Jumat, 20 November 2009

The view from the volcano: an appreciation of the work of Piers Blaikie

Michael R. Dove

Yale University


Bambang Hudayana

Gadjah Mada University

In press. GeoForum.


Piers Blaikie’s contributions to key intellectual developments in political ecology over the past two decades are examined in terms of a study of the agricultural transformations that followed the deadly 1994 eruption of Merapi Volcano in Central Java. The study begins with a description of Mt. Merapi, the study village Turgo, and its inhabitants’ belief concerning volcanic hazard. Next to be discussed is the 1994 eruption, the post-eruption shift from a system wherein livestock supported subsistence agriculture to one wherein agriculture supports market-oriented livestock husbandry, and the factors responsible for it, including demographics, politics, and the global economy. These data are then further analyzed in terms of the work by Blaikie and his contemporaries on regional analysis – focusing on cross-scale relations, spatial contradictions, and spatial ‘fixes – and practice – focusing on the structural properties of everyday activity, human agency, and vernacular understandings of this. The analysis concludes with a discussion of changing approaches to power and politics within political ecology. Whereas Blaikie initially worked within a classic neo-Marxist framework, his works also pointed toward a more Foucaultian vision of the way power works, though he remained wary of analytical positions that promoted dis-engagement with real-world issues.

KEY WORDS: Central Java, Merapi Volcano, volcanic hazard/eruption, agricultural intensification, animal husbandry, Setaria adhaelens


This analysis will attempt to illuminate some of Piers Blaikie’s contributions to key intellectual developments over the past two decades, by examining the way that they help us to understand the political-ecological relations of a community called Turgo on the flanks of Merapi Volcano in Central Java. The inhabitants of Turgo have developed a successful adaptation to their unique environment, by taking advantage of the material as well as political and religious dimensions of volcanic hazards. Traditionally they maintained the productivity of lower altitude, permanently-cultivated fields of maize and tubers through the application of cattle manure, and they fed the cattle by daily harvesting of higher altitude grasslands for fodder. This adaptation was disrupted by a major and deadly eruption in 1994, which led to the temporary evacuation of Turgo. In the wake of this eruption, and in the context of the collapse of the 33-year long military dictatorship of President Soeharto in 1998 and the wider monetary crisis throughout the region in 1997-1998, the remaining inhabitants of Turgo switched wholesale to a less intensive system of market-oriented production of fodder, milk, and meat, which is even more remunerative but still based on the exploitation of the unique environment of the volcano.

Our understanding of natural hazards and disasters has been transformed over the past generation by the work of scholars like Hewitt (1983), Watts (1983), and Wisner (1993), who have redirected our attention toward the institutional factors that affect vulnerability to, blame for, and capacity to cope with, natural perturbations. The economic effects of globalization itself are now treated in a similar manner, with great interest these days in the way that local communities react – suffering slights but also seeking advantage – to the forces of a global economy (Mertz, Wadley, and Christensen 2005). The political and economic ramifications of the fall of Soeharto for local communities and resource use in Indonesia have also become the subject of numerous studies (Breman and Wiradi 2002; Resosudarmo 2005).

The way in which agricultural systems in particular respond to macro-level perturbations – especially by intensifying – has long been a subject of scholarly interest. The canonical studies of this subject are those by Wittfogel (1957), Boserup (1965), and – in Indonesia – Geertz (1963). Brookfield (1971, 1984), in reviews of this topic, has faulted these authors for ignoring the role played in agricultural intensification by biophysical differences and, in particular, social production – meaning production not driven simply by Malthusian pressures. Brookfield (1984:35) also usefully distinguishes intensification from innovation, which has long been a subject of study as well (Hayami and Ruttan 1971).

Most of this literature has focused on the diffusion of technological innovations as in the Green Revolution. Farmer-led innovations – like those to be discussed here among the farmers on Mt. Merapi – have been much less studied. Indeed, Ruf and Lançon (2004) argue that what amount to “spontaneous green revolutions” have been taking place in Indonesia’s uplands, but they have been ignored because they were driven by farmer not state initiative. An aspect of agricultural intensification that has also been under-studied, perhaps because it crosses disciplinary boundaries, is the inter-play between agriculture and animal husbandry. Scoones and Wolmar (2002) reject conventional approaches to crop-livestock integration based on Boserup-inspired evolutionary models of agricultural change, and argue instead for the role that social processes and institutions play in mediating particular pathways of change, within the wider political-economic context that is ultimately responsible for explaining processes of deagrarianization and disintensification like those taking place on Mt. Merapi.

The most important insight from this literature, with respect to the current study, is that the decision-making of individual farmers cannot be understood without reference to the wider society’s dynamics. This is the central heuristic of the field of political ecology, the defining contribution to which was Blaikie’s 1985 study of soil erosion (along with Blaikie and Brookfield’s wider 1987 study of land degradation). This was a pioneering effort to link local-level resource degradation, and the agricultural practices leading to it, to wider political processes. In particular, Blaikie directed our attention to macro-level irrationalities in political-economic processes and policies, which can only be resolved through resource degradation at the local-level. The former can be termed the ‘contradiction’ in the regional resource-use system and the latter can be termed its ‘fix’. More generally, this and subsequent work by Blaikie helped to lay the groundwork for two decades of studies of individual behavior and the region – which we might also term practice and space – and the nature of the articulation between them.

