The Fingertips of Government: Forest Fires and the Shifting Allegiance of Indonesia’s State Officials

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This paper explicates the dynamics between low-ranking state officials and indigenous people to address a broader question of why state interventions are unable to curtail Indonesia’s intentionally set forest fires. This study was conducted in 2015 and 2016 at the former site of Indonesia’s Mega Rice Project in Central Kalimantan. The research deployed an ethnographic approach comprising participant observation of people’s actions in both farming and forest areas and interviews with more than seventy-five people, including farmers, fishers, loggers, hunters, and state officials at the subdistrict and village levels. The findings show that state interventions have been ineffective because the allegiance of low-ranking officials has shifted from serving the state to accommodating society. Such officials demonstrate defiance of the state by “allowing” people—in many cases, the officials’ neighbors, friends, and family—to set “unnoticed” fires in forest and farming areas. The author argues that the shift is driven in part by the conditions under which state officials must work locally to prevent fire events, including unfunded state policies, problematic enforcement, and disempowering bureaucracy on the one hand, and formidable socio-cultural pressure on the other. These dynamics contribute to a dissonance that influences officials’ positionality; the officials, in turn, use their (limited) power to stand with society (or at least stand out of the way), the result of which is an undermining of the state’s fire-prevention strategies.

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Vol. 108


Page range: 41-64


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Cornell University Southeast Asia Program



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Government Document




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