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Land Tenure and Development Among the Rungus Dunsun of Sabah, Malaysia

Reprinted from Modernization and the Emergence of a Landless Peasantry: Essays on the Integration of Peripheries to Socioeconomic Centers, edited by G. N. Appell. Studies in Third World Societies Publication No. 33. Williamsburg, Virginia: Studies in Third World Societies.

G. N. Appell
Brandeis University


The Rungus are a people of northern Sabah, Malaysia. They live in the Kudat Division and their language is one of the many isoglots of the Dusunic language group (Appell 1968a).1 In addition to the Rungus, there are thirteen or fourteen other self-conscious, named Dusunic-speaking, ethnic groups in the Kudat Division, each of which is primarily localized in an ethnically homogeneous area.

The Rungus are the most visible and most numerous of these Dusunic groups. I estimated that they numbered about 10,000 people in the early 1960s at the time of our original research. They are found on both peninsulas of the Kudat Division, the Kudat Peninsula and the Melabong Peninsula. This description of Rungus land tenure, however, pertains only to those living on the Kudat Peninsula, with whom we resided. It may, nevertheless, be extrapolated with caution to the Rungus of the Melabong Peninsula on the other side of Marudu Bay.

Research on the traditional Rungus sociocultural system was undertaken by myself and my wife in 1959-60 and 1961-63. During the second part of our original field work the Rungus began to experience increasing pressure on their land and were subjected to social and economic change by forces over which they had little control. The first part of this article will consider the traditional sociocultural system, and I will use the ethnographic present. Then I will consider some of the consequences of both directed and undirected social change that we were able to examine during our brief restudy in the summer of 1986.2



The Rungus are swidden agriculturalists, and the major social units are the domestic family, the longhouse, and the village. The domestic family is most frequently a conjugal family consisting of a man and his wife--the two founders--and their children.

Each domestic family cultivates its own swidden, and, in addition, raises a number of chickens and pigs. Marriage is essentially monogamous, and residence is uxorilocal. First cousin marriage is considered incestuous and ritually dangerous, but it may occur if the proper ritual payments are made. Cousin kinship terminology is essentially of the Eskimo type, although in certain situations the Hawaiian type may also be used to indicate social solidarity. The terminology for parents’ siblings is lineal. A kindred type of social isolate is not present (Appell 1967).

The number of inhabitants of a village can vary from 40 to approximately 400 people. And a village may be composed of one or more longhouses. These may be located together or scattered in various hamlets in the village territory. The longhouse is in essence a condominium, composed of the various apartments built and owned by the domestic families. As there are no nearby sources of ironwood, the posts of the longhouses rapidly rot. Because of this, or the incidence of sickness, or the desire to move closer to new swidden areas, longhouses are subject to frequent changes of member families, and they seldom last in one location more than seven to ten years.

The Ecology of the Domestic Family

The domestic family is the primary production and consumption unit of Rungus society. As such it is part of a complex human ecosystem that is composed of three subsystems: the land tenure system; the domestic family social system; and its agricultural system, or agroecosystem (see Rambo and Sajise 1984; Martin 1986). Thus, to understand the impact that changes in the land tenure system and modernization of agriculture have had on Rungus society it is necessary to sketch out the major features of this human ecosystem.

Land Tenure in Borneo. Land tenure is a critical part of the human ecology of the domestic family and integrates the domestic family with the village community along with the institutions of kinship, marriage, and economic exchanges.

There are two basic types of land tenure in Borneo: circulating usufruct and devolvable usufruct (see Appell 1986). In each type the village has residual rights to a territory. Only village members may cultivate in the village territory without permission of the headman. In circulating usufruct, a domestic family cuts its swidden in a new area each year, and no permanent use rights are established by cutting primary or other forms of forest. In devolvable usufruct, a domestic family or individual establishes permanent usufruct over an area by being the first to cut the primary forest (see Appell 1986).

