Getting ahead in Indonesia is a struggle. Crooked middlemen and indifferent bureaucrats loom large. Those toiling the soil are pawns to distant landowners.

Indonesia
Normally verdant land after a long dry season in Indonesia’s West Java Province, ready to be planted to bananas (photo by Jonathan Thatcher)

By Jonathan Thatcher

WEST JAVA, Indonesia – Rizki doesn’t have a job. A high school graduate, he’s what my mother would have called “a nice young man” — well spoken, polite and conservatively dressed.

He’s also too short.

He may look of average height and be in the rude health you’d expect of a 19-year-old brought up on the fresh food and fresh air of rural Indonesia.

But Rizki is two centimetres too short, according to the agent he met after a five-hour, lurching bus trip to an industrial city outside the capital Jakarta in hopes of getting a job in a car factory

That, according to the young man’s family, meant: “If you give me more money, I’ll bend the rules and get the factory to accept you.”

Government officials are rarely seen.

Rizki’s father, a landless farmer by day and a security guard at night, managed to cobble together the equivalent of nearly two month’s salary to pay the agent for the initial interview.

Similar stories abound. A woman from a neighbouring village said her friend handed over the best part of a year’s income to an agent for a job in South Korea before being told she, too, had failed the height test.

In both cases, they said, the agent’s fee was lost.

Indonesia
Graffiti in English on a building in Jakarta
(photo by Jonathan Thatcher)

Agents or middlemen are critical for villagers in Indonesia, from buying crops or fish to finding jobs to religious pilgrimages. A simple example: a middleman pays the farmer the equivalent of seven U.S. cents for a young coconut. About half an hour down the road, you can buy the same coconut in a shop for 10 times more.

Want to work as a domestic with a family in Taiwan? That could cost you up to half a year’s salary in fees.

By contrast, government officials, if they are seen at all, appear generally to be viewed in the village as unhelpful, sometimes worse. Ask a villager if government experts ever visit with advice, say on improved farming methods, and you’ll likely receive a bewildered stare.

Farmers are completely unaware, for example, that the herbicide they spray without any protective gear over farmland is considered toxic and the subject of an avalanche of lawsuits in the United States.

The shift to decentralisation in Indonesia’s young democracy has seen significant growth in the size of bureaucracies in the regions but not in the quality of services.

Rural life is a struggle.

One of the world’s most populous countries, Indonesia is trying hard to raise its economy and bring its millions of young the promise of a better life. But for years, economic growth has been adequate at best, its education standards low and life in rural areas a struggle.

Much of the farmland in the scenic coastal area of West Java where Rizki lives was bought by city-based landlords who rarely bother to visit. For the villagers who still work that land, it means little incentive to plant trees for longer term income, like cloves, mangoes or teak, which do well in the area. Better to go for cash crops, in particular bananas, which provide a return after about nine months.

But that comes at a financial and environmental cost. Bananas are cheap and increasingly under threat from fusarium wilt, a fungus spreading throughout the tropics and for which there is no cure. It is also hard work clambering up and down steep hills, and the plants require heavy doses of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.

It has led to widespread clearing of trees, often without the knowledge or interest of absentee landowners. That increases the risk of landslides, damages water tables and quite possibly impacts the climate in an area subject to increasingly long dry seasons, which this year saw a worrying amount of damage from wild fires.

A long future without work

For Rizki, the outlook is tough.

There are very few jobs near his village beyond farming and fishing. And it’s rare to see young men or women — who, unlike their parents, have often finished high school — working the fields.

Around 16% of Indonesians between the ages of 15-24 are unemployed. In West Java, Indonesia’s most populated province, the competition for jobs is so intense that village women often seek higher paying jobs overseas as domestic workers while their husbands stay at home to look after the children.

In the meantime, Rizki faces a long future without work.

The government has designated the area for tourism, but the number of visitors remains modest, most likely deterred by the clogged roads to get there. Ironically, he helps out occasionally at a house on land his grandfather sold to an outsider a generation ago, land that is full of fruiting trees and teak trees that in a few years will have grown big enough to sell as timber.

His father? He bolsters the family income by growing bananas on someone else’s land.

(For more News-Decoder stories about poverty and wealth, click here.)

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. How might a cash-strapped government help rural communities, especially those dependent on the land or sea for their livelihood?
  2. What might be ways to help protect the environment without reducing meager incomes in rural areas.
  3. In Indonesia, the shift to democracy 20 years ago meant powers shifted to regions. In your country, how does the balance of power work between central and regional governments? Is it as effective as it should be?
  4. What advice could you give to help someone like Rizki find work? Are there similar issues where you live?

Jonathan Thatcher is former Reuters bureau chief for Indonesia and East Timor. He was also bureau chief in Korea, the Philippines and Russia. During more than 37 years in journalism, he was also based in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and Britain, and reported from Thailand, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

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