In 1830, the Dutch colonial state implemented the “cultivation system” which ordered indigenous farmers in the Dutch East Indies to reserve 20% of their land for the production of export crops. Export and food crops were grown in the same irrigation system. Canal systems and management procedures were needed to ensure that all fields were properly irrigated. As sugar was an important export product, the Dutch colonial state demanded maximum harvests of sugarcane. The cultivation system, however, resulted in unequal water distribution as it created difficulties for growing food crops like rice, the staple food of Indonesian people.
Rice and sugarcane have different cultivation periods. Sugarcane grows for three years, but only needs to be irrigated during the dry, east monsoon. During the east monsoon, farmers also grew so-called polowidjo crops (grains, vegetables, etcetera). The sugar fields were irrigated during the day, fields planted with other crops were irrigated at night. This complex water distribution could be realised, for instance, by using a Romijn weir.
The standard starting date for west monsoon irrigation was 16 October. The best fields, which were irrigated right from October, gave the best yields, but not all fields were evenly irrigated. Therefore, each field was made part of a larger unit, a golongan. A typical irrigation system had about 5 to 7 golongans, receiving water one after the other. Every year, another golongan was allowed to start irrigating. However, occasionally this circulation of ‘first right’ was not fully applied.
Sugar plantations wanted to plant their crop directly after the rice was harvested. So, plantations preferred that the fields they were going to rent would be in early golongans. However, some rice fields were never rented by the plantations, which meant that these fields could not be (or become) part of an early golongan. Furthermore, the fields that were given back to rice farmers when the east monsoon ended could not be irrigated early either, as they first needed to be prepared for rice cultivation.
So, in different ways, the two seasons created an unequal relationship between cash crops and food crops.