This analysis will begin with a description of Mt. Merapi, the study village Turgo, and its inhabitants’ belief concerning volcanic hazard. Next to be discussed is the 1994 eruption, the post-eruption shift from a system wherein livestock supported subsistence agriculture to one wherein agriculture supports market-oriented livestock husbandry, and the factors responsible for it, including demographics, politics, and the global economy. Essentially, the production of maize and tubers on manured fields for home consumption shifted to the production of fodder for cattle raised for the market sale of milk and meat; which was driven by a sharp drop in population, a disruption of the social and also governmental fabric, and a sharp rise in the comparative market value of natural resources. This transformation is then further analyzed in terms of the work by Blaikie and his contemporaries. One focus is on regional analysis, focusing on cross-scale relations, spatial contradictions, and spatial ‘fixes’. The contradictions include the juxtaposition of legal and illegal settlement and land-uses, the success of folk versus official adaptations to volcanic hazard, and the official focus on the vulnerability of peasant life on the volcano (but not off it) versus tourist-oriented ventures; and the fixes include the movement of nutrients (as manure) from government to peasant lands on the volcano, and the movement of people from ‘erased’ villages high on the mountain’s slopes to government resettlement villages at its base. The second focus is on practice, focusing on human agency, the structural properties of everyday activity, and vernacular understandings of such properties. The daily management of fodder resources by the farmers on Merapi’s slopes, encompassing as it does both legal and illegal elements, reproduces both the contested physical landscape itself (by inhibiting the forest cover desired by the state) and the limits to the state’s understanding and control of it. The analysis concludes with a discussion of changing approaches to power and politics within political ecology. Whereas Blaikie initially worked within a classic neo-Marxist framework, his works also pointed toward a more Foucaultian vision of the way power works, though he remained wary of analytical positions that promoted dis-engagement with real-world issues.

This analysis draws, first, on field data that Dove gathered on Merapi volcano during a study that he conducted there from January 1982 through May 1985, in collaboration with then-student Hudayana as well as other students and faculty in the Department of Anthropology at Gadjah Mada University in nearby Yogyakarta. The site of this and subsequent study was Turgo (in the sub-district of Pakem), a hamlet of several dozen households. For many years this has been the highest remaining inhabited village on the southern slope of Merapi. Lying 600 meters above sea level, Turgo is approximately eight kilometers from the summit and crater of Merapi, which rises to 2,962 meters above sea level. The initial study focused on the system of agriculture and animal husbandry practiced on the slopes of the volcanos, and it included daily and long-term monitoring of the activities of a sample of village households (Pranowo 1985; Hudayana 1987). Particular attention was paid to the impact of volcanic hazards on this system of resource management and on the local body of knowledge for comprehending and managing these hazards (Triyoga 1991). This analysis also draws on data gathered in the wake of the major eruption of Mt. Merapi on 22 November 1994, concentrating on the interpretation of this eruption by the wider Indonesian society (Dove in press a, in press b). This includes a detailed content analysis of coverage of the eruption and its aftermath in major local and national newspapers following the eruption, as well as follow-up fieldwork in the study community. Analysis of more recent changes draws on data gathered by Dove and Hudayana over the past 2-3 years.


1. The Volcano and the Village

Mt. Merapi is the most active volcano in Indonesia and one of the most active in the world (Figure 1). One of the most feared aspects of Merapi, and something that is characteristic of this type of volcano, is the eruption not just of magma but of spinning clouds of super-heated gases. Called ampa’-ampa’ or wedhus gembel in Javanese and awan panas in Indonesian (and ‘nuée ardente’ in the international literature), these clouds descend the slopes at speeds of 200-300 km/hr, bear temperatures of 200-300 degrees Celsius, and present a far greater threat to life and limb than the much slower moving rivers of molten lava. Villagers on the slopes of Merapi commonly speak, indeed, of only two volcanic hazards: these heated gases, and the mixtures of ash and water called lahar dingin that also can descend the slopes at great, destructive speed.

Turgo is the highest remaining village on the southern slopes of Mt. Merapi. It currently contains about 90 households, down from a peak of about 150 just prior to the 1994 eruption. Turgo, along with other highland communities (Hefner 1985), never fit the stereotype of a Javanese village surrounded by proximate, intensively managed, irrigated terraces in which wet rice is grown. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, Turgo’s inhabitants cultivated maize and tubers in forest swiddens and grazed cattle on open range. Dutch closure of Merapi’s upper slopes for state forestry at the end of the nineteenth century forced the people living on the volcano to relocate their villages further down its slopes and also to shift from this extensive system of land use to a more intensive one.[i] The latter, which persisted up to the time of the 1994 eruption was based on intensive inter-cropping of maize, tubers, and various secondary food crops in permanently cultivated dry fields (called tegalan) located adjacent to the down-slope villages.

