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Pioneer settlement in the swamps of the eastern lowlands

A third complex of frontier lands consists of the swamps in the alluvial lowlands along the marshy east coast of Sumatra. These swamps comprise about 20 per cent of Sumatra's total area but contain only 10 per cent of its population.

The indigenous Sumatran tribes settled almost exclusively along the major rivers, on the narrow levees rich in mineral deposits and thus very favourable for sustainable crop production.

The adjoining vast swamps in the hinterlands of the rivers remained almost untouched by the indigenous people. The agricultural value of the prevailing soils, namely acid sulphate soils as well as organic peat soils, is in dispute (Driessen and Soepraptohardjo 1974). Until recently it was generally believed that the swamps of the humid tropics could constitute an enormous potential for food production, particularly of wet rice, for future generations (Dobby 1955). The advocates of this standpoint had obviously confused the conditions in the humid tropics with those prevailing in the semi-humid monsoon areas of Asia, as, for example, in Thailand and Burma. In the latter zone many of the alluvial lowlands and swampy delta regions have indeed been transformed into highly productive rice bowls during the past hundred years (Manshard 1968, 228). In the humid tropics, due to the low oxygen supply of the permanently waterlogged swamp soils, a similarly positive development in the monsoon areas is unlikely to take place.

Nevertheless, there exist some special types of land use which can be applied even in such swamps and provide the opportunity to turn at least certain parts of them into productive farm lands. One possibility is the technique of tidally irrigated wet-rice cultivation (sawah pasang surut) combined with extensive coconut planting.

The technique of tidal irrigation was introduced to the east coast of Sumatra by Buginese pioneer settlers from South Sulawesi (Celebes), who had picked up this technique from the Banjarese people on the marshy coast of southern Kalimantan (Borneo).

The Buginese began their swamp colonization between the deltas of the Inderagiri and the Batanghari rivers around the turn of the century. Since then they have managed to transform an area of more than 300,000 ha of swamps into farm land cultivated with wet rice and coconuts. From 1965 onwards they began to expand their activities further southwards to the Musi delta (downstream of Palembang). The achievements of the Buginese can be regarded certainly as one of the most successful cases of spontaneous swamp colonization by pioneer settlers in the humid tropics.

The primary motive of the Buginese in reclaiming the swamps of eastern Sumatra was probably not for agricultural purposes but for log harvesting in the lowland rain forests and the establishment of a flourishing timber trade between Sumatra and Java, with the help of their unique sailing boats. Only at a second stage did they turn the cleared areas into farm land. The Buginese are thus one of the few examples of pioneer settlers who do not simply burn the slashed trees of a cleared plot but who make a profitable business out of it.

Although the Buginese have been colonizing spontaneously, that is without any interference or support from the government, colonization has never been left to individuals but has always been achieved in a well-ordered pattern by wellorganized groups. At regular intervals of 300 depa (almost 500 meters), they have dug canals (originally made for the transportation of the logs) at right angles to the river course up to several kilometres into the swampy hinterlands (fig. 3). These primary canals have been connected, again at regular intervals, with secondary ditches running parallel to the river. The river water, dammed up by the daily tide of the sea, presses through the canal system. At the peak of the rainy season it floods the whole area and the fields are planted in rice. During the dry season the area is drained. The system thus combines successive irrigation and drainage.

The area for wet-rice cultivation is generally restricted to a strip close to the river which reaches as far inland as the occurrence of the river's mineral deposits. Where the mineral soils gradually give way to peat soils, the land use changes from wetrice to coconut cultivation. Behind the coconut strip the swamps usually become too deep for any kind of land use and are therefore left uncultivated (fig. 4).