Swidden Rights of the Rungus Domestic Family. In Rungus society, the form of land tenure is circulating usufruct. The domestic family by virtue of its membership in the village has the right to cultivate any area of the village territory, except those planted in fruit trees. Each year, shortly after the last year’s rice crop has been harvested and threshed, the male founders of the various domestic families, either singly or in groups, go out to locate new swidden areas for their families for the next agricultural season. When a satisfactory area has been found, each marks his swidden boundaries with a few cuts of his parang. He then informally notifies his fellow longhouse members, or the members of the longhouse nearest his new swidden, as to the location of his prospective swidden.

Rights to use this swidden area lie with the cultivator until his last crops are harvested at the end of the agricultural season. If the cultivator has planted cassava, the period of rights over that area may last for two or three years, until the last cassava has been harvested or abandoned. Then the area reverts back into the control of the village.

This lack of continuity of use over a tract of swidden land by the original cultivator or his descendants is illustrated by the use of land during the 1961 agricultural season in the village where we resided. Out of a sample of 69 families, 63 cut swiddens in areas cultivated by some other family in the previous cycle.

Domestic Family Social System and Developmental Cycle. When a son desires to marry, a substantial bride-price of gongs, brassware, and ceramic ware is provided for him from the accumulated assets of his domestic family. This, as well as the other institutions that lead up to marriage and the eventual foundation of a new domestic family, is justified by the major value premise in Rungus society: all sexual relations, unless they are properly entered into through a marriage, are potentially deleterious to the participants, their families, the village as a whole, the swiddens, and the domestic animals in the village. Because of this value premise, the sexual and reproductive services of the female are highly valued, scarce services, and the explicit, acknowledged purpose of the bride-price is the purchase of rights to the enjoyment of these.

After the wedding the newly married pair resides with the bride’s natal domestic family until the next agricultural season. They then build a separate longhouse apartment, ideally onto the longhouse where the bride’s natal family resides, and found their own domestic family. Thus, the Rungus domestic family most frequently consists of the two founders or the two founders and their children. This domestic family may also be joined by the parents or widowed parent of one of the two founders on the dissolution of the parental domestic family after the marriage of its last child and when the parents can no longer carry on swidden activities.

All members of the domestic family contribute their labor to the economy of the domestic family. Young girls start imitating the work of their mothers at about the age of three years, and by the time they are around twelve, they are accomplished in all housekeeping tasks. As soon as they can handle the responsibilities of the household, they free their mother for work in the swiddens. Young girls also help in the less arduous tasks in the swiddens. Young boys do small chores around the household, and by the time they are ten or twelve years old they start helping in the swiddens (see L. W. R. Appell n.d.).

Profits from the household ecology are invested in gongs, brassware, jars, and other ceramic ware. This property is owned corporately by the domestic family and serves as an investment that can be liquidated for food and clothing in times of poor harvests (see Appell 1976, 1978, 1983, 1984). Some of the agricultural surpluses are also sold to Chinese shops to repay debts or for cash. The Rungus are dependent on these shops for sugar, kerosene, cloth, cookware, tinned fish, etc.

The Agricultural Ecosystem. The farming system of the Rungus is a complex, multileveled ecosystem composed of various food crops, fruit trees, plants for raw materials, domestic animals, and wild animals.

After cutting the forest and firing the slash, the domestic family first plants maize. Then rice is planted in a number of different varieties varying in their fit to soil and water conditions, vulnerability to environmental perturbations, and in maturation time. After the rice has sprouted, cassava in two or more varieties is grown. A number of vegetables and other plants are also planted. These include long beans, cucumbers, melons, taro, yams, bananas, eggplant, sugar cane, pineapple, etc. In addition, the swidden contains herbs and spices, ritual plants, and, if the female founder of the family weaves, a couple varieties of cotton and dye plants.

The ecosystem of the domestic family also includes its domestic animals. Pigs and chickens scavenge around the longhouse for the bran and broken rice kernels from rice huskings, human excrement, and discarded vegetable matter. They are also fed surplus maize and cassava. Water buffalo are let roam to graze in the forest. The swidden crops and swiddens reverting to forest attract a variety of wild animals including bats, rodents, primates, reptiles, ungulates, etc. These are hunted, and dogs are kept to help in the chase. Wild fruits and roots also form part of the diet of the domestic family.

