk more about these environmental effects and effects on the indigenous population that we can still feel until today?

As I mentioned before, environmental migration, especially forest degradation, has actually happened since the 1950s. And then along with the transmigration, degradation of the forest is getting massive. But it didn’t stop at that point.

So even though Indonesia got the Reformation era in 1998, and there’s a lot of terms upside down in Indonesia’s government system, we actually adopted decentralisation. At that time, the legislative, executive and also the judicative thought that we can try decentralisation systems. Because after this, all the authority will be given to the regional or to the province or to the district level. But then actually decentralisation is not always good because sometimes it creates the small king in the province, it makes giant corporations like mega corporations is easily to influence and persuade them to destroy the forest.

So can you imagine, because Indonesia is very big, it’s very hard to control what happened at the district level or province level because at the time the government still occurred in Jakarta. So of course, during this timeline of history we can assume that even though that decentralisation was good, there’s always a weaknesses in decentralisation that makes people become devastated and forest degradation still continues until today.

So there’s this interesting dynamic that you’re hinting at here between the indigenous people not getting their voices heard, but at the same time they’re still not getting heard even if we decentralize, right?

So it’s a decentralisation process without listening to the needs of the indigenous people, right? Do you think it could have been done in another way? Like what would you say would be better for the indigenous people there?

Transmigration is actually a process of people to mobilize. So it’s not about the process which makes such failure, but it’s how the process involves many sectors or many stakeholders.

So if the transmigration process conducted well by the government and they did such research on it, for example, they did research on environment, they did such research on how indigenous people will adapt it or will adjust it with those new nuances and also doing research on how transmigration will affect it on other issues of life, such as livelihood, such as job opportunities.

I believe that this is not going to be like a mind blocking for transmigration process.

What is the way out of this? Is it bad or good? So it’s not about good or bad, but I think, and I believe that the transmigration process should be followed by in depth research and consideration. So it’s not about relocating people only, but also how you studied about the environment and the forest in that area because it’s impossible you’re relocating people, but you didn’t provide such a livelihood for them. Because we know in Kalimantan the source of food and the source of livelihood is a forest at that time.

I think it’s a contra if we talk about how transmigration affected migrants lives because migrants also sometimes could be called as the victim of the process. But yeah, they are voiceless because at that time, in 1960s, 1970s, there is no public awareness conducted by NGOs or scholars because we all know at that time there’s a lack of access to that.

How would you say the situation is different today? Or maybe in some ways they’re so similar because of course there’s this new discourse about moving to the new capital city, right. The IKN, Ibukota Nagara, there is this whole new program which is asking people once again to migrate there.

But at the same time, we still have all of these challenges, all of these lack of research. Do you think the situation is even worse today? Do you think it’s better? In some ways? In what ways do you think they’re similar and different?

Rome wasn’t built in a day. The new capital wasn’t built in a day. So that old phrases reassured me that relocating people to the East Kalimantan, the new capital, is not that easy. It couldn’t be conducted like, in a blink and of a dining. Actually, our president have a very ambitious target, so he wanted to relocate mostly people or government employee, particularly in 2024, just a second before the general election will be held.

Okay, so some scholars who are concerned about politics say that it’s a hidden agenda by our president. But some urban planners, which are defeated and always say that Jakarta will be sinking, Jakarta will be no longer in 50 years. They agree with this plan to relocate the capital. But again, urban planners think about planning and infrastructures and facilities, right? Because they’re engineers. So of course they thought and they think like an engineer. It’s not their mistakes because that’s their background.

But again, somehow I saw that there is few anthropologists and a few sociologists which involve in this massive planning, which is, of course, it’s not a good indication of relocating people if you don’t have a study about anthropology and sociology.

In that respect. I mean, the government also keeps pushing this narrative of national development, and then it’s going to be better for Indonesia. It’s going to make the country more competitive. We see that keep it keeps playing out, like you mentioned IMF and the World Bank earlier in the, in the then, now, we all we still have those those myths as well.

But at the same time, those are sociological myths about competition, but then they don’t involve any sociologists or anthropologists there. What are your thoughts on this?

I mean, why do you think we keep disregarding all of these expertise? That’s actually quite necessary.

It’s very interesting, Bonnie, your questions, why I really appreciate the social sciences should be included in the development of the new capital in Kalimantan. Because, as Charles Darwin mentioned, the one who can survive is not the smartest one or the prettiest one or the handsome one, but the one who can adapt to the ecological changes.

So again, if humans like us, like me, like you, if we couldn’t adapt it well, if someday we will relocate to Kalimantan, I think it’s very nonsense that we can make it. So there should be a very in depth assessment and research on how people will cope and how people will adapt to the new environment, because we get used to live in Jakarta, we get used to live in urban, and suddenly you’re moving to Kalimantan, even though they say it’s very promising because they make the green cities. But of course, again, Rome wasn’t built in a day, so it needs a decade, I guess, ten years.

