Fourteen families in the Kantu' longhouse of Tikul Batu own 66 separate rubber gardens, an average of almost five gardens per household. Each garden, a little less than a hectare in size, contains 200 to 400 trees. Swidden cultivators use excess land and labor resources within the swidden system to cultivate the rubber gardens.
Cultural factors also facilitate the meshing of rubber and swidden agriculture systems. During the study, ritual prohibitions caused work on the swiddens to halt for 51 days out of a year. However prohibitions do not apply to rubber tapping. On the other hand, when rain prevents rubber tapping, farmers can work in the swiddens. This is an important advantage, considering it rains on average 16.2 days a month in Kalimantan.
While Kantu' farmers are capable of tapping rubber in the morning and working on swiddens in the afternoon, they rarely do. One reason is that their swidden system is very productive. The returns on labor in Kantu' swidden agriculture are as high as 7.9 kilograms of unmilled rice per person-day. This compares to 4.2 kilograms/p.d. in the irrigated rice fields of Java. For the Kantu', the swiddens guarantee basic household subsistence. Rubber tapping satisfies additional household needs for basic trade goods and school fees. As these needs vary, so does the amount of tapping done. Consequently, increases and decreases in rubber production do not necessarily relate to market price.
Because of their high productivity, the Kantu' can afford to save the tapping work for the months when there is little or no work on the swiddens. They especially avoid tapping during the four months when they are planting, weeding or harvesting. The most intensive tapping occurs before the rice harvest, in January, when families need cash.
Long-term idling of rubber gardens is not a problem, because the same land is not appropriate for swidden crops. For example, farmers plant rubber gardens along the banks of major streams and rivers, which are unsuitable for swidden cultivation. In the land that is most suitable for swidden cultivation, rubber does not grow well.
In addition, planting land with rubber trees establishes greater land rights for the user than clearing forest for swiddens. Government officials misconstrue swidden fallow as unused land, but rubber gardens are viewed as "cultivated." This is important because under colonial and post-colonial law, "uncultivated" land can be claimed by the government.
The rubber-swidden combination is not only a non-competitive system, it represents a mutual enhancement of resource use. The system allows politically and economically marginal farmers to participate in the market economy on their own terms and avoid the risks of market price fluctuations.
Contact: Michael R. Dove
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Michael R. Dove