The domestic animals are sacrificed in various rituals to relieve illness, for marriage, and to promote the fertility of swiddens, family, and village. Thus, they, along with the wild animals hunted, form an integral part of the cycling of nutrients in the domestic family ecosystem.

Around the field house and the apartment of the domestic family papaya, banana, terap, lansat, and other fruit trees are also planted.

Wet Rice and Rights Over Wet Rice Fields. Wet rice plays a part, albeit a minor part, in the human ecology of some of the domestic families. Sometime in the early 1930s, according to our estimate, a Rungus man and his son from the village in which we did our field work visited the wet rice areas to the south. They brought back with them specific details on the cultivation of wet rice and began to plant it in a swampy area within the village boundaries. Over time various other families joined in this effort. However, they were a minority in the village. And not every year have these fields been planted in wet rice. There are several reasons for this.

First, there is insufficient control over the stream that goes through this area. Dams have to be rebuilt each year, which involves considerable labor. Then, if it rains too heavily, the rice can be flooded out. Thus, while the yields are larger than in swiddens, they are more unpredictable.

These rice fields are perceived to be the property of those individuals who constructed the dams and the bunds. Others cannot use these fields without the permission of the owners. When agricultural development became a reality in the area, one of the first requests was for help in building more permanent dams.

The Cultivation And Ownership of Trees. The Rungus plant a variety of fruit and nut trees. These may be planted anywhere in the village reserve, but it is more usual to plant them near a settlement, around the edges of a sacred grove, or in a cemetery site so that they will not be vulnerable to destruction by escaped swidden fires.

The planting of fruit trees implies no rights over the surrounding land, and anyone may cultivate up to and around these trees.

The original planter may divide his fruit trees among his offspring to avoid disputes over who has rights to them after his death. This is becoming, it appears, the more common method. However, trees may be devolved upon all heirs, both male and female, without division.

All rights over cultivated trees are held by individuals and not the category of descendants of the original planter. Consequently, I have concluded that no corporate descent groups exist in Rungus society (see Appell 1983, 1984, 1987).

The Domestic Family and Village as Ritual and Jural Entities

The domestic family engages in economic activities corporately and owns its retained agricultural earnings as a corporate group. This jural corporateness is also mirrored in the ritual realm. The domestic family sacrifices pigs and chickens to various members of the supernatural world to cure illness of members and to ensure the fertility of the swiddens. This establishes a state of goodwill between the spirit world and the domestic family as a corporate entity (see Appell 1976).

Unlike the village, the Rungus longhouse is neither a jural entity nor a ritual entity, with perhaps one minor exception (see Appell 1976, 1983, 1984). Instead, the next larger social entity above the domestic family that is a ritual and jural entity is the village, particularly with respect to the area of land it owns (see Appell 1976, 1983, 1984). The rights of the village over its territory and the rights of residents to use its assets are explicit and define the ritual and jural personality of the village.

The territory of the village, or village reserve, usually encompasses a drainage area of one of the small streams that run out of the height of land forming the backbone of the Kudat Peninsula. The village boundaries thus run along heights of land. This village reserve contains a number of sacred groves with indwelling spirits. These spirits are easily angered if their groves are cut to plant swiddens, and they vent their anger by making the culprit or his family ill. Certain of these groves may be owned by the village corporately, if the indwelling spirits have been propitiated in a corporate village ceremony.

Each resident domestic family has the right to cut swiddens in the village reserve, while nonresidents may not without the permission of the village headman. The village has no right to limit the size of swiddens that a family may cut. Nor are any rights to use of the village territory lost through the perpetration of a delict. Fruit trees may be planted by village members in any part of the village reserve not already in use, and the village has no control over this as long as fruit tree groves are not established in an area particularly vulnerable to destruction by swidden fires.