Cattle, now no longer free-grazing but stall-fed, were critically important to this system of agriculture, chiefly for their production of manure, which maintained the fertility of the annually cropped fields.[ii] The Turgo villagers in fact explicitly state that their ancestors replaced the function of the former swidden forest fallow with manure. Husbandry of the stall-fed cattle, in turn, depended on the exploitation (especially during the dry season, when grass resources in the vicinity of the village become inadequate) of grasslands located up-slope, in the area that was officially demarcated and closed off as state forest (cf. Blaikie 1985b; Blaikie and Brookfield 1987:46). Gathering these grasses is labor intensive: the grasslands are a 60-90 minute walk from the village, it takes another hour or so to cut the grasses and then another hour to carry a 55-60 kilogram bundle of cut grass back to the village. These labor costs restrict this activity to times when there is no intensive work in the cultivated fields by the village.

The up slope grasslands, which include a great deal of Imperata cylindrica, are maintained as such both by daily cutting by the villagers and by the periodic eruptions of heated gases from the volcano (cf. van Steenis 1972). The recurrent cutting of the grasses retards the growth of trees. As for volcanic activity, the high grasslands are periodically scorched by hot gas clouds erupting from the crater. Imperata has a competitive edge in any such fire-dominated environment because its extensive below-ground root system and fast rate-of-growth favor its rapid regeneration after being burned. The villagers explicitly recognize the volcano’s role in contributing to the presence and persistence of these grasslands. They say that eruptions favor grasslands as opposed to forests on Merapi’s upper slopes (cf. Blong 1982:186). They also say that periodic ash falls help to keep these grasslands unusually productive.[iii]

2. Local Beliefs Regarding the Volcano

In order to understand how the villagers’ daily adaptation to this volcanic ecology is related to wider social structures, it helps to understand the villagers’ beliefs regarding the wider spirit landscape in which they perceive themselves as operating. Thus, the villagers of Turgo believe that there is another world within the crater of Merapi, which they characterize as parallel to their own, and which they believe to be inhabited by baureksa “spirits.” In many respects ‘life’ in Merapi is thought to resemble the everyday life of the Javanese. For example, the Turgo villagers, in whose own lives animal husbandry looms large, believe that the volcano’s spirits keep both horses and pigs (the latter being the wild pigs [Sus scrofa milleri]) that are abundant on Merapi’s slopes). The villagers further believe that the spirits graze the pigs in the villagers’ own fields and that they graze both pigs and horses on the highest grasslands of Merapi. These grasslands are said to belong to the spirits, their grasses are said to be reserved for the spirits’ livestock, and they are proscribed for human use. The villagers say that the spirits manage these grasslands (the highest and thus most often affected by volcanic activity), citing as proof the fact that they are rejuvenated by every eruption. Major eruptions of Merapi are seen as manifestations of the mundane, day-to-day activities of the spirit palace. The villagers believe that house construction and cleaning is scheduled in the Merapi palace during each Bulan Sura’ (the first moon of the Islamic calendar) and the dirt and waste produced by these activities is ejected as (what the villagers perceive to be) lahar, ash, and gas clouds (cf. Triyoga 1991).

Just as volcanic activity is expressed in an idiom of everyday activity, so too is personal hazard (cf. Hewitt 1997:46). Turgo villagers express the threat of volcanic hazard as a feeling of getting lost, being confused, being invited to go away to the world within Merapi. The villagers say that those who try to lead them away while in this state of loss and confusion are wewe, female spirits who appear to them as relatives or close friends. The feeling of going off with the wewe is said to be like “the feeling of going home to one’s own village - whereas in fact you are going continually upwards [toward the crater, and the home of the wewe].” Repeated here are two stories told me by the villagers of Turgo of people who got ‘lost’ on the volcano:

(1) “This is a story of someone who went to the market to buy rice cakes, the seller did not speak; when he returned to the village, the rice cakes turned out to be flat rocks.”

(2) “Someone wanted to buy seed rice, got lost, and it turned out that what he bought was thorns.”

These stories and associated beliefs simultaneously emphasize both the familiarity and the otherness of the volcano. And in the shift from one to the other, from the most mundane of everyday activities to the construction of the most ‘other’ of realities, they also articulate an understanding of the relationship between individual behavior and overarching social structure.


1. The Eruption

The November 1994 eruption consisted of a gas cloud that rolled 4-6 kilometers down Mt. Merapi’s southern and south-eastern slopes (Figure 2). The inhabitants of a dozen villages fled, 56 died on the spot or subsequently of their injuries, and 4,452 wound up in refugee camps erected by the government at the foot of the volcano. Turgo was hardest-hit of any village by the eruption, with over 20 fatalities among its population. Many of Turgo’s casualties were villagers who were caught by the gas cloud up-slope (viz., north) from the village, while gathering grass in the afore-mentioned high grasslands. Nevertheless, Turgo’s villagers began leaving the refugee camps and returning to it within one month of the eruption, and over one-half are back today. The relocation of affected village populations to the refugee camps – which were subsequently developed into villages intended for permanent settlement – was compulsory, and the initial return of the villagers to Turgo and other communities high on the mountain’s slopes violated government prohibitions, which were enforced by police roadblocks among other measures.