As reported by local farmers, rice yields are generally below average in the first seasons after clearing. The best results are achieved in the third to fourth years, and then gradually there is a decline due to the spread of weeds. After six to eight years many of the original Buginese pioneers abandon their wet-rice fields in order either to fully concentrate on coconut cultivation or to move further upriver to open new sites. In early settled areas, as around the town of Tembilahan on the Inderagiri river, several thousands of hectares of former wet-rice land are today lying idle. Another alternative is to hand idle land over to a second generation of newcomers, mostly composed of spontaneous Javanese migrants who are willing to apply more labour-intensive methods, for example hoeing (something the Buginese never did), which is necessary to suppress the weeds.

TABLE 1. Farm profile of the transmigration area in Lampung, southern Sumatra (1981/1982)

  Area (ha) Yield (kg/ha) Pricea (rp/kg) Estimated gross revenue (rp/year)
Average farm size 1.15      
Harvested area 1.50      
Sawah 0.31      
Harvested area 0.49      
Wet rice 0.47 3,000 115 162,150
Maize 0.01 1,500 90 1,350
Soy bean 0.01 1,500 290 4,350
Tegalan/ladang 0.63      
Harvested area 0.80      
Dry-land rice 0.22 1,200 115 30,360
Maize 0.18 1,200 90 19,440
Cassava 0.32 8,000 30 76,800
Sweet potato 0.01 7,000 40 2,800
Peanut 0.01 800 650 5,200
Soy bean 0.04 900 290 10,440
Vegetables 0.02 2,000 300 12,000
Kebun 0.21      
Coconut 0.15 80 p t b @ 60 nuts 50/nut 36,000
Clove 0.01 100 p.t.@ 2 kg 6,500 13,000
Fruit 0.01 100 p.t. 15,000/tree 15,000
Banana 0.04 500 bunches 800/bunch 16,000
Livestock Number   Value increase per year  
Buffalo 0.10   90,000 9,000
Cattle 0.39   60,000 23,400
Goats + sheep/chickens 0.25/5   12,500 12,500
Total       449,790

Source: Scholz 1983,167
aUS$1.00= 615 rupiah (1981/1982)
bp.t. = productive trees

FIG. 3. Buginese pioneer settlement in the tidal swamps of the eastern coastal lowlands, north of the town of Jambi, about 20 km from the sea

FIG. 4. Representative cross-section of a river in the eastern lowland swamps of Sumatra

Analogous to the above-mentioned Semendo people in the coffee areas of the southern mountain zone, the Buginese often only play the role of forest clearers and then lease the opened land on share-cropping agreements to pioneer settlers from Java. We were told of several Buginese who opened dozens of hectares of swamp forests for wet-rice and coconut cultivation and are now living as absentee landlords in the towns.

As one can see from the farm profile (table 2), the average farm enterprises of the Buginese pioneer settlers do not exhibit very favourable results with regard to yields. The yields of the two major crops, wet rice and coconuts, are well below average, which has certainly to be attributed to the inferior quality of the prevailing peat soils. However, farmers obviously compensate for the disappointing yields with relatively large holdings of about 3 ha, which is twice as much as the average farm size for all Sumatra (Scholz 1983). So, after all, the Buginese pioneers are able to achieve an average farm income which is even slightly above Sumatran standards.

In the early 1970s the Indonesian government initiated a large-scale programme for the organized transmigration of Javanese into the eastern lowland swamps of Sumatra. By adopting the Buginese technique of tidal irrigation and with tremendous inputs of capital and machinery they have tried to turn large sections of these swamps into farm land for wet-rice cultivation. Most sections of the MusiBanyuasin delta have been cleared by the Department of Public Works (P.U.), and at present increased efforts are being made to open the Batanghari delta downstream from the town of Jambi (fig. 5).

In contrast to the Buginese farming system which combines at least two major enterprises (wet-rice growing and coconut cultivation, accomplished through additional logging in the early phase), the state-directed transmigration projects in the tidal swamps are conceived more or less for the mono-cropping of rice and are therefore highly susceptible to the risk of failure. The Javanese settlers in these projects obviously recognize their vulnerable position and are increasingly planting alternative crops, such as coconuts and bananas, in their house gardens.