During ceremonies held every decade or so to promote the fertility of the village land, crops, domestic animals, and inhabitants, the village boundaries are closed off for a period of time to prevent the intrusion of anyone from outside. Such an intrusion would reduce or nullify the effects of the ceremony, and any intruder is subject to a fine.

Furthermore, no wood can be taken by a nonresident from the village reserve for building a field house or for firewood, as this would result in a ritual delict involving the loss of fertility of the village reserve. Cutting timber for the construction of a longhouse in another village threatens the ritual goodwill of the nearest longhouse in the territory. This brings illness and death to the members of that longhouse.

Nonresidents may use any paths in the village reserve and may hunt and take whatever wild produce they desire as they pass through as long as it is for their own use and not for sale. However, the cutting of bark to construct a granary by a nonresident is considered a delict and the culprit must pay a chicken to the headman. Also nonresidents may not plant fruit trees in a village reserve without the village headman’s approval.



The process of articulation of the Rungus economy and sociocultural system to the modern world system had just begun during our first period of field work in 1959-1960. It accelerated during our second period of field work in 1961-63. When we returned in the summer of 1986 for a brief visit the process was almost complete. One headman estimated that 60 per cent of Rungus culture had disappeared.

During this period of growing articulation, psychosocial deprivation and devaluation of the Rungus population was a continuing process.

Processes of Incorporating Rungus Society Into the National Economy and World System

Psychosocial Deprivation and Devaluation. The dehumanization of a peripheral population is in the service of the center for its economic gain. It is a universal process (see Appell 1980, n.d.a, and the Introduction of this volume). Those populations that own resources, including labor service, that the economic center wants for its own expansion are portrayed in less than human terms. And this provides the justification for the representatives of the center to introduce social change and secure control over the populations and their resources.

The Devaluation of the Rungus. Like other peripheral populations, the Rungus were perceived by many in the colonial government as “dumb.” One Englishman said that they sat around town with their mouths hanging open.

“Dirty” was another frequently used term for them. But it was not only used by the governing elites, it was also used by Dusunic speakers who had been converted to Christianity or who had had some education. For example, a visiting dresser from another Dusunic group refused to sleep in our Rungus village but chose to sleep in a distant Chinese shop as the village was “dirty.”

A Chinese agricultural officer visited our field station located close by a longhouse of 98 people in a village of 356 people. He asked us how we liked living down there away from “human beings.”

Another form of dehumanization occurs when a group is ascribed characteristics of personality or culture that they do not in fact have. An example of this appeared in an editorial of a newspaper that was then controlled by the head of the Kadazan Cultural Association. This association was formed to forward the interests of Dusunic speakers around the capital of the country, but the term “Kadazan” was being extended to all Dusunic speakers to enlarge the potential membership for the association. The editorial read:

New wet padi areas in Kudat” said a small headline last Thursday. But the six words are full of meaning ... to the people of the kampongs [villages] the words mean new hope; the hope of having their stomachs filled regularly, of the possibility of having rice in their rice stores throughout the year instead of having to go out into the jungle to forage for food ...
In the Kudat area are some thirty thousand Rungus Kadazans [Dusunic speakers] whose agricultural methods are among the most primitive in the country ... One of the greatest need in the work of helping the Rungus ... is to make them change some of their habits, some of their customs. There are those who would prefer to see the Rungus remain as they are, primitive, often half starved, devoid of leadership by their own people--a living specimen of what they prefer to think are the aborigines of Sabah a human prey to all other peoples who live near them. But these people have been steeped too long in their initiative destroying adat and must be shown new ways of life, better ways of living.
Wet padi has a great stabilising influence among the people; those who practise shifting cultivation live a nomadic life, primitive and quite unimaginable by those who are accustomed to live in settled communities. Wet padi has made them stay in one place, develop the areas they live in, plant fruit trees, keep poultry, pigs and buffaloes and improve their lot to the extent where modern civilisation can be absorbed without much difficulty.

