Farmer reaps a rich harvest from downturn

THE FINANCIAL CRISIS & THE ASIAN HEARTLAND : INDONESIA

Riau province, which straddles Sumatra and the Indonesian islands south of Singapore, is rich. Endowed with oil and other natural resources, its economy has suffered less than Java. Palm-oil farmers and others earning export income are enjoying a windfall from the rupiah’s collapse. Their gains have trickled down to the small traders who dominate the economy. But high prices and uneven income distribution still make life difficult for many.

DERWIN PEREIRA, who reports from Indonesia, visited the province and looked at how fortunes have changed for three residents.

AT 34, farmer Toto Sulistio is a millionaire.

In the past three months, he has made six million rupiah (S$1,218) selling kelapa sawit or palm oil to a local firm, PT Fabrika, which in turn exports them to neighbouring countries.

Mr Sulistio’s bounty, reaped, ironically, from the country’s economic downturn, was so good that he has built a new house and bought himself a Honda motorcycle.

“Business has never been better. I don’t feel there is any krismon,” he said referring to the local jargon for the monetary crisis.

“I have never been happier in my life.”

A year ago, he was making a million rupiah.

But 10 years ago, he had nothing.

His unemployed father could not give any land to him or his four brothers and sister.

Times were hard. The family was poor and living from hand to mouth.

In 1988, he left his home in Sumedang, West Java, with a new wife, on a 40-hour journey to Pekanbaru in Riau, Sumatra.

“That was the worst experience of my life, leaving my family,” he said. “But I had no land and there was no hope for me there.

“When I came here, the government gave me a house and a plot of land.”

For two years, he worked as a menial labourer tilling hundreds of hectares of land in the transmigration area of Sungei Pagar, 20 km from the city centre.

It was hard work and low pay. For a 12 hour-day, he earned 1,500 rupiah – which sometimes made it difficult for him to give his wife and two daughters, aged six and eight, a good life.

That changed when the government leased him a 2-ha plot in a palm-oil plantation for nine million rupiah in 1990.

Every month, the authorities would collect 30 per cent of his monthly earnings of about 150,000 rupiah, something which ended last month when he finished repaying the loan.

“Up until last year, life was a struggle,” he said. “Krismon has been a blessing for me and my family.”

Rising profits from palm-oil sales – he earns two million rupiah a month now – has meant that his land value has also appreciated. It is now worth 80 million rupiah.

But Mr Sulistio has no plans to sell the land that made him rich and head for big cities like Jakarta.

He said: “I love my land. I don’t want to leave it and go back to Java where a lot of my friends are now suffering from krismon.”

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