The colonial roots of deforestation in Sumatra

The Dutch and Europeans started deforestation in the East Coast of Sumatra. At least 80% of the area in the lowland of North Sumatra had been deforested by 1940.

… on the distant horizon, encompassed by the virgin forest, half enveloped still in the milk-white morning mists, was land that would one day become the new estate.

For centuries on end the secret struggle for life had gone on in the perennial dusk. Suddenly men had come, cutting, uprooting, destroying the majestic tree trunks, and the myriad suckers of the creepers. The blows of axes had resounded through the forest, and a thundering roar, magnified a thousand fold, had echoed through the dim depths like the sound of a dire disaster as these old giants of the forest fell dying. Still, under these colossal trunks with foliage lying criss-cross all over the ground, the black, soft, moist humus had continued to live. …

Then in one morning at one stroke fire had put an end to all that remained. It had flared up, crackling, hissing, sizzling among the mighty tree trunks. … There had been a raging era of fire, a furious flood of flames bellowing as it reached up heavenward.

Before they had realised what was happening, plants and animals had been annihilated.

Madelon Lulofs-Szekely, Coolies (1933)

Felled trees for tobacco plantation in Deli in 1890s.

When we talk about deforestation, Indonesia always came up as the main culprit. Less talked about is Dutch root of deforestation in Indonesia. As described above by Madelon Lulofs-Szekely, many parts of Sumatra’s East coast were still covered by jungles in the 19th Century.

The Dutch discovered the tobacco industry in Deli in the 1860s and created a an industrial-scale plantation system. The local sultans collaborated and gave concessions of 1000–2000 hectares of land to each company in a 75-year lease.

The Dutch colonial planters assumed that tobacco could only grow well in the soil that had just been cleared from the virgin jungle. Thus the industry drove large-scale virgin forests clearing to produce tobacco leaves exported to Europe and America. The Dutch then realised they cannot clear the land unlimitedly. In 1880, the fallow system was introduced. The land is cultivated once for tobacco and left fallow for 8 years. Thus, each year only a tenth of the area was used for tobacco production.

Cleared jungles

The 1890 Koloniaal Verslag (colonial report) reported that the area of the East coast of Sumatra (Deli, Padang Bedagai, Serdang, Landkat, Batu Bara, Labuhan Batu & Asahan afdeeling) had established a total of 232 estates/companies with a total of 426,000 hectares of land concession.

The east coast of Sumatra was then known as Cultuurgebied, the plantation belt. The areas had been carved up with concessions for tobacco and rubber, as shown in this map from 1920.

The plantation belt of the East Coast of Sumatra in 1920. The yellow areas are for tobacco and green areas are for rubber.

A closer look on this map for the afdeeling of Serdang, about 85% of the area had already been given to various companies. The land was divided into parcels, each with a company’s name.

A map of the Serdang division. All lands were parcelled and allocated to companies.

It is challenging to estimate the amount of deforested areas, but most lands on the East coast of Sumatra had already been cut up as concessions to European companies since 1870s.

Karl Pelzer’s study using data of 1940 showed that in the two largest tobacco production area (Deli and Serdang afdeeling), 61% of the land was used for tobacco production, 31% not being used, and only 8% under forest. So more than 90% of the area had already been cleared.

All products from the land were exported. Feldwick reported the following principal articles exported from the east coast of Sumatra in 1915:

Kerosene, 140,280,021 litres; benzine and gasolene, 84,600,762 litres; liquid fuel, 6,296,20 litres; forest products, 6,006,621 kg; , rubber: Hevea, 9,085,943 kg; Ficus plantation, 441,222 kg; Ficus jungle, 32,213 kg; other sorts, 1,693 kg; Copra, 5,105,240 kg; gambier, 2, 124,979; gutta-percha, 583,421 kg; charcoal, 916,704 kg; Coffee: Liberia, 2,174,106 kg; Robusta, 1,188,552 kg ; Java, 11,047 kg; other sorts, 97,264 kg; black pepper, 1,487,555 kg; Penang nuts, 4,006,294 kg; rattan, 4,517,462 kg: sago flour, 176,586 kg; Deli tobacco leaf, 20,821,722 kg; tea leaves, 638, 118 kg ; trassi, 8,717,755 kg; salt or dried fish, 26,092,005 kg; fresh fruit, 47,092 kg.

Plantation was a big investment. As reported further by Feldwick:

At the end of 1915, the total amount was estimated at over f 200,000,000. Of this sum, tobacco claimed about 46,000,000, of which f 40,000,000 represented Dutch money, and f 4,665,000 British. Coffee and rubber absorbed about f 124,000, 000, and of this Dutch investments aggregated over f 62,000,000 and British f 53,645,932. The money in tea stood at f 7,170,000, nearly f 6,000,000 of which British capital. Coconuts, coffee, gambier, and oil palms have also attracted foreign capital.

The Americans were in as well with the Hollandsch Amerikaansche Plantage Maatschappij (later became the United States Rubber Plantation Inc.) in Kisaran. The Belgians had Société Financière des Caoutchoucs (Socfin) with oil palm plantations in Asahan.

The following graph illustrated the area harvested for the main commodities in the east coast.

Tobacco was the main product, reaching a peak in 1910, and soon rubber took over.

Overall, I estimated by 1940, over 1 million hectares of the land in the east coast of Sumatra had been deforested by colonial planters. And all of the monies go to foreign companies.

Thee Kian Wee summarised it as

In 1938 this region, with an area of only 1.7 percent of the whole territory of the country and a population of only 2.5 percent of its total population, accounted for not less than 21 percent of the country‘s total exports.

Finally on the extinction of animals, Albert Frys-Wyssling, the father of molecular biologist who worked for AVROS in Medan in early 1930s wrote:

the original large animal fauna of the Sumatran lowland forests with elephants, rhinos, tapir and orangutans had long been expelled from the cultivated land of the east coast, but the small remnant of the jungle had given the tigers and their feeding base of wild boars a shelter in the middle of the plantation area.

Ladislao Szekely in Tropical Fever wrote:

Dark and precipitous, the fringe of the forest reared skyward. Tomorrow those trees, too, would lie felled on the ground. With no mercy, no compassion, the human will here squander its energy. A few years hence bungalows would stand here, tennis courts and streets would be built, automobiles would be tearing along and factory chimneys smoking.

Only yesterday the bloodthirsty tiger had here mangled his booty; frightened the herd of deer had fled; quietly and majestically the rulers of the desert, the elephants, had paced through their realm.

Hunting game in Asahan, around 1910



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