Time spent in the refugee camps and government obstacles to free movement to and from Turgo resulted in the effective abandonment of Turgo’s fields for about four months following the eruption. Their animal husbandry also greatly declined due to the sale of many of their cattle, due to the post-eruption difficulty of feeding them and the need for cash in the refugee camps and for reconstruction in Turgo. The villagers most important source of income during the year following the eruption came from their harvest and sale of firewood, bamboo, and fruit (especially nangka [Artocarpus integra (Thunb.) Merr.]). Without access to their own subsistence crops, the villagers started buying rice, a practice – and major dietary shift – which continues to this day. Much of their agricultural activity during this initial year was devoted to planting perennials on their lands, not in anticipation of any short-term benefit but solely to demonstrate to the government that these lands were still owned and managed. State appropriation of their lands was one of the Turgo villagers’ greatest concerns during this period.

2. Post-Eruption Adaptation

It soon became clear that the 1994 eruption was responsible for the emergence of a radically different agricultural economy, with a significant shift in balance between subsistence-oriented and market-oriented activity. Whereas the villagers of Turgo had previously cultivated annual food crops for their own consumption, now they concentrate on the production of products for market sale.[iv] These include fodder grasses, fruit, volcanic sands (for the urban construction industry), fuelwood (cf. Smiet 1990a) and, of most importance, milk and meat from dairy cattle. The market proceeds from these products are used to buy rice (continuing the practice begun in the refugee camps), which has replaced maize as their staple food grain– the end of an era for this long-established albeit exotic (New World) crop (Boomgaard 2003).

After the 1994 eruption, as before, fodder remains the key to the agricultural economy of Mt. Merapi. Whereas fodder grasses were formerly at best semi-managed (in the sense of favoring land-use practices that favor grasses), now approximately one-half of the annual grass “crop” of Turgo actually comes from planted and cultivated grasses. The technology involved consists of hoeing the fields to prepared the ground, transporting and spreading manure from their stables, and then planting grass cuttings (though they sometime also broadcast grass seeds). The grass most favored for this is sativa (Setaria adhaelens (Forsk) Chiov), which also proliferated on its own following the 1994 eruption. As before, the Turgo villagers continue to cut and carry grasses from the up-slope grasslands, especially in the dry season.

The use of manure is as critical to this system of intensive fodder cultivation as it was to the pre-1994 system of cultivation of annual food crops. Turgo households today average four head of cattle (the labor requirements of more cattle than this is too onerous for a single household), which produce sufficient manure to maintain the fertility of about one hectare of fodder grasses. Since the average landholding is about twice that, in any given year each household has to prioritize manure applications on the fields that are closest to its house, those that have gone longest without manure, or those that have young (and more demanding) plants. The villagers decline to use commercial fertilizers because they believe that they have negative side-effects.[v]

These changes in the ago-ecology of Turgo have dramatically improved the villagers’ livelihoods since the 1994 eruption, relative both to those villagers who remained in government resettlement sites and did not return to Turgo and to lowland irrigated rice cultivators, the latter of whom are the national model for agricultural development. Since the eruption, Turgo has become the foremost producer of milk in its district. The average Turgo villager now has an annual income equal to or (in the case of those who also sell a lot of fruit and fuelwood in addition to milk) greater than the national average. The high regional demand for meat and milk makes this income relatively stable.

As is normal for Java, the increasing household income is reflected in improvements in housing (cf. Kusworo 2004:101): rumah tembok “masonry houses” have grown from 26 out of Turgo’s 128 in 1987 to 43 out of 90 at present (viz., from just over 20% to almost 50%). In addition, houses are being improved with glass windows, plaster walls, flooring, and electricity. Another measure of improved livelihoods is higher levels of schooling. Many educated children look for work outside Turgo and send back money to invest in cattle. The growth in prosperity also is reflected in the development of non-farm economic activities like food stalls and employment in commercial transport and mountain/tourism guides.[vi] The villagers of Turgo themselves summarize these changes by saying that the 1994 eruption ushered in what they actually call the jaman aiyem “untroubled age”.[vii] This assessment by the villagers themselves suggests that what they did to their system of agriculture in the wake of the 1994 eruption was not merely intensification, which as Brookfield (1984:35) notes is “always burdensome, and is adopted of necessity”, but innovation (or even “revolution”, following Ruf and Lançon 2004), which “offers the hope of advantage” (op. cit.).

3. Determinants of Change

A number of different factors are responsible for Turgo’s dramatic transformation, from a system in which livestock supported subsistence agriculture to a system in which agriculture supports market-oriented livestock husbandry. The transformation is all the more surprising because the villagers of Turgo had long resisted similar developments that had been urged upon them by the government, for example the cultivation of Napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum) to replace uncultivated Imperata for use as fodder. The most obvious determinant is the impact of the 1994 eruption on population, including the human casualties from the eruption, the semi-permanent resettlement out of Turgo of 40 percent of the pre-eruption population, and the necessity for many adult males to seek at least temporary wage-labor employment outside of the village. The resulting sharp decrease in population/land density and relative shortage of agricultural labor created pressure for a less extensive agricultural system.

