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Smallholders and Stockbreeders: Histories of Foodcrop and Livestock Farming in Southeast Asia

Author(s):Boomgaard, Peter
Henley, David
Reviewer(s):Huijzendveld, Frans D.

Published by EH.NET (September 2005)


Peter Boomgaard and David Henley, editors, Smallholders and Stockbreeders: Histories of Foodcrop and Livestock Farming in Southeast Asia. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2004. vii + 344 pp. ?30 (paperback), ISBN: 90-6718-255-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Frans D. Huijzendveld, Rural History Department, Wageningen University and Faculty of Arts, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Like many in other parts in the world, most of the people of Southeast Asia have been farmers for much of their recorded history. Traditionally historians’ attention has been more directed to politics, culture and trade than to agriculture. However Smallholders and Stockbreeders surveys the history of food crop farming in the region and takes initial steps towards a history of animal husbandry. The book is divided into two sections — one on “food crops” and one on “livestock.” Most of the processes of change described within these separate parts are highly interconnected. In the editors’ introductory chapter the theoretical coherence of the different essays is presented. It is a pity that this interconnectedness could not be established on a more empirical level throughout the book, as well, but this is always difficult to accomplish in a volume based on a range of authors’ workshop papers.

Although archival and published sources are voluminous for this part of the non-western world, in time and space they are very fragmented and scattered. This is especially true of the period before high colonial-imperialism, and this inevitably has an impact on this survey. While some use is made of research results from disciplines, most of the sources used are inscriptions, illustrations in the relief panels on temples, pre-colonial documentary texts of visitors (e.g. Zhao Ru-gua, Ma Huan, Marco Polo, Tom? Pires), VOC-material and (colonial) records. Relatively little use is made of linguistics and oral history. An exception is Janowski, who undertook fieldwork. Nonetheless, the reader is presented with an interesting history of food crop farming in which the old, persistent theory of long-term agricultural change based on a hierarchy of more and less elevated cultural-technological levels is convincingly corrected. Moreover, a challenging first effort is made to clarify the history of livestock farming in Southeast Asia. This is a volume that is not only interesting for scholars in agrarian history and those who are interested in the region. The essay on the Mekong Delta, for example, offers important insights for development studies. In addition several parts in this volume — especially those on trade — are of interest for scholars of the history of the wider Indian Ocean.

Let us consider some of the main themes discussed. The majority of the essays are concerned with the archipelagic part of this region, now Indonesia and the Philippines. Two essays deal with the mainland. After a review of potential sources, Hill presents a broad impression of the state of affairs around our — still limited — knowledge of local domestications and the diffusion of crops, animals and farming techniques. The conclusion is that this process led to a very uneven — both in space and time — addition of “foreign” crops and animals to local repertoires.

Since rice is the region’s staple food crop par excellence, it is not surprising that most of the contributions on farming deal with this. Although these essays are concerned with others crops (and livestock) too, only Ellen’s contribution is really focused on another staple food, sago. His essay offers a dynamic and nuanced view of the evolution of the rather complex processing technology which is required to extract edible starch from Metroxylon sagu palms. Interestingly, the Metroxylon sagu variety spread westwards, largely through human agency (cutting and replanting suckers), and this was in the opposite direction to the spread of proto-Austronesian languages. So probably the people who were extracting Mertroxylon starch were using a technology developed by pre-Austronesian speakers of the Moluccas and New Guinea, who originally applied it to other species.

Ellen shows that (sea) trade in sago flour and products has been a crucial part of archipelagic economies for centuries (see also Henley on sago). Used for subsistence, it permitted a rapid growth of other trading crops like nutmeg and clove. For a long time it was generally accepted that reliance on sago palms was inversely correlated to the development of conventional agriculture. Ellen demonstrates that, on the contrary, Metroxylon extraction should not be dismissed as a survival of an archaic specialist strategy.

The other essays on farming also focus on food crops rather than cash crops, although it is acknowledged that the two categories are difficult to separate. Foodstuffs and other crops, grown not only for subsistence but also for domestic trade and export, formed the core of the early economies of Java and Bali, as Christie shows. Rice has been the major staple crop on these islands at least since the first millennium. Alternative staples such as foxtail millet, Job’s tears, taro, yams and sago played a more important role in other parts of the archipelago, but not on these two islands. This early predominant position of rice related to the development of internally stratified communities with highly commercialized economies. And foodstuffs, especially rice, were among the main commodities which played a role in developing trading networks in the archipelago as well as in the wider Indian Ocean, long before the Common Era. This trade apparently introduced many new crops and a number of livestock varieties. A highly productive wet-rice agriculture developed in relation with demographic concentration, state encouragement (tax, irrigation and trade) and a form of land tenure that favored individuals and families rather than larger collectivities or rulers.

