For Indonesia's rural, agriculturally based population, land is the most important commodity in the country. It's the single greatest source of litigation, poverty, and injustice in Indonesia, particularly where it's scarcest--on overpopulated Java. The government painfully wresting land from peasants has become a fact of life in the rapid industrialization process of the past 10 years.
activity in the desa is a council of elected villagers. The headman is
called the kepala desa. An ancient cooperative system, gotong royong, in
which everyone lends a hand, parcels out land, supervises community seed
beds, grows crops, and manages irrigation and rice storage. There are
two systems of cultivation used in Indonesia, ladang and sawah.
Ladang is usually practiced in the nonvolcanic, less fertile soil of the Outer Islands, and the soil soon becomes exhausted. The plot is then abandoned. At least 10 years is needed for the jungle to overgrow the cultivated plot and replenish the soil. The ladang farmer can then return and cultivate the plot for another two years, repeating the cycle. If the cycle is abbreviated and the forest denied the time to take root again, tenacious alang-alang grass colonizes the cleared forest area and depletes the soil of nourishment, leading to the so-called "Green Deserts" of Indonesia. Farmers can return alang-alang fields to cultivation only with much hard work.
The ladang system
requires roughly 10 times the area needed for wet-rice growing. In most
parts of the world this slash-and-burn farming means a nomadic
existence, but in Indonesia ladang farmers live in permanent villages.
Ladang usually fosters somewhat archaic clans or genealogical
communities, like those found on Flores, Sulawesi, and Timor. Because of
the pressure of population and the introduction of improved agricultural
methods, ladang is giving way all over Indonesia to the more intensive
wet-rice cultivation, called sawah.
Technically very intricate and delicate to manage, this system of complex waterworks is more productive than ladang, able to support some of the world's greatest rural population densities. Nowhere has sawah succeeded like on Java and Bali, because nowhere is there so little land available to accommodate such high birthrates. Two or even three crops a year are sometimes planted, and sawah has the capacity to produce undiminished yields year after year.
During the wet season, the land is planted with rice; during the dry the same fields are often planted with corn and cassava. Backbreaking planting, weeding, plowing, and harvesting are all done by hand, workers elbow- and knee-deep in mud, using iron and wood tools. Plows are pulled by kerbau (water buffalo), except on smaller fields close to the edges of terraces. In the southeastern islands, kerbau are driven over the fields, turning them into a slushy mire; in effect, the animal acts as the plow. Today gasoline-powered rototillers are appearing on the more prosperous islands of Java and Bali.
Many animist rites persist from the old days, when people were bound by strong religious ties to their communal land. When rice is planted on Java or Bali, a small plaited figure of a fertility goddess is placed under an umbrella and incense burned in her honor to insure good crops the following season. This rice goddess, Dewi Sri, is believed to literally dwell in the rice stalks. At harvest time the stalks must be cut in a certain way so as not to offend her. Using wood-mounted, razor-like handblades concealed in their palms, women deftly cut only three to four stalks at a time so Dewi Sri will not be frightened.