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The Nature and Culture of Rattan

The Nature and Culture of Rattan: Reflections on Vanishing Life in the Forests of Southeast Asia

Stephen F. Siebert
Copyright Date: 2012
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  • Book Info
    The Nature and Culture of Rattan
    Book Description:

    Rattan is the common name for a diverse group of climbing palms found throughout Old World tropical forests. For centuries people have used them for binding, basketry, house construction, food, and numerous other non-market purposes; more recently the canes of some species have been gathered for the multi-billion-dollar furniture, handicraft, and mat-making industries. Thus rattan continues to be vital to the culture and economic well being of millions of cane collectors, laborers, and artisans throughout tropical Asia and Africa. The Nature and Culture of Rattan explores this valuable forest product, the tropical forests on which it depends, and the societies that flourish by using and managing these remarkable plants. The Nature and Culture of Rattan provides a distinctive and engaging review of rattan and the people whose lives are centered on it. It examines rattan use, biology, human culture, and challenges in tropical field research and conservation through the knowledge of cane workers in three Southeast Asian forest villages where the author lived over a twenty-five-year period. He effectively challenges commonly held views of "slash and burn" farming, rainforest destruction, and population increase while underscoring the myriad forces involved in individual decision-making and social and environmental change. Personal stories and experiences are integrated with scientific information in a manner that will attract nonspecialists as well as students and researchers. The Nature and Culture of Rattan will be a valuable addition to undergraduate and graduate courses in ecology, anthropology, rural sociology and development, forestry, and natural resource management. A website ( includes additional photographs, suggested reading, and discussion topics.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6038-7
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    John Dransfield

    In the rain forests of the Southeast Asian region and the Indonesian archipelago rattans occur in abundance—or at least, they used to. They also grow in the Western Ghats of India and in Sri Lanka and in the ever-wet areas of Equatorial Africa. Vicious climbing plants armed with fierce spines, they are responsible for the highly characteristic appearance of much of the remaining forests in these regions. Wherever they occur, they have been utilized to varying levels of intensity, supplying instant cordage, material for basket and mat weaving and bridge building, kitchen utensils, dyes, medicines, and thatch, all overshadowed...

    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Rattan and a Changing World
    (pp. 1-6)

    Rattan. The word means little to most Westerners. To some it may suggest exotic cane furniture or handicrafts, sometimes referred to incorrectly as wicker. However, mention rattan (rotan) to an Indonesian villager or other rural inhabitant of Southeast Asia and you’re likely to be met with a smile and a laundry list of diverse uses and values, both utilitarian and aesthetic.

    Rattan is the common name of a large and diverse group of climbing palms found throughout Old World tropical forests that constitute one of the world’s most important nontimber forest products.¹ Rattan is used for binding, basketry, home construction,...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Ecology, Diversity, and Climbing Prowess of Rattan
    (pp. 7-20)

    Tropical forests are widely appreciated for their beauty and rich diversity. Biological diversity refers not only to the number of distinct species in a particular environment, that is, species richness, but also the genetic variability within and between populations, and to differences between plant communities, such as lowland tropical forests and montane tropical forests. An important and unique attribute of tropical forests is their structure, specifically the complexity and layers of vegetation between the ground and tree canopy.¹ A complex forest structure provides a wide variety of homes, or habitats, for a correspondingly rich diversity of growth forms, including lianas,...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Historical and Current Uses of Rattan
    (pp. 21-30)

    Rattan is arguably the world’s most important and widely used non-timber forest product (NTFP). From the age-old trade of dragon’s blood (dyes and medicines extracted from various species ofDaemonorops) to the multibillion-dollar international cane-furniture industry, rattan is of unsurpassed social and economic value (fig. 3.1).¹ Rattan has probably been utilized for as long as humans have lived in the tropical forests of Asia and Africa, and their trade is ancient as well. Rattan products have traveled from the Malay Peninsula to China for a thousand years, while rattan mats and dragon’s blood have been traded from Borneo to China...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Forest Communities and Rattan Management
    (pp. 31-42)

    The countless domestic uses of rattan, in addition to cane collection for cash income, assure that all those who live near forests utilize rattan for at least some purposes. Not surprisingly, cultures that have resided near or farmed and collected in forests for centuries have the richest rattan knowledge and traditions, and the most extensive uses. These are the rattan civilizations described by E. J. H. Corner.¹

    Households living in or near forests typically collect and utilize a large number of rattans and other nontimber forest products (NTFPs). For example, one Iban community in Sarawak was found to regularly use...