If the Rungus are to be helped they must also be helped to settle, maybe even to break up their long houses to give them more initiative and individuality. We have always felt that the baby “communes” of the longhouses both in Sarawak and North Borneo have been in no small measure responsible for the slow advance of the people who live in them. It is only by living in settled conditions that the people can receive the benefit of educating their children, of receiving medical attention of which they are in great need, of being able to live better, civilised lives [North Borneo News and Sabah Times 1962:2].

It is hard to counter such nonsense and misinterpretations of reality as these because they are the myths that are critical for organizing the world view of those at the center or of those who wish to be associated with the values and rewards of the center. However, the truth is that lack of food was not a problem among the Rungus we knew. They were less nomadic than I suspect Americans are. Fruit tree groves were everywhere within the village territory. There were areas set aside for cemeteries. And each locale in the village reserve was known and named. Furthermore, the Rungus were first-rate capitalists. Property was owned by the individual as a result of inheritance, or by the domestic family as a corporate grouping. Agricultural surpluses were invested in gongs, antique jars, brassware, and the like. Some families owned property that in total was worth approximately US$10,000 to US$15,000. And the village was close in form to the land-holding corporations chartered by the government (see Appell 1983, 1984), while the longhouse was in fact a condominium, not even slightly resembling a “commune” in jural and social organization.

Government officers shared these same attitudes. The Rungus, not only condemned as “dirty,” were also charged with being “lazy,” with not using their land properly, with having a religion that interfered with their labor output. It was stated that they should spend more time in agricultural pursuits. And this should be done even at the expense of their weaving, which incidentally produced beautiful cloth that was a good source of income. The charge of laziness reflected the fact that their work schedules did not correspond to those of the English. Rungus frequently worked late into the night when it was cooler. In fact the Rungus were extraordinarily hard working and enterprising. And their religion not only paced their consumption of protein, which is necessary to a healthy population, but prohibited the over-use of alcoholic beverages (see Appell n.d.b).

The failure to recognize a group’s own social identity is another symptom of psychosocial deprivation and devaluation. There are thirteen or fourteen named ethnic and linguistic groups of Dusunic speakers in the Kudat region, each with a different adat--customary law. In some instances the variation in culture and language is so great that the Rungus isoglot and those of other Dusunic groups are not mutually intelligible. However, as the Rungus were the most visible ethnic group in the region, the English government officials and local individuals from the metropolitan areas in Sabah would refer to all the Dusunic speakers as “Rungus.”

A school was established during the time of our original field work at the nearby Chinese shop area, located at the head of the estuary of the river draining the region. This brought further aspects of dehumanization. The teacher required that the young boys cut off their long hair as it was “unclean.” The Rungus custom was for young men not to cut their hair until they had their first child. Yet there was no restriction on the custom of wearing of long hair by the girls.

The Chinese shopkeepers also told the Rungus that their children could not wear their traditional clothing to school, as the teacher would laugh at them. This consisted of shirts and trousers with flared legs for men, and for women, a sarong and an underskirt, which was frequently handwoven. The Rungus were told to purchase shirts and shorts and dresses from the shops. Also, they were told they would be laughed at if they used their usual carrying baskets for school. They would have to purchase school bags. Thus, this integrated the Rungus closer into the national economy, as they would have to find cash to meet the expenses of goods manufactured beyond their area.

Psychosocial deprivation and devaluation has many faces. It appears not only in linguistic contexts but in behavioral contexts during which the individual or group is treated as less human than others. One example is that of a missionary group giving out second-hand clothing gathered from donors in Europe. This began to replace the Rungus traditional dress, and as a result, this simple act had many symbolic ramifications. The Rungus became charity cases. Their traditional clothing was marked by the white man as inappropriate. And with the wearing of pieces of discarded clothing, the Rungus symbolized their status of being integrated into the national society at the lowest social level.

Psychosocial deprivation and devaluation had begun to have its impact on the Rungus at the time of our original field work and before the establishment of the school, so that their self-esteem was already under threat. This was illustrated in the constant theme of cultural, social, and racial inferiority that arose in discourse with Rungus. For example, it was common to hear statements such as white skin is “good,” or “beautiful”; Rungus skin is “no good”; “we are no good because we are poor.”

