Notes on puri farming

The human side of orangutan conservation consists of more than human-orangutan relations. At POKOK, we aim to attend to the complexities, dynamics and contestations of human life in a range of themes. This can help us think more broadly about the lives of people living in orangutan habitat and what role conservation might play for them.

One important theme is how people draw a living from their environment. Recently, for example, there has been a boom in the production of kratom powder in Kapuas Hulu. In the last couple of years, prices have tripled. An investigation of how farmers are responding, can teach us about economy, morality, and land-use change in one of the most forested districts of Borneo. Let’s have a closer look.

Applying herbicide to a new puri garden

A puri boom

The leaves of the Korth tree (Mitragyna speciosa), better known as kratom, have long been used as a stimulant, antidepressant, painkiller, substitute for opium use, and to treat various other ailments in parts of its native range in Southeast Asia. Kratom has stimulant effects at low doses, narcotic effects at high doses, and can be chewed, brewed into tea, or smoked. Over the last decade, powdered kratom has gained popularity in the US and Europe, where it is marketed as a traditional medicine in web-shops and on social media.

In Kapuas Hulu, there is no tradition of kratom use. The plant, known locally as puri, naturally occurs on riverbanks. But it was usually ignored. Sometimes the wood was used for furniture. And an old man remembered smoking puri leaves during the Japanese occupation (1942-1945). But when swidden farmers cleared their annual plot for dry rice cultivation, puri used to be burned like most other trees.

Yet, when I spent a week in a village in Kapuas Hulu, last Easter, the leaves were everywhere. On hot afternoons, they were laid out to dry on plastic sheets and woven mats. Women crushed the crispy warm leaves and sieved the coarse flakes through rattan baskets. In the evenings, people of all ages gathered round piles of fresh leaves to remove the stalks and primary veins. Kratom production had boomed. Now, between this year’s rice harvest and the start of next year’s cycle, it was the main economic activity.

When traders first started coming to the village, only a couple of people dared to invest in kratom production. Cases of abuse and poisoning have led to bans in some countries, including neighbouring Malaysia. Farmers worried that Indonesia or important consumer countries such as the United States would soon issue their own regulations. This concern was validated by forest scientists who were at the time doing research on swidden farming systems. The scientists warned them that they would have to cut all puri trees if and when a ban was passed.

But every year the price increased, and investments paid off. Last year, the village government used its village development funds to plant 200 kratom trees for every household. In previous years they had tried handing out rubber seedlings and piglets but with no lasting economic impact. Now, every day traders drive pick-up trucks full of kratom to the district capital, where it is milled to the fine green powder that consumers in the global North buy on-line.

Harvesting puri

Puri and precarity

These very recent developments continue long-standing patterns of economic life in the hinterlands of Borneo. The forest interior has a long history of producing commodities for global markets: wood, diamonds, gold, coal, rubber, palm oil, now kratom. Kratom was incorporated into characteristically flexible household livelihoods. Rubber groves were being cut and replaced by puri. Young men returning from multiple-year stints at palm oil plantations in Badau, or as coolie in Malaysia, try their hand at the new commodity. It is arguably the basic security of growing one’s own rice and vegetables, that enables swidden farmers to respond so quickly and efficiently to new market opportunities.

Puri production also reflects the enduring precarity of upland agricultural livelihoods, a condition in which the future is always uncertain. Continual adaptation to the coming and going of economic opportunities is not just a lucrative strategy but also a necessary one. In economic terms, households are vulnerable to exogenous changes, but resilient in overcoming them. For example, following the fall of president Suharto, there had been some years in which there were many job opportunities in logging, until new administrations intervened to halt deforestation. Then for some years the price of rubber was high, until it wasn’t. Meanwhile, traditional practices of rice cultivation, the basis of their agricultural system, are increasingly curtailed by government policies. In line with past experience, farmers anticipate that the market for kratom will one day “close” as well, for one reason or another. They regard it as a “short-term solution” (for raising the cash that everyday modern life requires).

Removing the stalks from puri leaves

Thinking with puri

While puri production thus fits in older historical patterns, it is also very much shaped by the current historical moment and provides a starting point for thinking about some of today’s major questions. For one, the contribution of the village fund in developing and spreading the benefits of puri was possible in large part because of Indonesia’s far-reaching political decentralization since 1999. Particularly, the Indonesian village law of 2014 gives village governments control over a considerable yearly development budget, decreasing their financial dependence on higher levels of government. The quick expansion of puri production is, at first sight, a successful example of one of the rationales behind this decentralization: bringing government closer to the people makes it more responsive to their needs.

Indeed, puri leads farmers to reflect on development assistance. The Indonesian government has long attempted to transform the Indonesian uplands, which are perceived as economically and culturally backward. But development assistance has often failed to deliver what it promises. Puri farmers argue that development projects focus too much on teaching farming methods. They emphasise that they were never taught how to cultivate puri. They are themselves experimenting with it, and there is currently a variety of local practices and theories when it comes to planting, pest management, pruning, harvesting, and processing. Educational workshops may be convenient tools for producing the pictures and attendance lists that development practitioners use as evidence of development. But puri suggests that the decisive factors for successful farming are market demand and access to the means of production. Economics are more important than training, an acquaintance concluded.