The grass that became the mainstay of Turgo’s post-eruption system of fodder cultivation, Setaria, is well-suited to a more extensive system of land use. It matures much more quickly than their former staple food crops (e.g., two months versus three and one-half months for maize). Equally important, Setaria competes well against other aggressive pioneering grasses in the area (e.g., iring-iring or bledekan [Eupatorium riparium Reg.] as well as lalang [Imperata cylindrica (L.) Beauv.]), and it therefore requires less weeding (certainly less weeding than maize did). Setaria also is not attractive to the most fearsome crop pest on the mountain, the wild pigs Sus scrofa (again, in sharp contrast to maize or sweet potatoes).

The transformation of Turgo’s agricultural system was also a product of changing concerns regarding land tenure. In the wake of (1) the obligatory evacuation of Turgo, and the move first to refugee camps and then to permanent resettlement villages, (2) government efforts to restrict the villagers’ return to Turgo, and (3) the development by the government of plans for alternate uses of Turgo’s lands (for plantations and tourism), the Turgo villagers became fearful that they would lose their lands. As a result, they sought to re-establish as quickly as possible land uses that would compel public recognition of their continued use of and claims to these lands. Accordingly, following widespread and long-held norms in the region, the villagers planted as many perennials as possible (which also became a source of fruit and fuelwood for the market), because these establish and confirm tenure more so than annuals. And they chose non-local species wherever possible – for example, sengon (Paraserianthes falcataria (L.) Nielsen), a native of the lowlands, versus pine (Pinus merkusii Jungh. & de Vriese), not native to Merapi either but long established there, and the newly proliferating Setaria versus long-familiar Imperata -- because exotics make it harder for the government to assert that the land cover is “natural” and the land unclaimed.

The post-eruption transformation in agriculture did not merely represent a response to the eruption, however, it also was made possible by the eruption. The 1994 eruption brought about a “clean break” with the pre-eruption socio-ecology.[viii] There was a break with respect to biology: some grasses (e.g., Eupatorium) declined after the eruption, whereas others (e.g., Imperata and Setaria) increased; and seed stocks of many cultigens disappeared, and government substitutes were often unsatisfactory. There was also a socio-political dimension to this break.[ix] Prior to the 1994 eruption, there were cultural norms against selling the main staple food, maize, within Turgo; but following the eruption these norms were not applied to selling the new market crop of fodder grass.[x] In addition, prior to the eruption the gaze of the state focused–in an often unfavorable fashion–on Turgo; but following the eruption, this gaze shifted almost entirely to the downslope resettlement village of Sidomoro, whose refugees fit a preconceived slot of state beneficiaries much better than did the remnant population in Turgo. This shift in gaze lessened the pressure on the people in Turgo to transmigrate and also left them largely alone to innovate. This attitude of toleration toward Turgo was augmented by the subsequent fall of the dictator Soeharto and replacement of his regime by a more reform-oriented one.

Finally, the post-eruption transformations were related to concurrent changes at both the national level and in the wider world beyond Indonesia, most notably the monetary crisis that beset Indonesia (and much of the rest of Southeast Asia [Arndt and Hill 1999]) in 1997-1998 and the simultaneous opening up of Indonesian markets to imported goods from around the world.[xi] These inter-linked events altered the relative price of fodder and rice, making it possible to cultivate the former to buy the latter (Kusworo 2004:99); they led to an increase in the domestic market price of kerosene, which made the fuelwood market a much more profitable endeavor[xii]; and they produced a stable and remunerative markets for milk and beef. In general, the regional monetary crisis increased the relative market value of natural resources and thus strengthened the economic position of people like those in Turgo whose geographic location and access to such resources allowed them to respond to this sort of market signal.[xiii]

The increase in prosperity in Turgo is clearly linked to increased participation in markets. This is usually tied, in turn, to an increase in risk, as household livelihoods become more dependent upon factors beyond household control. In this case, however, the risk is mitigated by the fact that market participation is limited to the sale of commodities (viz., fodder, milk, and beef) and not the purchase of the inputs used in their production. The continue reliance on local resources for agricultural production (viz., land, labor, livestock, vegetation) represents a significant buffer against market uncertainty and volatility. It may be relevant that the Turgo villagers most often articulate volcanic hazard as a tale of going to a market that turns out to be a false one, leaving the market-goer with useless rocks and thorns instead of valuable market goods. This tale can be read on a number of different levels. At the most literal level, it is a story about how the products of market exchange can be illusory. This is perhaps a warning about the hazards of not just volcanos but also markets, which is reflected in the fact that the Turgo villagers are keeping one foot in the known world of Turgo as they place the other foot in the less-known world of global markets. At another level, the tale of the rocks and thorns can be read as story about how mundane everyday activities can contribute – in subtle and unsuspected ways – to the construction of larger social structures.