This dehumanization of the Rungus population has continued to the present even though the colonial government was replaced over two decades ago. In a sense external colonialism has been replaced with internal colonialism (see Alatas 1977 for a discussion of some of the implications of the new elites accepting the stereotypes and thinking of the colonial elites). For example, the department of agriculture runs extension courses to make the Rungus “modern.” One of these is to teach young housewives “modern” sewing and crafts. Yet the Rungus women have always made intricate embroidery to decorate their sarongs. And their weaving is highly developed and extraordinarily beautiful. Handwoven skirts and jackets now sell from US$40 to US$200. Yet in one of the extension courses the young married women were taught to make tacky little dogs of synthetic yarn which was teased to produce a “pekingese” of no intrinsic value, beauty, or use. And none of these younger housewives, many with babies and young children, know how to do the traditional weaving, which is now dying out.

The Rungus traditional housing is also perceived as inadequate, and government funds have been provided for the purchase of metal roofing and planks for walls. The metal roofing causes the houses to be so hot as to constitute a health hazard.

At one level the Rungus accept this peripherization and devaluation of their traditional culture. The course in which the “craft” of making yarn dogs was taught was considered highly successful by the community. One woman, who had been to America with her husband while he attended university, was so pleased with her effort that she had it ensconced in a eye-catching place in her house in its own glass protective case. Thus, the use of the symbols of the center, no matter how inappropriate or tacky, is an attempt to obtain a status that removes one from the category of the socially disadvantaged, from the peripherization and stereotyping that goes on in the processes of psychosocial deprivation and devaluation.

However, the Rungus have in general not responded to psychosocial deprivation and devaluation as expected. Perhaps the Rungus child rearing, which is still in tact, creates an adult that has basically a strong self-worth that can stand such stresses. For children are cuddled, responded to, wanted, and deeply loved. Certainly the Rungus, rather than accepting the situation as hopeless and retreating into apathy, rather than accepting the dehumanization as unchangeable and becoming demoralized, have responded to the challenge presented in the peripherization and devaluation. And they have fought back to gain control over their economic and social futures, over the newly developing social world. This search for control is a sign of positive community health.

One method for obtaining control has been to encourage their children to get as much schooling as possible so that they can get jobs that are well paid and positions in the government that have power. And the children have largely responded to the opportunity.

The Structure of Modernization. The Rungus believed in the 1960s that their political and economic futures lay in the hands of others. They were deeply concerned that they would lose control over their land and end up laboring for the Chinese economic interests and come under the political control of the Coastal Muslims. This was their interpretation of the highly complex social situation that confronted them as the region was becoming modernized and integrated more closely to the national economy and foreign markets.

There were a number of change agents that were attempting to integrate the Rungus into the country’s socioeconomic center and were contending for control over their labor, their land, or clientage. These agents included the government, Christian missions, the Coastal Muslims, and Chinese economic interests. In the later phases of our original field work political parties were permitted to be formed, and they attempted to represent the growing political interests of the Dusunic speakers in contending for their votes.

The Government. Our original field work covered two phases. In the first phase, 1959-60, the government was not involved in the problems of transfer of power to Malaysia. The country was still the Colony of North Borneo. During our second field work session, the
processes leading to the incorporation of the colony, now to be called Sabah, as a state in the new country of Malaysia were in flood tide. However, during both periods the administrative positions of District Officer, Officer in Charge of Police in the District (OCPD), and the Medical Officer were filled by British or Europeans. Only towards the conclusion of our original field work was the OCPD a Dusunic speaker, but from another ethnic group than the Rungus and a different district.

Administrative positions under these levels were occupied by Chinese, Coastal Muslim, and occasionally Dusunic speakers from other districts where educational opportunities had been available for some time. However, the clerks in the district office and the native chiefs were primarily Coastal Muslim. This category included various ethnic groups from the southern Philippines, who had been in the country for generations, and Brunei Malay.

