Front and Back Covers, Volume 29, Number 3. June 2013


Front and back cover caption, volume 29 issue 3

Front cover

Oil palm plantations and surplus labour

The photo shows old oil palms injected with roundup to kill them prior to replanting – operations that require very little labour. Indonesia already has ten million hectares of oil palm, most of it planted in massive, mono-cropped, plantations eerily devoid of people, having obliterated the villages, farms and fruit trees that were there before. Market-wise, oil palm is resilient. Its price goes up together with the price of oil since it can be used as a biofuel. We eat it (cooking oil, margarine, chocolate), bathe with it (soap), and put it on our lips (cosmetics). As food, the potential market in India and China is immense, and as a ‘biofuel’ it fills European Union mandates to replace fossil fuels with ‘renewable energy’ sources. The crop is rapidly blanketing the major islands of the Indonesian archipelago (Sumatra, Kalimantan, Papua), it is expanding in Latin America, and being re-imported into Africa – its place of origin – as a large scale plantation crop.

Resilience in terms of livelihoods is another matter. Corporate oil palm is a land-gobbling, people-dispelling machine. The Indonesian government promotes the crop as an engine of poverty reduction, but its focus is corporate profits. It previously obliged corporations to develop 80 percent of their concession area for smallholders, but the number now is reversed: 80 percent of the land can be used by the corporations. They treat smallholders as irritants to be swept out of the way, rather like mosquitoes. Industry promoters claim that one hectare of oil palm generates five jobs, but the actual number is one job per five hectares. The industry isn't highly mechanized, it just doesn't need many workers once the plantations are established.

Oil palm is foreclosing options. It uses a lot of water, making it difficult to grow anything else nearby. We don't know what the land will be good for after oil palm, or how climate change will affect it. Committing massively to one crop under these conditions seems like a bad promise – an IOU no-one should accept. But the risks aren't equally distributed. Most of us encounter palm oil as consumers. As Tania Murray Li argues in her guest editorial in this issue, its livelihood effects way up a river in Kalimantan are out of sight, out of mind.

Back cover


A young mother with her children in Bangladesh. Children are the raison d'être for couples in this densely populated country but women in particular. Involuntary childlessness tends to evoke pity but also condemnation and exclusion.

What happens to people when no children are born to them? Sjaak van der Geest and Papreen Nahar sketch the social, emotional, and existential consequences of unwanted childlessness.

Drawing on ethnographic work in Ghana and Bangladesh and on a British dystopian novel, they describe how childlessness leads to loneliness, sombreness and a sense of uselessness.

Inspired by the work of psychologist John Kotre and philosopher Ernst Bloch they proceed to make sense of these experiences by linking them to the issue of continuity / discontinuity and what it is to be human.

Life is future-oriented. Children constitute and personify continuation, also after death. Without children the future is locked. Life is interrupted and loses its meaning.

Through anthropological reflection on women's complaints and a novel about a future childless world, the authors search for a more profound understanding of what renewal of life means to human beings.