In some ways these developments in early Java and Bali show similarity with those described by Le Coq, Tr?buil and Dufumier in their contribution on the development of rice production in the Mekong Delta since 1989. They emphasize the need to understand long-term historical developments in order to explain the successful policies of market-oriented economic liberalization. As in early Java and Bali, we see that small family farmers increased their agricultural revenue when simulated by government incentives and trade possibilities. Henley also shows that where transition to wet rice farming occurred, it was due to political and/or population pressure, or an enhanced commercial demand for rice. Furthermore, such a shift was not a result of diffusion of rice cultivation from one area to another, but developed out of an increased emphasis on rice within diversified local farming systems which already included it. Henley and Janowski make clear that this kind of transition in general meant a move away from previous (swidden) systems with intercropping and double cropping — systems which have many advantages from an ecological point of view and in terms of risk spreading, utilization of labor throughout the year and diet.

By collecting and analyzing the available historical data on livestock keeping in Southeast Asia, a first attempt is made to describe the region’s livestock history. Three essays are mainly focused on horses, while the others deal with buffalos and cattle. Some mention is made of other livestock, such as pigs, goats, sheep, and deer.

Clarence-Smith presents an inventory of data on the contribution of equids to the history of mainland Southeast Asia, while Boomgaard is concerned with horse-breeding and horse trade between 1500 and 1900 in what is now Indonesia, and Bankoff focuses on changing conditions in the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. Horses, as we learn, helped to shape the political map of the region. Especially prior 1800 they were markers of prestige, and they were used in sport, entertainment, hunting deer and as riding animals for the rich and powerful. On the mainland they were also used for farming, while ponies and mules played an important role in urban and upland transport systems. Horses, on the mainland and in the archipelagos, were used in increasing numbers for these kinds of tasks, particularly in connection with “industrialization.” Their use declined after the First World War, but much more gradually than in the West.

Horses, on the mainland and in the archipelagos, were mainly raised in the upland, cool and lightly populated valleys. With increasing population densities, horse breeding in such suitable areas was not sustainable, as pastures had to be turned into rice fields in the long run. As a result horse breeding activities moved to less densely populated areas further afield. This stimulated an extensive trade in horses through internal networks in Southeast Asia, and the development of new horse varieties.

European experts frequently criticized local methods of breeding (horses and cattle alike) and attempts were made to “improve” the indigenous stock. Clarence-Smith appreciates that practical indigenous methods bred animals accustomed to the many local conditions and needs. In Boomgaard’s article the recurring theme is the link between royal courts and horse breeding. An interesting (if implicit) difference can be seen in the essays by Clarence-Smith and Boomgaard in their judgments on traditional breeding methods and the success of cross-breeding. In the course of the nineteenth century, larger numbers of horses were traded and used for more mundane purposes and a “deterioration in quality” of breeds was observed. As we learn from the essay of Barwegen on cattle, each breed had a preference for a certain environment and occupied a specific niche in the economy and society. The same is. of course, true for horses. So, speaking in terms of “good” or “bad” breeds without specifying their different and changing usage is not very useful.

Boomgaard, in yet another essay, discusses the distribution of buffalo, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and deer in the archipelago between 1500 an 1850, mainly focusing on (water) buffalo and cattle and discussing the changing numbers of these livestock populations. Political, economic and social factors are presented to explain these changes, as well as an impression of the economic and environmental consequences of these changes. Cattle east of Wallace’s line, at least in large numbers, are a colonial or even a post-colonial phenomenon. Yet, the process of “Bosification” (an increase in the number of cattle) is a relatively recent feature west of this line as well. The period in which the number of cattle exceeded that of buffalo is roughly dated between 1850 and 2000, a period covered by Barwegen. She examines the various economic and cultural factors that influenced the specific breeding patterns of buffalo and cattle varieties, and the role these livestock types played in the changing ecological settings, farming systems, and economy and society on Java.

According to Boomgaard, in the period 1820-1850, and possibly from ca. 1750 onwards, a different process occurred — that of “Bubalification” or an increase in the number of buffalos. This was stimulated by massive sawah construction, the movement of people from high and dry to wet and low areas, the rise of “industrial” establishments and forest exploitation, together with an ongoing reliance on buffalo power (and an increasing reliance on horse power), as well as a remaining wealth-slavery-buffalo-feasting-bridewealth complex.

In summary, then, Smallholders and Stockbreeders presents a survey of the long-term development of an increasingly complex assemblage of Southeast Asian crop and livestock types — a process that reached its peak in the nineteenth century. Thereafter the growing population, commercialization, modern infrastructure, urbanization, deforestation, globalization, and in connection with this, changing needs and habits like the consumption of milk and meat (Doeppers), led to a reverse process of declining biological diversity within agriculture. To illuminate the root causes of this historical process three theoretical points of view are presented in the introduction by the editors; the cultural-technological, economic-demographic, and political-economic perspectives. But, none of the contributors explicitly use these analytic tools in their essays.

Frans D. Huijzendveld obtained his Ph.D. on agrarian change in East Africa in 1997. He is working as a historian in African History and World History at the Rural History department of Wageningen University and at the Faculty of Arts of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His recent research is on changing local identities in connection with changing relations of East African harbor cities with their foreland, uplands and hinterland, ca. 1850-1950.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):General or Comparative