  9. CHAPTER 5 From Forest to Furniture Boutique
    (pp. 43-50)

    The path that rattan travels from remote tropical forests to fashionable furniture boutiques in Europe and North America is not only a wild adventure but also a fine illustration of the role forest resources play in rural and urban households. The trip along this commodity chain begins in rain forests: in the towering dipterocarp forests of Sumatra and Borneo, in the rugged mountains of Sulawesi, or in countless other rattan-gathering grounds in Asia and Africa where collectors gather cane to meet the demands of domestic and international furniture makers.

    Virtually all the cane gathered for the multibillion-dollar global rattan furniture...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Rattan and Household Livelihood
    (pp. 51-57)

    The development and maintenance of secure and sustainable livelihoods is crucial to the eradication of poverty and to environmental conservation.¹ The concept of livelihood refers to the various means and requirements by which people gain a living, including individual capabilities; tangible assets such as capital, labor, and resources; and important intangible assets such as claims and access to land and resources.² In Southeast Asia, rattan gathering, hunting, and forest farming occur primarily on public, government lands. Although these activities have supported households for generations, Southeast Asian governments rarely recognize historic ownership claims or access rights to rattan or other forest...

  11. CHAPTER 7 The History of a Sulawesi Rattan Village
    (pp. 58-67)

    The village of Moa lies nestled between steep forested ridges and a cascading river in the mountains of Central Sulawesi, approximately 100 km southeast of Palu, the provincial capital. Moa is home to some seventy-two households, all of which belong to an ethnolinguistic group known as the Uma, who have lived in the Lariang River drainage southwest of what is now Lore Lindu National Park for centuries. The livelihoods of villagers in Moa and neighboring villages revolve around rattan and other forest product gathering, hunting, swidden agriculture, and forest farming.

    Throughout the 1990s, I stayed with Arnol and his family...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Cane Gathering: Nuisances, Risks, and Pain
    (pp. 68-78)

    I returned to the village of Moa every year during the mid to late 1990s to investigate the potential of cultivating and managing rattan and effects associated with cane harvesting. Among other tasks, Daud and I annually resurveyed marked rattan plants whose canes had been harvested at different intensities and collected information on soil conditions, light regimes, and associated vegetation. The marked plants were a few kilometers from Moa on steep slopes inside Lore Lindu National Park. Long-term ecological studies of this sort are essential to assess effects associated with cane harvesting and to evaluate the viability of sustainable harvesting....

  13. CHAPTER 9 Sustainable Harvesting: A Local View
    (pp. 79-90)

    Defining and implementing sustainable use of tropical forests and its myriad products have been hotly contested for decades. Academics and conservationists have penned hundreds of papers and convened dozens of conferences to argue the meaning, potential paths, obstacles to, and the viability of sustainable resource use.¹ On one side are those who contend that not only are economic use and biodiversity conservation compatible but also that clearly recognized use of and value for biodiversity by local people is essential to socially acceptable and economically viable protected-area management.² On the other side are those who assert that sustainable resource use has...

  14. Chapter 10 Rattan Cultivation: Rich History, Uncertain Future
    (pp. 91-101)

    Although virtually all the rattan used in the commercial furniture and domestic household sectors is collected from wild populations in natural forests, illustrative rattan cultivation traditions exist among some forest cultures.¹ Because of widespread timber harvesting, forest conversion, and overharvesting of wild canes, rattan cultivation will be a vital component in sustaining the rattan furniture manufacturing sector. Some communities have cultivated rattan for over a century, and this knowledge and experience could facilitate cane cultivation and development efforts elsewhere.

    For example, the Lawangan people, inhabitants of the forest in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, had integrated rattan into their long-fallow swidden cultivation...

  15. Chapter 11 Rattan, Religion, and Family Planning
    (pp. 102-107)

    Wherever I have wandered in the forests of Asia, two topics invariably emerge almost immediately when speaking with farmers and rattan collectors: religion and birth control. The former is perhaps predictable, but the latter has always surprised me. In both cases, I have been impressed by the honesty and seriousness shown in the ensuing discussions.

    The key to discussions about religion is primarily to acknowledge you have a religion and second to avoid aligning yourself with a specific religious group where conflicts exist. My wife, Jill, who is a rural sociologist with a focus on environment and development issues and...

  16. CHAPTER 12 Conclusion: Daud, Our Sons, and the Future
    (pp. 108-118)

    After long, hot, tiring days in the field, Daud and I often retired to the stream that flows through Moa to wash, relax, and chat. Daud taps a nearby sugar palm (Arenga pinnata) twice daily to gather the sweet, slightly fermented, mildly alcoholic sagueir, which we sip after bathing (fig. 12.1). We are the same age and we each have one son, also the same ages. Conversation flows easily, facilitated by palm wine, a shared history together, and similar outlooks on life.

    Like old men everywhere we reminisce about the good old days and lament recent changes: the loss of...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 119-128)
    (pp. 129-140)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 141-146)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 147-148)