How planting cacao trees in Indonesia changed life forever.

In Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier, a western anthropologist travels to far-off Indonesia, locates a community of indigenous people who live more or less isolated in the hills, and watches them struggle with the changes wrought by what one might broadly label the advancing “modern world.” The anthropologist is Tania Murray Li, a Cambridge-educated Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy and Culture of Asia at the University of Toronto. Her subjects are the Lauje people who, as a whole, number no more than 60,000 on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The cohort Li visits repeatedly over 20 years between 1990 and 2010, is a handful of families, traditional highland people whose customary existence was growing food crops—maize and rice—supplemented by small bits of cash from tobacco or shallots that they transported on foot to coastal market towns.

To the outsider, this looks idyllic. Families cultivated land considered communal, regularly clearing new patches of forest to replace depleted plots. There was a shared sense of ownership of the fruits of one’s labour, respecting both genders and even the work of children. The economy operated through trading or barter or simply giving away foodstuffs alongside a culture of shared labour organized around work bees that doubled as celebratory community feasts. “Highlanders’ autonomy was grounded in their system of shared access to common land and an open land frontier,” writes Li. “All highlanders who wanted to farm had free access to land, and they could survive on the food they grew.”

Over the course of two decades, she watches this change, precipitated by one main thing, the adoption of cacao as a cash crop. Cacao is not an annual crop such as corn or rice, but a tree-based product involving planting trees, waiting for them to mature, then harvesting from them. To make it work, itinerant farmers learned to stay put, investing in and guarding their trees. As a consequence, perceptions about what they might have called their land shifted dramatically. In 1990, Li tells us, “Lauje highlanders didn’t have a word in their language equivalent to the English term ‘land.’ They had words for forests in different stages of regrowth, and a word for earth (petu L), most often used in the couplet that referred to the spirit owners of the earth and water.” But with cacao, land previously communally held, and something the Lauje charmingly believed was borrowed from their ancestors, increasingly became private property.

Customary notions of sharing changed and conflicts ensued. Those who were successful planted more trees and claimed more land, often by “buying out” their less successful neighbours and relatives (although freehold tenure was never formalized). Cash gained a novel pre-eminence as highlanders decided they wanted things such as television sets, school fees for ambitious children and better clothing so they would not feel “ragged” when they went to town. Cash also became the currency for buying labour. Most dramatic, though, was the transformation of land from something simply to plant on into a commodity of exchange or collateral for a loan. “So long as highlanders held their land in common,” writes Li, “they couldn’t pledge or sell it, and a creditor could not seize it as repayment for a debt. Individual landownership changed this situation. Although mortgages and loans—like landownership—were not documented, highlanders who held land as individual property could be pressured to sell it to cover their debts.”

If a good novel is a work of anthropology, does it follow that a good anthropological report has the elements of a novel? Li attempts character-based storytelling, even including an appendix of three dozen dramatis personae. She attributes emotions to her subjects, as in: “Tabang was living in a better house, but he was borrowing it from a brother who lived elsewhere. He was embarrassed because the house was still an empty shell with clothing hanging from the rafters and no furniture.”The Garden of Eden had ended, and things quickly descended from optimism into disappointment. The highlanders seemed prepared to work hard and be frugal, but watched their traditional customs and social niceties break down, one by one. There was no safety net; the standard modernization theories, Li purports, recognize that some people lose out when agriculture intensifies and becomes more competitive, but they go on to assume that ex-farmers will become workers, selling their labour. In Central Sulawesi, jobs remained scarce.

In her tale, no outside players or would-be players take on substantial roles. The Indonesian government’s needs to civilize and tame the highlanders and gather them conveniently around centralized administrative centres hearken back disturbingly to a century of Canadian efforts with Native peoples. But the government provided little real guidance and, in actuality, did not do much more than build a road. The few foreign development schemers who happened by just messed things up. A Canadian non-governmental organization showed up in the early 1990s wanting to promote the planting of cacao. Li remains coy, never naming the NGO and remaining vague about her own role with it, but everything it had in mind was—in her view—wrongheaded, including providing seedlings to exactly the wrong people. So it was a blessing that the project never got off the ground and the do-gooders departed.

Her book’s purpose, she writes, was to “renew ethnographic engagement with the rural places that continue to be home to half the world’s population.” Its broad implications, Li argues, are for all the world’s agricultural peasants. She has a political agenda that she puts forward: “by challenging policies that promote the intensification of capitalist relations as a recipe for poverty reduction.” What gives the story value as a cautionary tale and make the Canadian non-specialist take notice are the possible parallels with the situation of indigenous peoples in Canada, particularly given the ongoing debate over private as opposed to shared or communal property on First Nations reserves. The rosy scenarios do not necessarily always pan out.

Land’s End is essentially a tale of encroaching modernity or, more specifically, responses to the encroachment of modernity by people who have hitherto been sheltered by their remoteness. Seemingly unlimited land shared in common gets reconfigured with (in this case creeping) private ownership, which changes all, including people’s relationships to one another. It is tempting to revert to Marx for the analysis of this new and different system for sorting out winners and losers, and that is where the author goes (even throwing in a bit of Lenin). She has, after all, been observing the commodification of land, the introduction of cash economies, debt, wage labour, the pre-eminence of market forces and dependence on capital. To this reviewer, the analysis seems a bit obligational; the point has been adequately made in the narrative. Li is primarily observer and recorder—aided by a faithful local interpreter of both language and local nuance named Rina, who, sadly, dies just near the end of the project. The strength of the book is its recording of those observations that, in some ways, beg comparison with James Agee’s 1939 study of American sharecroppers in the classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Although it is not quite as startlingly powerful as a piece of writing, Land’s End is well enough written that the tale of struggle, even to a reviewer who admits to not much knowledge about Indonesia or its indigenous peoples, is intrinsically interesting.