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June 8, 2011 — Students investigate wealth and poverty in Indonesia's new rural economies

by Sean Bettam — Wednesday, Jun 08, 2011

June 8, 2011
Sean Bettam

If you've ever eaten a chocolate bar, chewed gum or lathered soap in the shower, you've likely enjoyed the fruits of the many oil palm plantations scattered throughout Indonesia. But who thinks about the impact of plantations on workers and area residents? Professor Tania Li of the Department of Anthropology does.  Every year she travels with a group of senior undergraduate students to interview plantation workers, traders, villagers and community leaders, gathering a variety of perspectives from those who benefit, and those who do not, from the high-growth agriculture in the region.

Indonesian oil palm estate with factory
An Indonesian oil palm estate with factory. (Photo: Tania Li)

Li designed the collaborative project to include students and faculty from both Canada and Indonesia. "The area we study is quite big - 20 villages in and around an oil palm plantation - so we're looking for a cross-section of experiences and perspectives, with plenty of opportunities for undergrads to carve out their own topic within the broad research arena we've outlined." The project, Producing Wealth and Poverty in Indonesia's New Rural Economies, involves investigating the economic, political and social lives of those who have become involved with the oil palm crop.

Innis College sociology student Xiaolin Zhuo chose the Independent Experiential Study Program course to gain some research experience before graduate school and practice what she had already learned at U of T. "In the previous winter term, I took a sociology course in which I learned how to design a qualitative research project, how to conduct interviews and field observation, and other related issues, such as ethics issues and researcher bias during data collection and interpretation," said Zhuo. "This  anthropology course was perfect. We lived in the Indonesian villages, interviewed the villagers, and took notes of our observations."

Indonesian oil palm worker barracks
Barracks for oil palm workers in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Photo: Tania Li)

Intensive Indonesian language training in the city of Yogyakarta prepared the students for a month at the palm plantation in rural West Kalimantan. For Zhuo, an international student from China, it meant learning a third language after her mother tongue Mandarin and English, which she learned to attend U of T. "During my stay in Yogyakarta, I met many Indonesian friends and went to their campus to attend events. And I tried many kinds of new food there. It's a kind of cultural exchange, too."

As many as 10 U of T students and 50 Indonesian students participate in the project every year. "I lived in a village called Pelampong with another Indonesian girl and we spent the first week getting familiar with the villagers and making a map of the village," said Zhuo. "We visited with them in their homes to learn about their life - how they made money, how they lived, etc - and helped out at the kitchen and went to the farm fields or forests with them. This ethnography is used in both sociology and anthropology."

"This 399 course is very special for me. I made use of the research methods I learned at school, I learned about a new culture, I improved my ability to adjust to new environment, and most importantly, I saw different kinds of life in the world. It's a life lesson."