The work of Blaikie and other political ecologists has given us more sophisticated tools for the analysis of space and practice in places like Turgo. Social science theory concerning the first of these, space, had long taken a back seat to a concern with time. As Foucault (1972:70) writes, “Space was treated as the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile. Time, on the contrary, was richness, fecundity, life, dialectic. . . If one started to talk in terms of space that meant one was hostile to time. It meant, as the fools say, that one ‘denied history’, that one was a ‘technocrat’.”[xiv] Prompted in part by increasing scholarly awareness of the de-contextualizing impact of modernity and an interest in re-contextualizing social systems (Giddens 1984; Hornborg 1996:45), a critique of the focus on time as opposed to space developed among neo-Marxist scholars and subsequently some post-structural scholars as well.[xv] Blaikie was a major contributor to this critique.

1. Space

Blaikie’s 1985 work on soil erosion was an explicit effort to interpret something previously seen as the sole consequence of micro-level farming practices in terms of the wider political-economic system. Blaikie wrote (with Brookfield) that his approach encompasses “the contribution of different geographical scales and hierarchies of socioeconomic organizations (e.g. person, household, village, region, state, world)” (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987:17).[xvi] They termed this new approach “regional political ecology” (ibid.). Its development contributed to a wider interest in regional analysis that was emerging at the time of their writing.[xvii] For example, Giddens (1984:119) similarly argued that routinized social practices produce a zoning of time-space, which he called “regionalization”. Whereas Blaikie’s perspective leads us to ask how the household-level management of land, grass, manure (etc.) in Turgo is influenced by the wider political-economic system (which tends, in fact, to ignore its existence), Giddens’ perspective leads us to ask how the daily agro-ecological activities of the villagers inscribe a region consisting of the central village, the high grasslands, and also the government resettlement village further down the mountain’s slopes.

This concept of the region rests on an assumption not of internal homogeneity and harmony but of heterogeneity and discord. Indeed, one of the purposes of the regional view across space and scales is to reveal unevenly developed, “contradictory” landscapes. Thus, Blaikie interpreted soil erosion as one of the contradictions attendant upon incorporation into the world economic system (Blaikie 1985:60; cf. Blaikie and Brookfield 1987:17). As Blaikie and Brookfield (1987:14) together observed, someone’s degradation is someone else’s accumulation. Recent refinements of this idea include Zimmerer’s (2003:154) concept of “overlapping patchworks” and Robbins and Fraser’s (2003:154) concept of “uneven”, “schizophrenic” landscapes. The contradictions on Mount Merapi include the legal versus illegal land-uses of the Turgo villagers, the thriving village of Turgo and the non-thriving government resettlement, the government effort to proscribe peasant agriculture but not tourism on the volcano’s slopes, and the incommensurate government anxiety over the activities of a few thousand villagers on the volcano’s slopes compared with many millions living with the greater hazards of poverty and repression in the lowlands and urban areas of Java.

Such contradictions rest on asymmetrical relations of power, which are a central concern in regional analysis. A concern for power is implicit in Blaikie’s effort, along with Brookfield (1987:19,21-23,113-114), to differentiate marginal, less powerful places from central, more powerful places, and to develop new ways of understanding them (cf. Giddens [1984:129] on “back regions” and Tsing [1993] on “out-of-the-way places”). Of special interest have been the ways that less- and more-powerful places relate.[xviii] Beginning with Blaikie, political ecologists have been interested in the asymmetrical interactions across space and scale variously termed extractions, externalities, or subsidies. A mundane and direct example of such interactions is the transfer of fertility from one place to another via water or organic or mineral fertilizer. As Blaikie (1985:131) writes (cf. Blaikie and Brookfield 1987:14): “One of the most common types of movements of nutrients is the transference of fertility from one system of land-use to another. This may occur as a result of cattle or small stock being fed crop residues from one area (often an unirrigated area), but their manure being used in another (perhaps, though not necessarily irrigated) area.” Such a transfer takes place between Mt. Merapi’s high elevation grasslands and the lower-elevation agricultural fields, which is a form of forest-farm linkage known the world over (cf. Blaikie and Brookfield 1987:46, Pandey & Sing 1984). Robbins and Fraser (2003:113-114) aptly term such interactions “spatial fixes” (drawing on Harvey 1982). The Turgo villagers’ use of grasses from high on the mountain to subsidize the fertility of fields lower down, and the government uses of a resettlement lower down on the slopes to address its perceived political-economic problems with Turgo itself, could both be termed “spatial fixes”. Whereas the villagers look up slope for their “fix”, the state looks downslope.

