Sugar and the Nation

Sugar—whatever slim young things in the West might think about the advisability of consuming it—is a deeply emotional topic in Indonesia. Sugar is an intimate part of life for most people here, starting with the first glass of coffee or tea in the morning, and it is laced into most of what people eat. The production of sugar and the control of the sugar market has had an important role in Indonesia’s political history for centuries, and it remains politically volatile today. The recent leap in the price of sugar in May, more than doubling in a matter of days has re-opened old issues.

This May, the yards of Madukismo, the sugar refinery at Bantul,Jogjakarta, were filled with the sounds of cheering. Thousands of people crowded along the road, standing in the hot rays of the dusty afternoon. They were waiting for the procession of Ki Tumpak and Nyi Jenar, who—despite their venerable titles Ki and Nyi—were not heirloom kris knives or some other sacred paraphernalia that you might find on parade in Central Java—but two bundles of sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) about to get married.

This annual ritual, Cembengan, which symbolizes people’s hope for prosperity, signals the beginning of the milling season at Madukismo. Madukismo, (“land of honey”), is one of forty-six sugar factories operating in Java, all of which begin milling in May. Normally this is a time of local economic optimism, bringing with it jobs for thousands of people. But this year, news of the sugar trade was bitter, and it competed in the media with coverage of the war in Aceh. The stories covered sugar’s fluctuating prices, illegally imported sugar, controversies about the national trade regulations, sugar-related diseases, and even issues of nationalism.

The problem arises from a demand for white sugar (some 3.2 million tons a year) that is almost twice the national supply. Household consumption—about three kilograms per month per family—is only part of this demand. Sugar is also a principal raw material in many small scale industries. Given the concurrent rise in the price of oil and electricity, the impact of the rise in the price of sugar on these small businesses is very great indeed .

The shortage of sugar arises from declining productions levels of the national sugar industry, due to ageing machinery (some of it more than eighty-years old) and the increasing scarcity of adequate cropping lands. The cultivation of sugar cane exhausts the soil. Farmers are therefore reluctant to lease their lands for sugar growing because of the great expense required to re-fertilize the land.

But perhaps most discouraging to sugar producers are the unnecessary hardships imposed by unfair and manipulative trade regulations, which give import permits to favored companies; the complacency of the government in controlling smuggling; and what many perceive as the government’s negligence in failing to provide adequate protective tariffs or the encouragement of capital investment in this capital-intensive industry.

Because Indonesia does not produce enough sugar to meet its needs, imported sugar floods local markets, which outrages local producers. The Ministry of Industry and Trade stipulates that only three kinds of business are allowed to import raw sugar: sugar refineries, which process raw sugar to white sugar; industries which produce food flavoring, such as monosodium glutamate; and industries using refined sugar in their food products. The import of sugar is regulated through the government’s National Logistics Agency (BULOG).

But in Indonesia, regulation almost inevitably leads to abuse. Smuggling especially infuriates Indonesian sugar cane farmers and sugar producers. In early March, for example, investigators at two main ports in Java—Tanjung Priok at Jakarta and Surabaya’s Tanjung Perak—uncovered attempts to illegally import sugar with the discovery of forged documents for ninety-eight containers. Sugar producers accused the smugglers, importers and customs officials involved of having no sense of ‘nationalism.’ This patriotic cry was quickly taken up by politicians, who—sharply aware of the upcoming elections—are aware of the current vogue for nationalism.

A bitter history
gula pasir The abuse of regulatory power in Indonesia, like the habit of monopoly, was perfected centuries ago by the VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), a Dutch trading association founded in 1602, in the sugar industry itself. In the 1630s, the VOC, with the help of Chinese entrepreneurs, established sugar plantations and mills in southern Batavia (now the northern part of Jakarta). By 1637, the VOC’s trading fleet was carrying some ten thousand pikul of sugar a year to European markets, produced in hundreds of sugar mills around Batavia. (A pikul is equal to one-hundred-thirty-seven pounds, or a bit over sixty-two kilograms.) The monopoly was not able to withstand hard competition from Indian traders, however; and by 1660, Batavia’s sugar mills numbered only ten.

The VOC withdrew from the sugar industry, but Chinese entrepreneurs stayed in. In 1710, there were at least one-hundred-thirty sugar mills, with wooden machinery powered by horses or cows, and an average annual production of three-hundred pikul per mill. But the Indonesian sugar industry suffered a second downfall at the end of the century: the VOC, which had been financing sugar producers with cash down payments amounting to eight-thousand guilders a year, collapsed under the weight of its own corruption and was dissolved on January 1, 1800; the Napoleonic Wars over the same period closed the European markets.

Again, Chinese entrepreneurs persisted, building up the sugar industry around the northern coast regencies of Central and East Java, supplying the needs of Europeans there for sweeteners and their alcoholic by-products sugar, arrack and rum, which eventually became the main products of the industry. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who ran the Dutch East Indies colony during the British inter-regnum from 1811 to 1814, applauded the Javanese liquor in his History of Java.

