How do people make a living in rural Java and how were they affected by krismon, the Indonesian economic crisis of 1997/98? In Good Times and Bad Times in Rural Java Breman and Wiradi present detailed studies of two villages on the north coast of West Java, one ("North Subang") about half way between Jakarta and Cirebon, the other ("East Cirebon") about 25 kilometres from the latter city. Fieldwork had been done in both villages a decade earlier, allowing longitudinal comparisons.
There are differences between the two villages. North Subang has an "open field" system where anyone can turn up to work. And many of its young women have gone to work as maids in the Middle East. East Cirebon, in contrast, is in an area dominated by agro-industry and sugar mills, where agriculture has been marginalised. Its major diversification has been into brick-making.
Both villages have highly unequal distributions of land. In both, many had become dependent on regular long-distance labour migration, most importantly to building sites in Jakarta and the industrial townships around it ("Jabotabek"). Breman and Wiradi describe the workings of this circulation, along with the microeconomics of local agriculture, manufacturing, transport, retail, and services.
In mid-1998 bricks were sold for sixty thousand rupiah per thousand, but two years later the price had increased to ninety thousand to one hundred thousand rupiah. The increase reflected a proportionate increase in production costs. In 1998, a team of two adult workers were paid ten thousand rupiah for every thousand bricks they supplied to the kiln. My mid-2000, this had risen to twelve thousand to fourteen thousand rupiah. To bake a thousand bricks twenty to twenty-five sacks of chaff are required, at a price of one thousand rupiah per sack. The kiln worker were paid five thousand rupiah per thousand bricks in 1998, and carriers received two thousand rupiah for every thousand bricks they removed from the kiln. These rates, too, had increased by 40% two years later.
They pay particular attention to the differential impact of krismon, with the ultra-poor least able to access alternative employment and worst affected by the loss of rice subsidies.
Breman and Wiradi stay "close to the ground", but they do have some broader goals. They criticise arguments that the rural sector would not be so affected by krismon and could easily absorb those who had lost jobs in the cities. And they find no evidence of social support networks to give substance to claims about "communal solidarity" in rural Java. They also touch on the limited extent to which political reformasi has influenced power structures at the village level.
There are some fascinating details in Good Times and Bad Times in Rural Java, but they are not well-connected to broader arguments. It will be a useful source for Java specialists, but is unlikely to command much of a broader audience — in particular, it is unlikely to reach those economists responsible for overly optimistic predictions about the resilience of the Javanese rural economy.