2. Practice

A challenge in this as in related fields has been to convincingly theorize the relationship between macro- and micro-levels. Blaikie’s “Political Economy of Soil Erosion” was pioneering in demonstrating how larger political dynamics could be linked to something as seemingly unrelated and banal as the soil management practices of individual peasants (1985:11). His work contributed to a wider development of theoretical interest in the structural implications of everyday activities and to the emergence of ‘practice’ as an enduring focus of scholarship (Robbins and Fraser 2003; cf. Bourdieu 1977; Giddens 1984; Ortner 1984). At the same time that Blaikie was writing about soil erosion, Giddens (1984:24,111) was writing about the importance of the routinized character of daily life and how this relates to the structural properties of larger collectivities.[xix] (Whereas Blaikie focused more on how macro-level dynamics are reproduced at the micro-level, Giddens was focusing on the reverse.[xx]) Like Blaikie, Giddens (1984:141) attributes strongly defined structural properties to activity in micro-contexts. He is interested in the structural constraints that daily routines encounter and reflect, even in the center-periphery relations that are embedded in daily trajectories. Giddens (1984:2) sees social behavior as “recursive”: “In and through their activities agents reproduce the conditions that make these activities possible.” The daily gathering of fodder on Merapi, one of the central elements in its political ecology, illustrates this relationship between behavior and structure. Fodder management, which encompasses state-approved activities in Turgo and state-disapproved activities high up on Merapi’s slopes, reproduces the ongoing stand-off between village illegality and state ignorance. In addition, by suppressing the growth of trees and encouraging the continued growth of grasses, fodder management reproduces the contested landscape itself. In these and other ways, daily resource management activities on Merapi reproduce the structure that permits these activities to take place.

This work on practice has important implications for our understanding of human agency. Giddens writes, for example, “In and through their activities agents reproduce the conditions that make these activities possible.” Practice theorists have argued for a quarter of a century that we need to pay greater attention to the agency of people like those in Turgo (e.g., Ortner 1984). Dramatic evidence of such agency is given in the villagers’ return to Turgo in the face of government threats and their subsequent re-invention of their system of cultivation, their diet, and their relations with the market. For Giddens, agency involves reflexive knowledge of action. He suggests that social structure has no existence independent of the knowledge that agents have about what they do in their day-to-day social activity. There is some evidence of this type of knowledge among the Turgo villagers on Merapi.

As noted earlier, the villagers of Turgo most commonly articulate the threat of volcanic hazard as a threat to daily reality, to daily routine. Thus, the threat of volcanic hazards is interpreted as a trip to a (spirit) market, which turns out not to be a market after all; and volcanic eruptions are interpreted as the result of the mundane act of sweeping out the spirit-palace. The implication of these beliefs, therefore, is that daily reality and daily routine constitute not only the world but also the alter-world that threatens it. These beliefs might be read as saying something about the relationship between agent and structure. The transformations they depict are suggestive of Giddens’ duality of structure, with the same elements simultaneously playing a role in social activity and social structure. The beliefs can be read, thus, as a vernacular example of Giddens’ structuration theory, articulating the way that everyday activities reproduce not just the local unit but the overarching system.

Blaikie, like Giddens, suggests that we need to study not just the interaction of the unit and the system (viz., the interaction of different scales), but also the different ways that this interaction is understood by the actors involved. Blaikie’s critique of colonial and post-colonial theories of soil erosion could be included here. We need to study these understandings, both scholars say, because they are themselves an integral part of the interaction.


One of the most important legacies of Blaikie’s work is the introduction of considerations of power and politics into the analysis of local agro-ecological relations, beginning with the basic question of agricultural intensification. Blaikie criticized on this score Boserup’s classic (1965) work, the central thesis of which is that more intensive agriculture is more onerous, and farmers only take on more onerous work when coerced by rising population/land ratios. In the case of Turgo, the post-eruption transformation of its agro-ecology clearly represented a de-intensification or extensification of the system, precipitated in part by the decline in the general population (and adult male labor in particular). Such flight to less onerous cultivation practices following population declines is predicted by Boserup, but her analytic framework does not encompass the wider political-economic system that affected the Turgo population in the first place. As Blaikie (1985 24) writes, “Discussions of the state, relations of production, and patterns of surplus extraction are almost entirely absent from Boserup. Without these crucial areas of explanation, her theory of how innovations occur or do not occur seems remarkably fragile.”

Blaikie’s own, more expansive approach was driven by a neo-Marxist view of poverty and environmental degradation (cf. Guthman 1997); but it also pointed towards a less-centered, Foucaultian view of power. This is evident when Blaikie (1985:84) writes, for example, “By extension, then, conservation practices left undone, legislation remaining unheeded, projects that only serve to keep research officers in salary and which never leave the experimental station (those things not done) are also, political acts and not just omissions, or non-events which do not need explanation”. With insights like this, Blaikie’s work helped to expand the analytic gaze to take in not just Government but also governance. His insights enable us to see the importance of not just formal policies, which may or may not be implemented, but of the quotidian practices of government officers and the ways that these may liberate or constrain the landscape for local peoples. On Mt. Merapi, such practices contribute to the villagers’ need to locate their village downslope while surreptitiously cutting grass upslope; to their need to plant perennials as a statement of ownership but to not contest the official erasure of the village from government maps; and to their need to let the government take on part of their population as development subjects in a resettlement village while the rest pursue their own far more successful development back in Turgo beyond official gaze or care.