In late 1961 political parties were permitted to be formed. Then, in 1962 the Brunei rebellion broke out and subsequently the border war with Indonesia. At the same time the Philippines were contesting the formation of Malaysia on the grounds of their old claims to Sabah. It was in this context that the government, from the governor on down, believed that rapid development was necessary to prevent subversion within and counter threats from without. There was not time in their view to consider development from the bottom up.

However, this was in reality only an intensification of their past policy. The government was uninformed, frequently misinformed, about Rungus culture. And most members of government seemed uninterested in informing themselves. Instead they worked largely with the stereotypes, common at that time, about the Rungus which dehumanized them. Psychosocial deprivation and devaluation has also the function of simplifying reality so that the dehumanized population can be manipulated in the service of the goals of the power holders. Consequently, there was no interest in what the land tenure system of the Rungus might be. The view of those in power was that the land could simply be put to better use--for the interests of the central government, of course.

What is unusual is that the emerging indigenous political elite recruited largely from urban areas or areas long Christianized also held similar stereotypes (see Alatas 1977 and the section above).

The Coastal Muslim. Prior to the British, the Coastal Muslim leaders were frequently the court of last resort to resolve disputes among the Rungus. However, to what degree they actually organized a government in the district is not known. Whatever the case, the British perceived them as being organizers of political relations and largely worked through them in dealing with the Rungus. Thus, the Rungus perceived that politically they were under the control of Coastal Muslim who did not always represent their legitimate interests. In fact, the Rungus were wary of the Coastal Muslim and frequently scared of those that worked in lower level government positions. Few Rungus spoke Malay, the lingua franca, and they were continually browbeaten by the clerks in the district office. As a result, they frequently turned to the Chinese shopkeepers to fill out any government forms that were necessary.

Chinese Towkay Interests. The Chinese largely controlled the economic life of the district through their shops, their plantations, and their export-import firms. The Chinese towkay--businessmen--were very interested in obtaining government title to land for plantations on the Kudat Peninsula. They wanted to situate these near Rungus villages because of the potential labor supply. It is interesting that on the other peninsula across the bay there was ample land, while on the Kudat Peninsula the land situation was very tight. But they were not as interested in this other area because of the scarcity of labor.

There were Chinese towkay in the district capital and at the head of many of the estuaries of the rivers, where they operated small shops and plantations. These rural towkay were frequently of mixed parentage and referred to as Sino-Dusun. All manufactured products purchased by the Rungus came from these Chinese shops. And they controlled the transportation from the rural areas to the district capital by the boats they owned. Rungus were permitted to travel on these Chinese owned boats for a fee, and if they wanted to transport agricultural products to the capital for sale at better prices they had to hire these boats.

The Rungus were deeply concerned over the economic domination of the Chinese. They maintained that they could not get accurate weights of their agricultural products from the Chinese. The Chinese knew well that their domination was based on their control of the information flow to the Rungus. One shop owner always turned off his radio when Rungus arrived, so that they would not hear the commodity prices and news. The Rungus in turn were seen hanging around Chinese shops, which was interpreted by the government as being lazy. What they were doing was learning, by observation and listening, as much as they could about the outside world.

In the rural areas the government frequently went through the local head of the Chinese community at the shop areas to send messages to the Rungus. As a result, the Rungus were never sure whether a command by a Chinese was from the government or not, and the Chinese used this to get free labor. One government officer said that the Chinese formed the “government” in the country areas. The leader of the local Chinese community took advantage of this. He would get gangs of Rungus laborers for “local community projects” at the shop area under the guise that he was carrying out the orders of the district officer. And he would threaten to report the Rungus headmen to the district officer unless they cooperated.

Thus, the Rungus were put in a subordinate position as the Chinese controlled both access to markets and the sources of information on government and economic affairs. And it was harder for the Rungus to make sound economic decisions, such as whether they would maximize their profits by selling their agricultural surpluses at the district capital or at the local, rural Chinese shops.

