"Appropriation of Cultural Symbols and Peasant Resistance
-A Case Study from East Kalimantan, Indonesia-"

Dr. Mariko Urano, Faculty of Economics Hokusei Gakuin University
14:00-16:00, February 16 (Mon), 2004
E207, East Building of CSEAS


Based on eighteen months of field research (1998-1999) in East Kalimantan (Borneo), Indonesia, this paper discusses the appropriation of cultural symbols in political action. Through interviews and participant observation, I critically examined two major, but dichotomous understandings of cultural symbols: The Rational Choice and Interpretive Sociologist Approaches.

Threatened by state-promoted resource development projects, the peasants of the Outer-Islands began to assert their land rights in the early 1990s. They presented themselves as "adat (traditional) communities" and the legitimate owners of local land and natural resources.

The Dayak villagers of Sungai Manis, the village where I conducted my research, have long had a system of individual land tenure, but in the 1990s their elites started to employ the language of adat (customary) land ownership, which is commonly perceived as communal tenure, in their negotiation with the state and with the resource development companies. Although the elites of Sungai Manis appropriated adat discourse to protect local land ownership, the state-promoted local religious change in 1960s created constraints on their action. The fundamentalist policy of the locally dominant Protestant Church led to the disappearance of the indigenous belief system and traditional authority, and local elites were left with a statist definition of adat and a state engineered local government structure with which to organize resistance, in turn limited by a key provision of the Basic Agrarian Law of 1960-subjugation of adat land ownership to the state interests. By contrast, in the predominantly Catholic West Kalimantan, the local peasant elites fully exploited indigenous grounds of resistance as the Catholic Church proved much more tolerant of the local animist tradition.

My findings indicate that the elites are indeed rational actors but are constrained by their unique situation in the socio-historical context. They have exhibited rationality by framing the ideology of resistance within the local tradition, but the state has limited the range of cultural symbols that the elites may appropriate in their strategy. In the end my findings support the Rational Choice Theory with the incorporation of what amounts to a New Institutionalist understanding of action.

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