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  • Writer's pictureHenry Severs

The modern slaves of export-led development

For the people of Indonesia, globalisation, modernisation and the export-led development policies of the last 60+ years have meant infinitely more spent on tanks, fighter planes, helicopters and landmines to suppress social movements than on poverty alleviation, education, housing or healthcare.

Palm oil is everywhere. It's used in hundreds of supermarket products and increasingly, for bio-fuel production, nevertheless it is considered one of the most devastating crops for the environment. Yet palm oil is not only ecologically damaging, but ethically unsound also, it's production reinforces abject poverty which is amplified and consolidated by the most novel manifestation of late-modernity; globalisation. Consumerism drives demand for palm oil rich products in the global North and increasingly the BRICs, but simultaneously ‘modernisation’ and ‘development’ can promote extreme inequality in the global South – even via the very economic instruments put in place to assist such countries escape deprivation. One of these instruments is export-led growth.

Indonesia was born of global trade and has always been a source of cheap raw materials and even cheaper labour for foreign interests. The great-grandparents of modern day Indonesians originated from Java and came to work under contract on the Dutch coco and rubber plantations. These workers, although technically free, were tied into 3 year contracts to pay off their initial boat trip from Java. The majority of their salary went towards debt repayments and were therefore forced to borrow further from the plantation owners, in order to pay for living costs in the interim. This forced them into more debt and even longer contracts to repay ever increasing loans. They essentially became ‘bond slaves’ to the Dutch, trapped by cycle of debt repayments and extended loans to the colonial powers. Hundreds of years later, the lot of the average Indonesian today would be eerily familiar to their forefathers.

In 1965, the communist leader Sukarno re-nationalised the country’s wealth and natural resources, withdrawing Indonesia from the World Bank and IMF. In the subsequent US and UK-backed military coup, the right-wing General Suharto rose to power, a position he then held for the next 33 years. The military junta allowed the IMF and World Bank to re-enter Indonesia, securing billions of dollars of loans – by 2018 the gross outstanding external debt stood at $ 376.8b[1]. It is estimated that just under a half of the original loans funded military equipment, one third remains unaccounted for/missing and just under one fifth was spent on enticing big business to ‘develop’ Indonesia. During this period of ‘modernisation’ it is estimated the regime massacred between 1-2m civilians.

Today the big money is in palm oil. Indonesia is the largest producer of the oil but it's agricultural workers are some of the lowest paid in the world, at between $1–$1.50/day. The dominance of the regional trade has forced millions into low paid, insecure plantation jobs, requiring many to sign extraordinarily long contracts (up to 30 years in length) with no sick pay, holiday entitlement, healthcare or safety protections. Despite pesticides poisoning and killing 40,000 agricultural workers globally per annum, health and safety provisions are not required under WTO regulations. Gramoxone is used on palm oil plantations, the brand name for Paraquat, the primary ingredient in the Agent Orange chemical weapons of the Vietnam war[2].

The plantation worker barracks have mud floors, metal roofs, regularly no plumbing or drainage, and can sleep between 5–8 workers. Each worker’s daily picking quota is 1 tonne of palm fruit, and worth around $32.38 to the company, for which workers receive around $1.14/day. As such the family members of workers regularly help out to meet the quota at no extra wage. Weekly the rainforests are felled and levelled to make way for plantations destroying complex ecosystems, even expanding into ‘conservation’ peat flats which, once disturbed, release hundreds of tones of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere[3]. All this is made possible by ‘development’ loans, intended to encourage economic growth from palm oil exports, but on ground level the reality is often very different[4].

“ ...we often here that globalisation and free-market politics will bring good fortune to all humanity. That’s what you hear big businesses and governments say – in their opinion globalisation is our inevitable fate. But actually, it is their creation, their own language, a system they have created to further their own interests and profits.”Palm Oil Plantation Worker, Sumatra

For the people of Indonesia, globalisation, modernisation and the export-led development policies of the last 60+ years have meant infinitely more spent on tanks, fighter planes, helicopters and landmines to suppress social movements than on poverty alleviation, education, housing or healthcare. The loans taken out by the Indonesian government expand big business, but undermine smaller competitors and local economies[5]. Workers become both the bargaining chips and the means to pay back the debt. New loans are taken to repay the interest on the debt alone, increasing national debt further and perpetuating the cycle.

As their ancestors were to the Dutch, the perversion of economic development instruments have essentially made Indonesia and its people bond-slaves to the international market. They are forced to accept whatever conditions their creditors impose with no prospect of ever paying-off the debt or improving their own individual prospects.


[1] Trading Economics (2019) 'Indonesia Gross External Debt', [online resource]

[2] Perbbuni Workers Union (2002) ‘The Globalisation Tapes’, IUF Education Documentary, Independent Plantation Workers of Sumatra [online resource]

[3] Greenpeace (2010) ‘Nestlé drives rainforest destruction pushing orangutans to brink of extinction’, Press Release 17/03/2010, [online resource]

[4] UNDP (2007) ‘Human Development Report’, United Nations Development Program, 27/11/2007, [online resource]

[5] Rowe, R (2010) ‘Dying for a Biscuit’, {documentary aired 22 Feb BBC One } BBC Panorama, [online resource],

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