In the 1830s—after Holland had regained its colonies and then established full control over the island of Java at the conclusion of the Java Wars from 1825 to 1830—there emerged a new, but eventually disastrous, policy: cultuurstelsel, the ‘cultivation system’ (also known as the ‘culture system’). Promulgated by decree by Governor-General Johannes van den Bosch, this policy effectively put the export trade of coffee, spices and sugar under the sole control of the Netherlands East Indies government.

The Java Wars—which pitted the Dutch against the mystically glamorous Jogjakarta prince Diponegoro (Dipanegara)—had nearly exhausted the colonial government. With the aim of rebuilding the colonies’ resources, Governor-General Van den Bosch paid heed to the failure of the English run Pemanukan-Ciasem sugar plantations in West Java. These had been established on newly cleared land with dry soil amidst a scant population. The harvest was poor, and there was a shortage of labor. Van den Bosch therefore started sugar industries in densely populated residencies, such as Pekalongan and Cirebon. He imported business experts and modern machinery from Europe, and forced local communities to plant their fields according to the colonial government’s instructions.

He also initiated the attempt to re-enter the European sugar market by giving traders a 15% cut off the import tax (valid only for sugar products). His efforts succeeded, and by the mid-1800s, Javanese white sugar dominated world’s sugar market. Production doubled every decade, from 752,657 pikul in 1840 to 1,764,505 pikul in the next twenty years. Profit fluctuated happily from between 280,780 and 453,656 guilders per year. Through political oppression and the manipulation of the sugar industry, the colonial government recovered from bankruptcy.

It is ironic that the same policy thinking seems to persist in the independent Republic of Indonesia. If it is true that history repeats its patterns, it may be useful to contemplate further—although we will not do it here—the verdict of the Indonesian people against the interference of the mighty colonial government.

Sugar as food from trees
White cane sugar (called gula pasir or ‘sand sugar,’ in Indonesian,) still retains its cachet as the sweetener of choice for most Indonesians. But there are other, older forms of sugar that are requisite to traditional cuisine, and they are waiting in the wings for international attention.


Palm sugar, culled from the sap of lontar and sago palms, is sold in cake-like blocks at local markets (or in a thin plastic wrap in Indonesian supermarkets). The texture is like soft clay, the color is like that of dark honey, and the flavor is a smoky and almost reticent sweetness. It is an essential ingredient in many Indonesian cuisines—especially those of Central Java, in dishes like tempé bacam and nasi gudeg—and there is no substitute for it.

Palm sugar—called gula Jawa in Java, gula Bali in Bali, and so on throughout the archipelago, one imagines—is a direct by-product of a lofty tree. The processing is simple enough to carry out in even the most under-developed parts of the tropical Third World: it requires no greater technology than the ability to construct a bamboo ladder, hang a bamboo flask under the palm tree’s dripping flower, and pour the goo into a bamboo tube or a mold made from a coconut shell.

Those who wish to savor the ambrosial effects of palm sugar without constructing a gudeg sauce have only to omit the white sugar in their regular kopi tubruk powdered coffee beverage, and hold a bit of palm sugar in their teeth as they sip the unsweetened coffee. (This requires some practice, though, before you can do it in front of people that you don’t know very well indeed. –Ed.)

But is it really food?
The prestige of highly processed foods like white sugar, white rice and white flour looks anachronistic to people from industrialized nations, who have grown tired and ill from eating that sort of stuff. Famously, Americans are more likely to be obese if they are poor: the copious amounts of fresh greens and lean protein required for glowing slimness are expensive (not to mention the cost of aerobic exercise in an environment where you are not likely to be hit by a car). For the rest of the world, however, sugar in some form remains a crucial ingredient in any formula for assuaging hunger pangs—from the straightforward thickening of Javanese sauces to the sly fortification of the world’s myriad junk foods.

This is perhaps the most pernicious effect of modern poverty. Diabetes mellitus, a fatal disease in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin, is predicted to increase 250% increase among Indonesians between 1995 and 2015. The cause is due partly to the ageing of the population and partly to a less physically vigorous life style. Only a decade before, the World Health Organizations noted that in 1988 Indonesia had the sixth highest incidence of diabetes cases after India, China, Russia, Japan and Brazil. But perhaps the most alarming figure is that Indonesia has only thirty-five specialists in diabetes—a ratio of one doctor to six million people. Bad news for the victims.

Sugar is a precious, possibly dangerous, but familiar and comforting substance that most people on earth want to be a part of their lives without having to worry about it. It is fair that sugar is considered by the Indonesian government to be one of the unequivocal sembako—the nine basic staples (sembilan bahan pokok)—to which all its citizens are entitled fair access. This is nothing to play with.

(Dimuat di Majalah Latitudes, Bali, Agustus 2003)


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