Man cutting rubber tree with fahat.Kalimantan IndonesiaCycling around Balikpapan is all kinds of fun, but perhaps the best part of it is the random field trip encountered during these rides, like riding through rambutan plantations, watching mussels gleaned at low tide and then smoked, visiting a farmer harvesting seaweed for sale to cosmetic industries, or, as was the case this Sunday, cycling through Kalimantan’s rubber tree plantations.

During an especially rut-riddled course starting from  Manggar Reservoir (“Waduk Manggar”), winding through 20 kilometers of forest and ending at Manggar Beach (“Pantai Manggar”), Sam, Pak Yayan and I encountered wild boars running through the underbrush, a bizarre moped driver selling ice cream from a cooler strapped to the back (who buys ice cream in a forest?!) and then of course this gentlemen, a rubber tree plantation field worker who seemed just as stunned to encounter us as we were delighted to encounter him.

man holding fahat

The man, who holds a special rubber-tapping knife called a Fahat in Bahasa Indonesian, explained that everyday, he walks between the estimated 1000 rubber trees (“Pohon Karet”) and carefully slices a new strip into the bark, where the milky rubber sap, which is called latex, trickles anew into a plastic container — typically a recycled soda bottle or gas jug.

Natural latex tapped from rubber tree

The congealed latex is then collected and sold to various industries for processing. From what this worker told us, he can expect to collect about 20 kilograms of latex a day — which doesn’t seem a whole lot considering the amount of work involved in tapping 1000 trees — but here’s the part that really hit home for us: one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of latex sells for only 6,5000 Rupiah! That’s less than fifty cents USD per today’s exchange rate, which means a day’s worth of harvesting 20 kilograms of latex sells for about 10 USD.

rubber tree plantation

And when you think about the man doing the harvesting, who as a field worker does not reap the sale cost for his labor, one could assume he’s lucky if he meets the current minimum wage in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, which stands at about 156 USD per month, or assuming a 20-day workweek, just under 8 USD a day.

As we watched the white drip of latex pooling into those plastic bottles and jugs and cups, still reeling from the cost-benefit implications of such labor, we were reminded once again of how fortunate we are to live in a place like this, to meet people who make nothing by US standards, and yet are happy to patiently share their knowledge with a blundering Bahasa-wannabe-speaker, all the while expecting absolutely nothing in return. I don’t know if such kindness and generosity can be found in many other places in the world, but I know that it is found here in abundance.

2 thoughts on “Cycling through Kalimantan’s Rubber Tree Plantations

  1. Neat article, Jesse. It’s hard to believe people are still living on so little there!

    1. You are right: the difference in pay scale is astonishing. Admittedly, the cost of living remains significantly less than anywhere in the States, but that said, what people need to live happily and have a fulfilled sense of being provides a refreshing juxtaposition to our typical western point of view.

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