14 March 2023
DocTalks x MoMA
4-6 PM CET, 11-13 AM EST

Respondent: Will Davis, Princeton

Of Seeds and Sheds:
Designing Uniformity along the Production Lines of Plantation Crops in Colonial Sumatra

Columbia University

Curing shed with open tingkap (flaps) in a tobacco estate in the East Coast of Sumatra, circa 1920. Source: KITLV 79512, Leiden University Libraries.

Seeking to establish commodity’s uniformity, plantation companies in the East Coast of Sumatra, which produced tobacco, rubber, and oil palm for the global demand in the twentieth century, mobilized various interventions that brought spatial changes to the plantations in this region of the Dutch East Indies. This chapter delves into the homogenization of cash crops, a multi-scalar process that, in the case of tobacco, the focus of this presentation, started with the selection of seeds but found its critical junctures in the processing facilities, especially the curing and fermentation sheds, where intensive labor and spatial order were deployed not only to produce tobacco products but also to make them uniform. Analyzing agroindustrial handbooks and company archives concerning the production of tobacco in the region, this presentation draws attention to the various cultivation practices that contributed to the uniformity of tobacco leaves, an aspect that significantly increased their value in the world market. I follow the production lines of plantation crops and argue that commodity’s uniformity was anything but natural, its construction relying on architectural mediation across the plantation spaces. This presentation is part of my dissertation “Building Commodities: Environments of the Colonial Plantation in the East Coast of Sumatra, 1869–1942,” which traces the conversion of native land into plantation fields and the creation of an extensive network of buildings sustaining commodity production in this region.


Plantation Technologies:
Tracing the Histories of Palms, Weevils, and Owls in the Oil Palm Territories of Johor State, Malaysia

ETH Future Cities Lab in Singapore

Plantation workers with barn owl and owl hut at the Palm Oil Experience Centre, Carey Island, Malaysia. (Hans Hortig 2019)

"Plantations were the engine of European expansion. Plantations produced the wealth – and the modus operandi – that allowed Europeans to take over the world. We usually hear about superior technologies and resources; but it was the plantation system that made navies, science, and eventually industrialisation possible."
Anna Tsing, Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companions Species

"If forests are flush with the chatter of humans and other species, can the plantation speak?"
Jill Casid, Necrolandscaping

This study examines plantation agriculture as a technology aimed at extracting natural resources and unpaid labour, and at installing regulatory authority. It is focused on palm oil plantation territories in Johor State, Malaysia, one of the planetary core zones of palm oil production, refining, and export. Through the notion of operationalisation of territory, it brings the discourse on the Plantationocene into a dialogue with critical urban studies and the history of urbanisation.
Palms, weevils, and owls are investigated as crucial agents in the production process, highlighting the fact that more-than-human assemblages have been utilized to enable the expansion of Malaysian palm oil plantations and the socio-ecological transformation of territory. The episodes of palms, weevils and owls highlight the role of botanical imperialism and the industrialisation of palm oil production, investigate non-human labour in enhancing the productivity of oil palm plantations through weevil pollinations, and highlight the relation between practices of sustainable production and animal management.
As an alternative periodisation of palm oil production, the research adds a more-than-human and spatial perspective to Ouma's and Premchander's call for ‘writing the plantation into the technological present-future’. The entanglements of agro-industrial operationalisation of territory and more-than-human life on the plantations are traced temporally, showing the fragility of plantation ecologies on which the global palm oil commodity chains depend.
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