THE BANANA TREE AT THE GATE: A HISTORY OF MARGINAL PEOPLES AND GLOBAL MARKETS IN BORNEO by Michael R. Dove
Reviewed by Kelly Heber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Banana Tree at the Gate: A History of Marginal Peoples and Global Markets in Borneo by Michael R. Dove, Yale University Press, 2011, 352 pp.
The title of Michael Dove’s The Banana Tree at the Gate references a proverb local to Borneo, where if you leave something of value exposed, outsiders will exploit it or take the fruit for themselves. Though this book details the centuries of unequal terms of trade between the marginalized Kantu Dayak peoples of Indonesian Borneo and the rest of the world, Dove does it in a way that highlights the resilience of the people as opposed to their victimhood. His account of the adaptability of indigenous people in Indonesia matches my own experiences living with the Iban in Malaysian Borneo, where traditional longhouses were dotted with satellites.
Dove uses political ecology to inform his account of smallhold Indonesian pepper farmers, detailing the inherent structural exploitation that arises from a long history of forced competition with large scale plantations in liberalized markets. Despite the difficulties that arise from marginalization, the Kantu Dayak carry on their traditional smallholder farming structure through hundreds of years of inequality inherent in globalized markets, spanning from the colonial Dutch regime to the present neoliberal capitalist economy.
Woven throughout Dove’s historical account of pepper and rubber cultivation is the Hikayat Banjar, a historical volume that details the lives and legends of Borneo’s kings, but also includes kingly advice on the management of Borneo’s natural resources. Most surprising were the warnings issued by kings in the volume over the ruin that exploitative colonial trade will assuredly bring the smallholders of Borneo. Dove does not cast the pepper farmers as victims of global trade’s steady march towards neoliberalism, however. This provides an exciting contrast to other political ecology publications that leave a gaping, poststructural vacuum after establishing a history of marginalization.