TABLE 2. Farm profile of Buginese pioneer settlers in the Inderagiri-Batanghari tidal area, east coast of Sumatra (1981/1982)

  Area (ha) Yield (kg/ha) Pricea (rp/kg) Estimated gross revenue (rp/year)
Average farm size 2.96      
Harvested area 2.96      
Sawah 1.04      
Harvested area 1.04      
Wet rice 1.02 2,000 115 234,600
Maize 0.01 1,500 80 1,200
Soy bean 0.01 1,200 270 3,240
Tegalan/ladang 0.12      
Harvested area 0.12      
Maize 0.09 1,200 80 8,640
Cassava 0.01 8,000 25 2,000
Peanut 0.01 900 620 5,580
Taro 0.01 5.000 60 3,000
Kebun 1.80      
Coconut 1.63 850 160 221,680
Banana 0.03 500 bunches 600/bunch 9,000
Sago 0.14 15 p.t. b 8,000/tree 16,800
Livestock Number   Value increase per year  
Cattle 0.02   60,000 1,200
Goats + sheep/chickens 0.25/5   12,500 12,500
Total       519,440

Source: Scholz 1983, 180
aUS$1.00 = 615 rupiah (1981/1982)
bp.t. = productive trees

FIG. 5. Swamp reclamation for settlement projects in the Batanghari delta (Jamb) Province).

The area west of Kampung Laut-Muara-Sabak has been colonized spontaneously by Buginese pioneer settlers for tidally irrigated wet-rice cultivation (Department of Public Works, Jambi) (Map by L. Dreher)

It is too early to tell whether the Indonesian experiment of state-directed swamp colonization will prove successful or not.


Although frontier areas in the humid tropics are handicapped by adverse natural and infrastructural conditions compared with old settled regions, the examples from Sumatra show that pioneer settlers, often after years of trial and error, have been able to develop strategies for survival which are based on very specific and sometimes highly sophisticated agricultural production systems. It is interesting to note that the strategies applied by spontaneous settlers can differ quite substantially from those to be found in the state-directed settlement schemes. Although it remains an open question which of the two types of pioneer settlement will be more successful in the long run, it is certainly true that the strategies of spontaneous pioneers may well provide a variety of useful hints to regional planners and policy makers for the implementation of their settlement projects.


Arndt, H. W. 1983. "Transmigration: Achievements, problems, prospects. Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies, 19 (3): 50-73. Australian National University, Canberra.

Dobby, E. H. G. 1955. "The changing significance of rice growing in Southeast Asia." The Malayan Journal of Tropical Geography, vol. 6 (compl.).

Driessen, P. M., and M. Soepraptohardjo. 1974. Soils for agricultural expansion in Indonesia, bulletin 1. Soil Research Institute, Bogor.

FAO-UNDP. 1973. "Land capability appraisal project." Prelim. paper prepared by J. F. Harrop and the project team INS 72/011, Bogor.

Hardjono, J. M. 1977. Transmigration in Indonesia. Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur.

Kotter, H., and K. H. Junghans, eds. 1974. Sumatra regional planning study. Dept. of Public Works, Jakarta/Bonn.

Manshard, W. 1968. Einführung in die Agrargeographie der Tropen. Bibliogr. Inst. Mannheim, Mannheim.

Ruthenberg, H. 1971. Farming systems in the tropics. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Scholz, U. 1980. "Land reserves in southern Sumatra/lndonesia and their potentialities for agricultural utilization." GeoJournal, 4 (1): 19-30. Akadem. Verlagsges, Wiesbaden.

-. 1983. The natural regions of Sumatra and their agricultural production pattern: A regional analysis. Vol. 1: text, Vol. 2: atlas. Centr. Res. Inst. for Food Crops and Sukarami Res. Inst. for Food Crops, Bogor/Padang.

Utomo, K. 1967. "Villages of unplanned resettlers in the subdistrict Kaliredjo, Central Lampung." In Koentjaraningrat, ea., Villages in Indonesia, pp. 281-298. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

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