Normally, environmental issues are not part of trade union activities, which are mainly concerned with wages and workers’ rights. However, when we raise the issue of health and safety at production sites, unions are potentially able to create a link between labor and environmental struggles, as Hariati Sinaga argues in her contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series, focusing on the crucial role of memory in palm oil plantations.
One evening on a large-scale plantation (formerly called PT A) in Sambas, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, I arrived at the plantation’s guest house. We’re supposed to stay in the guest house before moving into one of the workers’ houses the next day. After the long trip to the plantations, which included motorcycle and boat rides, I decided to take a shower. When I opened the bathroom door, the first thing I looked for was water. For those of us interested in socio-environmental issues on plantations, this could be something that becomes a habit: observing the appearance of water, either in the houses or in the river near the plantations. Water issues have become one of the most prominent negative ecological impacts of oil palm monoculture plantations.
I examined the water in the bathroom of the guest house. The color of the water was light brown with a few mosquito larvae on the surface. Just half an hour earlier I had been talking to the housekeeper of the guesthouse. Bu Ani was explaining how she preferred to stay in the guesthouse instead of the plantation workers’ housing. One of her reasons was the water. The water in the guest house, as Bu Ani described it, was better than the water in the plantation worker’s housing, although the water quality in the latter had improved. Bu Ani went on to explain that the improvement was illustrated by the lack of complaints from the plantation workers, unlike before. When we moved to the workers’ housing the next day, I checked the quality of the water in the bathroom. The water looked muddy and dark brown in color. Nevertheless, the muddy and dark brown water for washing and cleaning is perceived as an improvement by the plantation workers. One of the union officials I spoke with confirmed what Bu Ani had said, that the quality of the water was better than before.
The story of the water quality in this large plantation and the workers’ impressions of it stayed with me for a while. I am sure that the workers realized that the muddy and dark brownish water was not good for them. However, every time I asked several plantation workers what they thought about the quality of the water on the plantation, I got pretty much the same answer. Since the workers compared their past experiences each time I asked them about the water quality, I think that memory plays an important role. Meanwhile, when discussing the relationship between labor and ecology, memory is somehow less discussed among the workers. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, memory is becoming an essential issue in the literature on labor and ecology, not only to address the very basic question of how workers relate to the ecology of the plantation and how to overcome this dualism, but also to understand how workers imagine the future.
Plantation Memories and Embodied Labor
Plantation landscape carries a certain memory. In this sense, landscape becomes a “repository of the memory of past event.” If we understand landscape as something beyond biophysical terrain that contains its own socio-ecological relation, then this memory also concerns the labor relations of the plantations. Introducing the concept of “social memory,” Aby Warburg and Maurice Halbwachs argue that memory is socially constructed. This shows how memory shapes and is shaped by the plantation workers themselves and the labor process on the plantations.
The monocultural character of the plantations shapes the labor process. Monoculture certainly brings with it a memory of the colonial plantation because, as Walter Rodney argues, the monoculture plantation is a colonial invention. The colonial logic behind monoculture plantations is how they have benefited colonial authorities and colonial metropolises at the expense of colonized societies. This logic is still perpetuated in contemporary oil palm plantations when we remember how oil palm plantation workers face a food crisis at the micro level, even though the palm oil they produce is an important ingredient for the food industry.
The cultivation and maintenance of monoculture plantations involves the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Both contain toxic chemicals that are foreign to the human body. The use of these chemicals can be traced back to the development of “industrial hazard regimes” resulting from the post-war development of petrochemicals. Women plantation workers, who are often exposed to these chemicals due to the sexual division of labor on plantations that forces them to work in maintenance activities, experience the side effects of heavy and repeated use of these chemicals. They report suffering from itchy and burnt skin, respiratory problems, and sexual and reproductive health issues. These health and safety issues become embodied experiences.
Asking women workers what they think about working on plantations brings up some of the health issues they suffer from. The idea of working on plantations, in turn, brings up memories of the women’s bodily experiences. In this way, body becomes a site of collective memory, a means of remembrance.
Of course, the chemicals in the fertilizers and pesticides also pollute the rivers on the plantations. According to Stefania Barca, this use of pollutants serves as an environmental violence that reproduces oppressive social relations and political control. In Indonesia, this heavy reliance on the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides began with the Green Revolution policies adopted during the authoritarian Suharto regime. The modernization of agriculture – referring to mechanization, the use of agrochemicals and high-yield seeds – became a national development agenda at that time. One of the important events that gave further impetus to this was the dismantling of radical peasant and plantation labor movements associated with the 1965-1966 mass killings of communist members in Indonesia. Thus, the use of foreign pollutants in the form of agrochemicals shapes not only individual memories of nature, but also political memories of radical movements and alternative politics in Indonesia.
Memory and the Totality of the Plantation
There is no fixed boundary between working and living spaces on plantations, as workers are often housed on the plantations. Thus, the workers’ daily lives take place mainly on the plantations. This illustrates at least two things.
First, it may imply seclusion, and the secluded nature of many oil palm plantations makes it easier for the company to control workers. Drawing on the experience of slaves on plantations, Grada Kilomba uses “mask” as a metaphor in plantation memories, in which the mask functions as an instrument to impose a sense of speechlessness and fear. Kilomba also uses “mouth” as a metaphor for possession and control. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s oil palm plantations have been described as a “state within a state,” a phrase that historically refers to the totality of the Deli plantations under Dutch colonialism. The seemingly mundane life on plantations is internalized by plantation workers.
Second, the housing of plantation workers can be weaponized as a product of modern development. In this case, modern subjectivity is invoked, such as the compulsion to have a modern house, access to electricity, electronic devices, and modern transportation. This is linked to the narrative of oil palm development as an important driver of rural development and job creation. This modern subjectivity, in turn, shapes the social memory and desirable futures of plantation workers. This brings us back to the plantation workers’ responses to water in PT A, as recounted at the beginning of the article. Their articulation of improving water quality is shaped by political, historical, and environmental conditions in which social memory is implicated.
Plantation Labor Organizing: Reclaiming Collective Memory
When I asked plantation trade unions what they thought about environmental issues in relation to trade union activities, they replied that they were mainly concerned with “normative issues” relating to wages and working conditions. Indeed, the political space of labor unions is often seen as limited to a legalistic framework, i.e. labor unions only talk about labor rights. However, when I raised the issue of health and safety in the plantations, the unions were able to draw a parallel between the health problems of the workers and the negative environmental impact of the plantations.
While the legalistic framework shapes the social memory of plantation unions, which limits their activities to “normative issues,” the embodied experiences of workers in relation to plantation ecology stimulate imaginations beyond “normative issues.” This shows how imagination is embodied and that it is not located in the mind, but involves sense and feeling. Worked and exploited bodies will imagine the world differently. But how?
The history of social movements is intertwined with the production of social memory. This can be understood as how social movements are remembered. Alternatively, it can refer to how the practice of memory helps to forge collective identities. Through plantation labor organizing, where workers have opportunities to sit together and share their reflections on how they articulate the ecology of the plantation in their daily lives, workers can shape their social memory, not only in terms of how workers relate to the ecology of the plantation, but also in terms of how they relate to each other both as exploited workers and as a collective group of people with agency. The latter can refer to imagining lives beyond the plantations.
Engaging workers’ imaginations is the first step, and failing to do so means that “people will just stick with the way things are.” The transformation from extractive and exploitative monoculture oil palm plantations to socio-ecologically just palm oil production can only happen if there is a strong social movement, including the labor movement, and this also means reclaiming collective memory.
Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look: https://berlinergazette.de/projects/allied-grounds