Women, Land, and Labor: Negotiating Clientage and Kinship in a Minangkabau Peasant Community

By Blackwood, Evelyn | Ethnology, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Women, Land, and Labor: Negotiating Clientage and Kinship in a Minangkabau Peasant Community


Blackwood, Evelyn, Ethnology


One of the central dynamics shaping agrarian change, and one seldom highlighted, is the structure and ideology of kinship and clientage in peasant communities. This article examines the importance of kin ties in the maintenance of nonwage labor relationships in a wet-rice farming community in West Sumatra, Indonesia. In this village patron-client ties are primarily organized on the basis of matrilineal kin ties through and between women. Elite women and their client kin are both bound to and invested in a complex relation of land, labor, and obligations that supports the continued interdependence of landlord/tenant and helps keep agricultural wage labor from becoming the dominant relation of production in the village. (Sharecropping, matriliny, peasants, wage labor, Minangkabau, Sumatra)

Agrarian transformations have resulted in an increasing complexity of peasant relations. Earlier assumptions that the penetration of capitalism would result in the development of a peasant proletariat dispossessed from their land and living off wage labor have been refined as numerous case studies revealed the continued presence of smallholder farming and sharecropping in peasant communities (Bray 1983; White 1989). Scholars now argue for recognition of the historical specificity of capitalist development. Agrarian change is a product of complex local and global political, economic, and social conditions (Stivens et al. 1994; Pincus 1990; Scott 1985). One of the central dynamics that merits greater attention is changing production relations among landowners, smallholders, and landless peasants. The specific kinds of peasant relations and the importance of kin ties in agrarian change are the focus of this article.

This study presents an analysis based on what I call the cultural economy of the Minangkabau, interrogating the interplay of the structure and ideology of kinship and clientage with state-supported agricultural development. The Minangkabau peasant community of Taram in West Sumatra, Indonesia, has been heavily involved in the development process as a result of the economic policies of the Indonesian state. Since 1965, agricultural development and resultant transformations in technology have created changes in labor practices and access to land. While agricultural wage labor is now common throughout the village, particularly for members of poor or average-income households, renting land through sharecropping has continued to be a predominant form of land tenure. Most households have access to some land they work themselves and thus are not forced to rely solely on income from wage labor. This article examines some of the cultural factors underlying the maintenance of nonwage labor relationships in a peasant community.

Sharecropping as a major form of land tenure in Taram is embedded in kin ties. For landless or near-landless farmers, access to land often comes through elite members of the lineages to which they belong. The connection between landowner and tenant rests not just in the agrarian relationship but in a wide range of social and ceremonial obligations and duties. Thus, changes in the land-tenure relationship would also threaten other well-established social bonds. Other studies have noted the importance of kin or personal ties in maintaining the sharecropper relationship and abating proletarianization (White 1989) or the development of a privileged class (Harmsworth 1991; Gastellu 1987; Arnould 1984; Robertson 1980; Coughenour 1992).

In Southeast Asia in general and Java more particularly, the sharecropping relationship, often based on kinship ties or residential propinquity, has been described as a benevolent or moral relation that benefits small landholding peasants who can claim such ties (Hefner 1990; Husken 1989). Jay (1969:230) notes that the Javanese landholder becomes a patron to the sharecropper, giving material aid in emergencies, as well as advice and gifts, in return for labor and social gestures that acknowledge his "quasi-paternal role and superior rank. …

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