Only 6 Singaporean farmers to put an end to the haze forever

June 30, 2013


Today I chanced on a group that sought me out in the Planter’s. Generally, I am not in the habit of speaking to people I am not acquainted with – but in this case since one of the chaps in the group knows a common friend. I obliged them.

They wanted to know more about my radical idea of just using six farmers as a long term solution to control the haze in Sumatra. I shared with them, the idea was for each farmer to operate an oil palm plantation roughly 1,000 hectares (which is so-so, it’s big, but not as big as the concessionaire plantations that can go 30,000 to even 100,000 hectares.)

The general idea is to have a group of people at ground level deeply embedded in the social and cultural landscape of Sumatra.

There would be six of these farmers, each controlling an area of 200 miles. They will be arranged in a hexagon with one controller right in the middle. The goal as I put it to these gentlemen is for these farmers to form local connections with the rural community – they need to work through the layers and networks of provincial power and politics starting from the state level right to the nitty gritty of touching base with the village headman – they need to be right in the thick of the action.

I went on to tell these gentlemen my plan would be self sustaining – as since oil palm is a business. It is possible to self finance this deal. As all these farmers will process their palm bunches in a mill which they collectively own themselves.

These men went on to ask me what I thought about peat fires, water bombing and the using the international law to solve this perennial problem – I told them, every year the Indonesians blame the fires on the underground peat fires, but if they had bothered with water canals during the rain season – I really don’t see how they can catch fire. As for water bombing – I don’t believe it is effective, more of a PR effort, as even before the water can reach the fire, it is so hot, the water turns to steam. As for International law – I told these gentlemen that they can may well reach even a consensus, but the problem remains enforcement on the ground.

After ten minutes, I stood up apologized that I had to attend another meeting. Before I walked off, the taller man who was dressed in a city suit (which is quite usual in the main dinning hall in the planters) ask me,

“So you believe the only solution is to have six farmers in Sumatra and one man who controls them all.”


“I did not turn back and continued walking towards the woman in red waiting for me in a purring Jaguar. They did not stop me. The conversation, I assume could have gone on for much longer. If only I could convince myself that I wasn’t wasting my breathe. But it felt right to cut them short. I had too. As I am taking the wife of the grand old man for dinner and the opera – it seems the wife of the grand old man who owns the bird nest empire wants to show me the many delights of the city – it’s sights and sounds, so to speak. So I cannot stay and chat. Maybe another day.

Yes, only six farmers are required, arranged in a hexagon. Each controlling a sphere of influence of 200 kilometers.

Many people I still believe live in the past – the do not seem to under the post Suharto business environment or for that matter how politics and power has not been decentralized and is in fact balkanized throughout the lenght and breadth of the Indonesian Archipelago – it’s not just Sumatra, but you can take your pick, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Irian Jaya, Java – these days the will of decentral government has been weakened – and power has devolved to the provincial decision makers.

To get meaningful results – its necessary to establish close ties with the local community – to establish something remiscent of the  Ethische Politiek. I fully appreciate in polite circles in Jakarta this is hardly a subject what goes down well in a luncheon or if one wants to come across as modern and not parachoil – but the only reason why I say this is because the relation between the farmer and the villagers is a very ancient compact – it is not that has not changed since the first Dutch planters first settled in Batavia and the Mollucus to trade in pepper and nutmeg.

I cannot even begin to explain how one farmer alone can have such a great effect on the local community – if this man plays his cards well – and the natives respect him. Then everything is possible. If that errand politician in Jakarta thinks he can just waltz in a give the villagers one left slipper and after he votes for him, he gets the right slipper – then the farmer will just make sure that carpetbagger doesnt get elected – even if that politician is a monkey, if the farmer tells his community that, that animal should be voted in Parliament – its as good as done.

Life has not changed for the last 200 years in those parts – it takes a special sort of man with a deep appreciation for nostalgia and how the wheel of life must turn to appreciate all these things. That was why I much prefer to be at the back of a wheel of a V12 Jaguar than to spend my time talking to a bunch of people who have absolutely no idea what I am talking about it.

Sure, they can assemble another dream team – treat it like another cut and dried case like Pedra Blanca. Go through all the paces and perhaps they may even be able to get something resembling a resolution – but come this time next year, it will be burn baby burn again – so perhaps you can tell me whether my way is better or theirs.

Trust me, all our problems will be over very quickly, if only we are able to get 6 farmers and that one controller on the ground.

As it is, we have stupid policy makers who are just content to rain dance. Yes the metaphor is apt – as rain dancing presupposes that one is able to alter events by jumping up and down and banging on a drum – but despite all the noise, all this will amount to a great nothing – as these people simply don’t understand what it takes to win this war – they know even less that this is a battle for the hearts and minds that takes place deep within the kampung.

Not in some air conditioned conference room where people where suits and drink colorful cocktails and read nice reports only to go home believing that they have nailed the problem – when they are even no where near the solution.

In my mind, this matter has been allowed to rot of over 15 years. And every solution prescribed has not only failed, but it has merely emboldened those plantation owners – what is required now is a bold and new plan – a plan where community power is harnessed into a wonder weapon to bring these palm oil barons to their knees.

And what may you ask is the cost? If let’s say I tell you to invest in a 155 artillery. What do you think the ROI would be? Zero. But this pays for it’self, it’s self sustaining as its structured as a business where it is possible to even grow thereby enlarging the farmer’s sphere of influence.

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