Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Selayar and the Green Gold: The Development of the Coconut Trade on an Indonesian Island (1820-1950)

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Selayar and the Green Gold: The Development of the Coconut Trade on an Indonesian Island (1820-1950)

Article excerpt

In the colonial period many Europeans considered coconuts a lazy man's crop.(1) For the Indonesian population, however, they were a profitable form of cultivation, especially from the 1880s when the European oil and fats industry increasingly started to use copra, the dried kernel of the coconut, as a raw material for the production of soap and later also for margarine. Around one-third of world copra exports originated in the Netherlands Indies, and copra was especially important for the economy of East Indonesia, where in 1939 it constituted 80 per cent of the total volume and 60 per cent of the total value of exports.(2) In some parts of Indonesia copra even received the nickname of "green gold".(3) European involvement in coconut cultivation and the coconut trade nonetheless was limited. In the first half of this century, coconut growing was dominated by the indigenous population, which accounted for 94 per cent of Indonesian production, while Chinese merchants dominated the intermediate trade in copra.(4)

The importance of copra is often only briefly noted in the literature on the economic history of Indonesia. Analyses of the expansion of the coconut trade barely go beyond the macro level, providing some general quantitative information but revealing little about the local impact of the expansion of the coconut trade. Also unclear is the way in which the coconut trade was organized, and how the roles of the Indonesians, the Chinese and the Dutch -- each of which tried to penetrate or to control this trade changed during the successive phases of the expansion of the coconut trade. In order to explore these matters a shift to the micro level is needed. This article will explore the coconut trade of Selayar, an island south of the southwestern tip of Sulawesi (formerly The Celebes) whose economy has been dominated by the coconut trade for the past two centuries. The choice of Selayar is motivated by two considerations. Firstly, the island was already a leading exporter of coconut products before the start of the copra trade, so it can be demonstrated that coconut growing was not merely subsistence oriented or "static" prior to its integration into the world market. Secondly, it is one of the few areas in East Indonesia whose local Dutch colonial controleurs archier survived the turbulent periods of the Second War World and Indonesia's struggle for independence.

TABLE 1

SHARE OF COPRA EXPORT FROM NETHERLANDS INDIES ON THE WORLD MARKET: 1909-1937

Year          World    Neth. Indies    Philippines    Br. Malaya    Ceylon

1909-1913      7.25        2.38            1.30           0.72        0.42
1924-1928     11.28        3.64            1.82           1.67        1.06
1929-1933     12.25        4.32            1.94           2.01        0.80
1934-1937     13.42        4.77            2.81           2.04        0.70

Notes: This table only indicates export of copra flesh in million quintals,
not included is the export of copra oil.

Source: Bacon and Schloemer, World Trade, p. 294.

In this article it will be shown that the expanding coconut trade had an important impact on Selayar's society, especially on the status system as ownership of palms became the main indicator for social mobility. The integration of this trade into the world market around the beginning of the twentieth century caused the local traders to lose their initial dominance to the Chinese, although they were never fully subordinated. The Europeans, on the other hand, had severe difficulties penetrating the coconut sector and had little success until after 1930. This article will start with a short introduction on the socio-economic structure of Selayar. After that, the development of the Selayar's coconut trade will be analysed in three parts: the pre-copra period (roughly 1820-80), the rise of the Chinese monopoly (1880-1930) and finally the period from the depression to the Coprafonds (1930-50). The research is largely based on material drawn from the Algemeen Rijksarchief Den Haag (ARA), the Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia (ANRI) in Jakarta and Ujung Pandang as well as on interviews carried out in Ujung Pandang and during several trips to Selayar between November 1990 and November 1991. …

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