Are you confident about the quote unquote greenness of this project, though? I mean, still, like a lot of the conversations involved, especially when you talk about plantations and stuff like that, there’s still a lot of hints that people still think that these natural resources are somehow infinite.

And even if they say that, oh, it’s green, it’s renewable, but that’s in practice, that’s always like secondary or tertiary to other considerations, right.

So why do you think people keep buying into this? Why don’t people see this as really super urgent, right? Because about these natural resources, about these. Environmental degradation, it’s very, like, problematical.

There is a promise by our government that they say the new capital will be a green city, and it’s very technological friendly for people and other dreamy words provided by the government. But again, the soil type and soil characteristic in Kalimantan is not the same as Jakarta. If the ecologists want to study Kalimantan deeply. So, if they want to build a high risk building in Kalimantan, it’s not as easy as you build the high risk building like in Jakarta.

Why? Because the ecological vibes in Kalimantan and also the trees sectors and also the indigenous people also in Kalimantan are very different from Java. So how could you ensure that people will relocate to Kalimantan or the indigenous people will adapt to the new things if there is no research based evidence that you give to the people.

That, yes, we can relocate that, because we are doing such assessments like this, this. And also, unfortunately, what I really concern here, if you also pay attention, it’s not only about the issues of the relocating capital, but the news issue about the foot estate, which is led by the Ministry of Agriculture, if I’m not mistaken, and a Ministry of the Defense. It’s also very distracting because the location is not far from the East Kalimantan. They are in the same island, and there’s a degradation there.

So if you’re relocating people means you have to get food sources and also water sources. And now that water source has disappeared because of the big trees have been cutting down. As we all know in the biology class that we just studied in our high school, the trees is actually the water conservation, forwater conservation.

I’m not contra with the capital relocation, but I think it’s just not the right time to make the target to 2024, because it’s like, oh my God, it’s very impossible to do that in these two years.

Do you think we might be suffering from one of those? It’s a microcosm because Indonesia is rich in resources and that’s why we get exploited. That’s why people from the Global North plunder us. But then it keeps repeating on a smaller scale.

In Indonesia we’re plundering other islands like outside of Java because Java has been developed to a certain degree. Do you think a similar thing is going on?

Like we are now relocating to Kalimantan and then all of these exploitation will keep happening?

But why do you think that’s the case? I mean, you did mention in one of your talks about the curse of natural resources. Do you think there is that element as well?

Yeah, exactly. So I mentioned in one discussion also with New Naratif that most of the developing countries in Asia and some in Africa will get infected by the curse of natural resources. Why? Because when a country has enormous natural resources but their human resources index is not as high as the small country which is developed, it’s not fair or apple to apple if we compare Indonesia to Singapore or Brunei Darussalam, because it’s very different.

But since Indonesia and other developing countries are very huge in terms of land cover, in terms of forest resources, it’s very easy for the investors and the mega corporations to attach with our lands. Meanwhile, we don’t know how to stick to our natural resources because not all of us, but the majority of indigenous people and local people, Indonesia still have a lack of education and knowledge.

Well, actually it’s getting better now. Since the 1990s there was some NGOs, either international or local, that give such knowledge and empowerment training. But then, yeah, the number is not that big if we compare it to the number of the populations of indigenous people. So spreading some knowledge or information is very useful for them because of course NGO cannot work alone.

They need scholars, they need media, and not all media will inform this part because they also get, I don’t say donation, but support from the mega corporation. So it’s like you got the curse of natural resources, you want to escape, but then you have a lack of information sources. So yeah, I mean that’s actually the Issue here.

And I think there’s a huge problem also of power relations and power imbalance, right? I mean you mentioned that there’s a whole host of problems that we inherited from the colonial era that I think replicates in the patterns of migration that we currently have.

And on top of that, when you’re saying about these huge corporations obviously spreading information, about what they’re actually doing, about doing thorough research, about their impacts and stuff like that can get dangerous, right?

Because we see people, we hear about people getting disappeared or even getting killed or even those in those attempts, right. So what do you think should be done there? If it’s not safe, how do we move forward from here, do you reckon?

As a researcher, obviously you realize that if you get super deep and super specific about certain particular corporations and their particular effects, for example, it might be dangerous for you. So what are your thoughts on that?

If we talk about how I will react to this I will mention one of the theories which occurred years ago, it is called patron-client. So in Indonesia these pattern client systems almost adapted by many investors to the locals people or to the indigenous people. And then the question came up “Where’s the government?”