In his most recent work, Blaikie has turned his own gaze back on academia itself, along with other political ecologists who are interested not simply in peeling the onion but in asking who is holding the knife (Forsyth 2003). Blaikie takes issue with what he calls “ethical refusalism”, referring to the deconstructivists’ critique of universalist but western-derived, needs- and rights-based approach to conservation and development (Blaikie 2000:1034). Looking back on “The Political Economy of Soil Erosion”, Blaikie says that he “adopted a realist assumption that there was such a universally understood process as soil erosion, and that it was occurring to the extent that it was a significant social problem” (Blaikie1999:139-140).[xxi] He recognizes that such assumptions are more problematic today but is loathe to adopt the “refusalist” stance. In keeping with a career-long commitment to engaged scholarship, he suggests that perhaps we can privilege constructions of the world that promote a “just, accountable, egalitarian and democratic environmental future” (Blaikie 1999:144).


Field research was initially carried out on Mt. Merapi between 1982 and 1985, with support from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations and the East-West Center, and with sponsorship by Gadjah Mada University. Dove was assisted in this research by the following students from Gadjah Mada University: Handojo Adi Pranowo, Bambang Hudayana, and Lucas Sasongko Triyoga. A return visit to Java by Dove in 1993 was supported by the Indonesian Central Planning Ministry (BAPPENAS) and the United Nations Development Programme. Research by Dove and Hudayana during 2003-2004 was supported by the Yale Center for International and Area Studies. The authors alone are responsible for the analysis presented here.


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[i] The Gouverenements Besluit of 1890 created reserves above 4,000 feet in Central/Eastern Java, and 5,000 feet in Western Java, where all cutting was prohibited (Boomgaard 1988; cf. Smiet 1990b).

[ii] See Barwegen (2004) on the history of cattle raising on Java.

[iii] When the volcano is in an active phase, there may be multiple small eruptions of gas or minor ash falls in a single day.

[iv] Cf. Li’s (2002) study of a similar shift in recent years from swidden-based cultivation of food crops to the market-oriented cultivation of cocoa among mountain farmers in Central Sulawesi.

[v] The villagers deem volcanic ash falls too infrequent, and too delayed in impact, for this purpose.

[vi] Cf. Leinbach’s (2004) review of rural non-farm/off-farm income development in Indonesia.

[vii] This sentiment was echoed by other Indonesians in rural areas in the wake of the country’s monetary crisis (cf. Kusworo 2004:70).

[viii] Cf. Dove (2002) on the consequences of the “clean break” involved in the transferral of Para rubber from South America to Southeast Asia.

[ix] Brookfield (1984:39) has written regarding the determinants of agricultural innovation: “The impact of major perturbations may also give rise to clusters of innovation, but largely because such events destroy the basis of conservatism and allow already latent changes to emerge ...”

[x] This is consistent with the observation of others, notably Breman and Wiradi (2002), that the cultural code of ‘shared poverty’ (as postulated by Boeke [1966] and Geertz [1963], though disputed by other scholars) did not hold during the monetary crisis, when gap between rich and poor in fact widened.

[xi] This was only the latest evidence of the fact that, as shown in Li’s (1999) volume on Indonesia’s uplands, and notwithstanding the distinctiveness of this zone, it historically developed not separately but through interaction with the lowlands, the nation-state, and national abd international markets.

[xii] Sunderlin et al. (2000) similarly argue that the monetary crisis led to a widespread shift in Indonesia’s outer islands from the subsistence cultivation of food crops to the cultivation of tree-based commodities for export markets.

[xiii] The global depression of the 1930s similarly benefitted the under-capitalized Indonesian smallholder sector (Dove 1996; cf. Touwen 2000). Cf. Blaikie’s (2000:1042) observation that throughout the twentieth century, periodic global crises result in the rediscovery of the neoliberal paradigm that the invisible hand of market allocates resources optimally.

[xiv] See also Foucault 1986.

[xv] Robbins and Fraser (2003:113-114) argue that a focus on temporal versus spatial dimensions is still a weakness of Green Marxism and post-modern political ecology.

[xvi] There is an enduring concern with the issue of scales in political ecology, as reflected in the recent question by Robbins and Fraser (2003:113): “Does capitalist ecology reach exhaustion in the depletion of soil in a single field, in a national farm economy, or in global commodity markets?”

[xvii] A regional focus remains central to political ecologists to this day (e.g., Robbins and Fraser 2003:113).

[xviii] An intellectual antecedent to this interest was the work by dependency theorists (e.g., Frank 1967) and world systems theorists (e.g., Wallerstein 1974) on the way that core areas under-develop peripheries.

[xix] Cf. Watts (1997:76) on the parallel between Blaikie’s interpretation of poverty in terms of social relations of production and Giddens’ theory of structuration.

[xx] Overall, this work contributed to a critique of the privileging of either macro- or micro-level views and to replacement of the question, Which level is most appropriate for analysis?, with the question, How are the two levels related? (Giddens 1984:139).

[xxi] On the other hand, Watts (1997: 76) argues that Blaikie’s recognition of the reality of differential perception of soil erosion actually anticipated the postmodern turn.

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