All Season Tours

Indonesia Flag

HomeAsia / IndonesiaAbout IndonesiaIndonesia ToursContact Us


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.


The Desa
Three of five Indonesians work the soil. The desa is the entire productive community of a small village. In a Western sense, the desa is an authoritarian, undemocratic system, a sort of oriental kibbutz. Houses are loosely scattered around vegetable plots and fruit trees, with narrow pathways winding in every direction. Sometimes there are also community meeting places, barns, and fishponds. The desa is often surrounded by rice fields, hedges, and bamboo groves, with forests beyond. People work hard all day, then return home to pray, sing, dance, smoke, gossip, watch wayang or TV, sleep, then rise at 0400 to labor again in the fields.



Controlling every 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 means shifting or swidden cultivation, a method characterized by prodigious human labor using uncomplicated, preindustrial implements. It's estimated as many as a third of all Indonesians still work ladang. The practice can be very complex; basically, it's an imitation of nature itself. Unirrigated, arable land is prepared by burning the jungle just before the start of the rains; the farmer clears the land and fertilizes and weeds the soil at the same time. Then comes planting of a wide variety of quick-growing, predominantly staple food crops such as rice, corn, yams, taro, or the starchy palm-like sago. Cultivators plant in rows, working usually uphill over fallen trees and rough ground. Men poke holes with sharpened sticks, while women follow behind dropping in unhusked seeds, a few per hole.

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.

Sawah, a type of wet-rice cultivation, is a spectacular form of agriculture which often looks like a soft green stairway climbing into the sky. Although it can be utilized up to 1,600 meters above sea level, sawah is commonly found in the monsoon areas of the low-lying plains, where the water supply is more plentiful and regular. Because such complicated irrigation systems and the people to maintain them traditionally required a despot as manager, sawah cultivation has encouraged Indonesia's history of strong agrarian communities supporting an aristocratic hierarchy.

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.