Because it’s like investors and local people where is government? Our government actually has power to say no to the investor but because of the forest has been cut and then altered into the oil palm plantation. Government even asked our military to take care of the oil palm plantation. if you pay attention that many research talks about the forest in Kalimantan has been owned by the military, or the forest in Sumatra and Sulawesi is also occupied by military, it means, in here, at first the intention of government is good, they send the military, they send their troops into the village area or isolated area.

But then these troops, as we all know, they are troops, they’re not educated. Because in Indonesia we know the level of the army and military, right. It’s impossible to send the general to the Kalimantan. Of course not. So they send the very low army to those areas and then what is the impact? Of course the impact is the army and the locals and also the migrants get 2 hectares of land and they asked to be cultivated, but how could they cultivate the land if there is no such support from the scholars or the experts?

Now, why I can say this if we want to be very straightforward and honest there is no such prominent school or universities outside Java like in Kalimantan and Sumatra people will migrate it to Java to get a good education.

So there is a patron-client to make the outer island still isolated, not getting the intelligent people to occupy there. So it’s like a patron-client system is very dangerous because it’s also the political intrigue that is played by the government. But it’s not the government. It’s like we call it some actors that get the interest from that they get the benefit. So yeah, if we want to revamp the conditions, I mean, please don’t make a capital first but provide a good facility for universities, schools, educations for locals.

And I guess there’s also, if we’re still talking about migration, there’s the whole brain drain phenomenon where opportunities for people are mostly still located in Java, right? So we have like reverse migration and there’s all of these complex things. But yeah, this is a whole complex issue, it’s a whole complex phenomena, right?

We’re dealing with all of the intersections between migration but also the environment and then the locals, the indigenous people and then potential power abuse by the military we have a whole lack of democracy going there but at the same time it’s narrated mostly by the government but also by other people.

It’s narrated as if, hey, this is the future, this is where the opportunity lies, this is what we should do. So I guess one of our tasks is to really fight against these narratives and make people see that, hey, this is really what’s happening, right?

You yourself as a researcher, maybe can you talk a little bit about how you think what your role is in informing people, in making people see the relationship between migration, environmental degradation and stuff like that?

Can you maybe talk a bit more about your personal work and your calling this time?

Okay. Because I am an individual, I’m not representing any government officials or offices or corporations. So me as individual means me as a researcher, of course, all I can do is conducting research, especially ethnographic to see, to assess, to make a baseline insight about the real conditions of the people in Kalimantan. That’s the first step that I will do as the researchers.

The second one, of course, elaborating my research into the current regulation, which I believe still have many weaknesses, right? And then it doesn’t mean that I mentioned government several times, they are totally wrong, no, I believe there’s some official that’s still defending the rights of the indigenous people.

Back in 2019, I met an official from the Ministry of Forestry in Kalimantan. He said that Kalimantan is now on the very big dilemma. Then I asked him, I am a researcher, I’m not a decision maker. So all I can do is do research and then inform people because that’s my responsibility. But I’m not the decision maker because I’m not affiliated to legislative or formal institutions at the time.

And then he said, like, the more I keep informing about Kalimantan either in social media or either through my publications, it’s actually making people wake up that, oh come on guys, this is very dangerous. Because for this time until today, yes, there’s plenty of research about Kalimantan, but there’s always dualism of research.

They talk about how important oil pump plantation for the SPO product, which is we use it every day, like Unilever, like many corporations use that oil palm product. And then because there are researchers which are concerned about the economic benefits, they keep informing that, hey, oil palm is good, so forest degradatio can be paid by the corporate social responsibility program. But then of course it’s not enough, right?

So still few research that talks about indigenous people talk about human dynamics. If we try to search from the content or the journals or the news about Kalimantan, they always say that SPO is good. Indonesia has already adopted the SPO systems and yes, it’s okay to just destroy your forest. We will replant it again, don’t worry. They say it like that. But of course, replanting trees need decades. It can’t be done in ten years.

Again, research is very important. As I mentioned, with my friend from the Ministry of Forestry and also a synergy between scholars, government officials, researchers, and also the activists of environment. Because sometimes environmental activists act alone, they are not connecting to the scholars. So I think it may be a good start to synergize every stakeholder who put concern on forest Degradation in Kalimantan. So don’t make them work alone. Let’s make a team to beat this phenomenon.

You’re hinting at something interesting there earlier about even if people try to look for research and try to study and read up on the effects of palm oil plantation and all of these things, they can stumble upon different results, right, depending on who’s doing the research and who’s publishing the research and stuff like that, right?

So what are your thoughts on that? I mean, if people say, okay, I really want to know what’s going on here, and then I read up on stuff, then how do I know that, okay, this research is like, which research output should I believe if there are lots of different results and they’re conflicting?