Puri furthermore influences how farmers value forests. An enduring question in these areas is whether to allow large corporations on village land. Industrial development promises direct benefits, but at the expense of the forests and gardens. While the state claims legal authority over this question on most territories, (some) local communities have something to say as well. When in the early 2000s oil palm and logging companies received concessions to work in this part of Kapuas Hulu, a coalition of villagers and indigenous rights activists vehemently protested. The corporations stepped back, but their concessions are still valid. With new village head elections planned this year, some people fear that a new leader might be tempted to allow these companies back in. In this context, the fact that leaves of a seemingly ordinary tree can suddenly garner high prices, strengthens the argument for resisting corporations. It proves that the forest is a reservoir of untapped value, and that control over land has many potential benefits.

Puri also raises ethical questions. I initially thought that the stories about the harmful effects of kratom on some users might cause some moral discomfort. But this is usually sidestepped by claiming ignorance on what kratom is used for. When pressed on the question, some reflect that it is only harmful when taken in too large quantities, that it is therefore the responsibility of consumers to exercise caution in how they use the substance, and that they need the money to pay for the education of their children. People are not entirely indifferent about the moral status of kratom, but neither are they too concerned.

More serious than responsibility toward end users are moral responsibilities to fellow farmers. Before last year, puri trees were sometimes stolen, presumably by people who wanted to establish their own puri gardens. This was disapproved of but tolerated. No cases had ever been brought before the traditional leader (kepala adat), who is responsible for internal conflict resolution. “I know who did it, but I won’t deal with (mengurus) it,” a victim explained, “since I can easily replace [the stolen trees] myself”. There is a sense that fellow villagers have a right to share in the benefits of puri production. It was reportedly this ideal of sharing that led to the idea to use the village funds to provide all households with the means to start their own puri gardens.

Drying puri

Lessons for conservation

The above may have no direct link with orangutans. Puri farming is also potentially a fleeting phenomenon – the market may not last. For these reasons, puri is unlikely to be included in a research proposal for orangutan conservation. Yet, it was a central aspect of village life at this moment, and therefore precisely the type of phenomenon that an open-minded anthropologist can explore. Well then, what do these observations mean for orangutan conservation?

For one, puri points to some broad economic patterns. It shows how this particular, remote place is dynamically connected to other places through trade – vulnerable to political and economic changes originating elsewhere, but also resilient in dealing with change. Insights into the basic patterns of village life can be beneficial for conservation. The case of puri is an occasion to rethink common development practices such as organising handicraft lessons to kickstart “alternative livelihoods”. The reflection of puri farmers on development projects should be taken seriously: standardized training packages are of little use when there is no demand for the commodity.

Furthermore, studying puri farming can yield insight into local ethical principles, those relating to distant outsiders as well as local moral concerns. When campaigning for environmental awareness among rural communities, conservationists commonly conclude that appealing to ethical principles (“you shouldn’t harm orangutans because they are like people”, “you should protect forests because forests are the lungs of the world”) is less effective than appealing to self-interest (“we’ll help you attract tourists”, “you can get ill from contact with orangutans”). Nevertheless, ethical principles appear significant when it comes to puri. Since ethical attitudes are an important part of what motivates conservation in the first place, a deeper understanding of when and how ethics come to matter in the places where conservation is implemented would be useful.

A starting point would be to realize that for puri farmers, the ethics of nature conservation aren’t black and white. From a distance, the protection of orangutans and their habitat may seem like an uncontroversial good. But in Kapuas Hulu, oil palm, logging, and mining are not categorically rejected. Even though many people are vehemently opposed, for example because have witnessed the downsides in their own or neighbouring villages, their arguments are still weighed against the potential benefits. It is also common for people that work in these industries to also profess a love for nature.  Similarly, it is important to realise that even when many local people feel fondness for orangutans, they have a range of other obligations and aspirations, some of which may be at odds with the interests of orangutans.

There are no easy answers to the moral complexities that people live through, which it would be wrong for conservationists to try to disclaim. But there may be ways for conservation actors to legitimately influence the outcomes. The puri boom reaffirmed the value of nature and empowered resistance against corporate environmental degradation. In the same way, if effective support for sustainable livelihoods can benefit a community at large, that will not just, as some say, “keep people out of the forest” or remove the “need” to harvest forest products. But it will be another proof of the value of nature, making it more reasonable for people to continue protecting it.

Knowledge exchange also plays a role. Information about environmental processes, that conservationists work to raise awareness about, is taken on board when people make land use decisions. But issues beyond the scope of environmental education per se are often equally or more pertinent locally. During my visit, people wondered about the likely future of government policies, about the price of kratom at various stages in the value chain, about what consumers really use kratom for, and about the correct pesticide for a certain type of that affects puri roots. If conservation organisations could enrich such local conversations with accurate information, that would simultaneously strengthen their relationship with local communities and help them achieve sustainable development.

Crushing dried puri leaves



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