Research is supposed to be neutral. It has to be neutral. Okay, but yeah, some of the research conducted by the researchers is also based on orders from some stakeholders. But again, we should see the background or the outputs of the research, whether it’s only for economic benefits or it’s actually on the site of the indigenous people.

So we as the readers should be selective in getting the substances of the research. But again, sometimes research language is too hard to be understood. So that’s the function of the research based media, like New Naratif, one of it to informing people with the modest language.

And it’s not like you should do this, this, this, but it’s very friendly in words and also applicable to them. So I think it’s very helpful to have such research based media in Indonesia that is very neutral.

I think for me, personally at least, I tend to look for writings that elevate the voices of the indigenous people, for example, or the ones that really talk about the loss of biodiversity. But I’d like to ask your opinion, right.

As you mentioned, the indigenous population especially, and the biodiversity of Kalimantan and of other places that are being quote unquote developed is really they suffer the most from all of these from all of these programs.

So how do we make their voices more heard? How do we amplify these voices? How do we make these loss of biodiversity become more visible? How do we make people see the connections between, hey, this isn’t the migration program, these plantations, they’re not as good as what people might tell you because these are the effects, right?

How do you think we can help amplify these folks? I mean, you’ve mentioned your role as a researcher, but for example, a New Naratif reader or listener.

What do you think can be done there?

First things first, we have to ensure that indigenous people got their platform in speaking, we have actually the AMAN. So Aman is Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara. So it’s like a platform that can accommodate the voice of indigenous people. So AMAN have such branch in every indigenous community.

They have in Mentawai, they have in Dayak, they have also in Sulawesi Island. So I think Aman should as one of the NGOs, national NGOs should get more attention by us as a media, research based media because they are staying there all the time with the indigenous people while we are not. So keep listening to their voices. I think it’s the best way because it’s impossible to make a regulation of locals if we do not know the real condition of them.

Because sometimes also in Indonesia, the media like to twist the evidence. So we are very careful to have relationship with the local NGOs like AMAN I mentioned before, like Tambuhak Sinta Foundationm, WALHI also, even though WALHI sometimes pay attention only on the biodiversity and orangutan but they also have connection to the local people.

So I think working together with NGOs and their activists is the best way.

So if the readers want to get more involved with Aman or with other of the NGOs that you mentioned, what can the listeners do?

AMAN always has social media so we can keep in touch with AMAN to know the updates of the local people and also the condition of the environment in that particular area. So we can make such connecting like send a message or reacting to their activities because they also have annual even talking about the indigenous people.

So yeah, because we are now living in a global area where sometimes we cannot go to that island by ourselves. I think through that organisation we can hear the news and update of the locals and also can help them because Aman is also providing such donations for the program that they conducted for the indigenous people.

Okay, thank you so much Lengga for your really insightful research and insightful presentation just now. It’s been a pleasure talking about all of these things with you. If people want to read more about your research or find you elsewhere, I think we can always point them to your stuff in New Naratif.

But also if there are other things that you’d like to talk about or you’d like to give the readers more chance to reach out to you, maybe you can let us know.

Yeah. For all readers of the New Naratif, I can connect and can keep in touch with me through my social media. The name is same, Lengga Pradipta in Instagram. In Facebook and Twitter. Feel free to chat me or to give comment on the posting.

And also don’t forget to subscribe to New Naratif because there’s a lot of information that you guys should know. 

Thank you. Thank you so much Lengga, Thank you so much for the wonderful conversation.

And that was our discussion with Lengga Pradipta. If you’d like to read more of her work, as well as the works of other New Naratif’s researchers, go visit our research page at newnaratif.com, research that’s newnaratif.com/research.

At the end of every article, you’ll also find ways that you can help to create change. For the issue of Kalimantan, you can support the work of non-governmental organisations working to mitigate environmental degradation in the area, including WALHI, Tambuhak Sinta, Pandu Alam Lestari, and Orangutan Indonesia. The links of this you’ll find once again on our website.

My name is Bonnibel Rambatan, and this has been Southeast Asia Dispatches, brought to you by New Naratif and produced by Dania Joedo.

I’ll see you around.

Lengga Pradipta

Lengga is a researcher who has focused on human ecology and migration issues. Previously, she worked in several international organizations and also research institutions. Her latest writing could be found in Routledge book series: Risk Perception and Disaster Management of Women in Dealing with Floods in Urban Indonesia.

Bonnibel Rambatan

Bonni is New Naratif's Editorial Manager. They are an independent scholar and writer of critical theory, psychoanalysis, and philosophy, with a professional career spanning various media industries from comics, publishing, and film.

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