Christianity. The Rungus were subject to proselytization primarily from the Basel missionaries from Switzerland and Germany. They ran a dispensary at which they handed out second-hand European clothes to the Rungus, supplanting the native dress. The success of missions is measured by their governing bodies in terms of the number of conversions achieved.

In the beginning the Rungus perceived that conversion to Christianity would prevent them from becoming ill and make them wealthier. Christianity would protect them from the irascible and aggressive spirits who cause illness when offended. Many reside in wet places, springs, and other unusual natural phenomena; and they respond by causing illness when the groves of trees around such places are cut in preparing swiddens. The Rungus also believed, however, that if these were cut the country would become drier. But the missionaries reasoned that by becoming Christian the Rungus could cut these groves with impunity and plant them with rice. Being fertile places, they would reap a good harvest for sale. In 1986 when we returned few of these ritual groves were in existence, and the environment was markedly drier (see Appell n.d.b).

With the support and encouragement of the British colonial government, the Basel Mission established an agricultural school in the middle of the Rungus territory. The Rungus were anxious to learn how to read and write so as to be able to compete with the literate Chinese and Coastal Muslim in the political and economic sectors, and they were anxious to learn new agricultural practices to compete with the Chinese plantation owners. Unfortunately, the first principal of the school knew nothing of Rungus agricultural methods. He believed that they had to be taught how to plant fruit trees, since he thought they had none, and he was unable to identify the Rungus cultivars. Eventually this school provided subsidies, supplementary to those of the government, for planting land in coconuts.

After the formation of Malaysia, conversion to Christianity was perceived to have another benefit. It offered opposition to the political party that was being formed by the Coastal Muslim and which the Rungus believed would be inimical to their interests. Some converted to Christianity at that time. However, others converted to Islam in the supposition that they would get preferred treatment in the distribution of titles to land and to development resources.

The Development of Political Consciousness. The initiation of change by the top level of adminstration in any social system to the lower or local level can create inequities either in the basic policy itself or in its implementation. The system must have a feedback channel whereby these inequities and inefficiencies may be corrected (see Appell 1966a). Without such a channel the local-level population may become either apathetic or experience a rise in aggressive behavior. In a constitutional democracy this function of feedback is filled by political parties.
However, the colonial government of Sabah (then the Colony of North Borneo) had set in motion processes of change for the Rungus long before they permitted the formation of political parties in 1961 as part of the decolonization process. And this had created a need among the Rungus for feedback to the government hierarchy to reestablish some control over these development processes and their own future. However, the only opportunity of help appeared to be in the Kadazan Cultural Association, a quasi-political party that the government had permitted to be organized in the early 1950s to forward the interests, primarily cultural, of the Kadazan people.

The term “Kadazan” originally referred to one of the Dusunic linguistic and ethnic groups found in the area close to the capital of the country. The Kadazan had been converted to Catholicism before World War II and also had had the advantages of schools. As the Kadazan Cultural Association progressed it tended to use the term “Kadazan” for all Dusunic speakers. And when a political party was formed on the base of the Kadazan leadership, the use of the term continued in this extended sense in order to incorporate more Dusunic speakers into a party of common interest.

However, the Rungus when they were first approached by members of the Kadazan Cultural Association were uncomfortable being grouped under that ethnic label. They believed it represented primarily the interests of the Kadazan people, an ethnic group they viewed with some suspicion as many years before they had raided the Rungus villages for property. This had ceased, however, even before the arrival of the British.

On the other hand the Kadazan Cultural Association took positions that appealed to the Rungus. One Rungus who had attended a meeting of the association in the capital of the country opened up his report of what he had learned at the meeting with the following statements: (1) Do not sell land to the Chinese as it desecrates the bodies of your ancestors; (2) at the capital of the country and in the surrounding towns the government people are mostly Dusunic speakers, not Chinese; (3) there are shops owned and run by Dusunic speakers, not Chinese; (4) there are lots of schools there and the teachers are Dusunic speakers not Chinese. His report of the meeting included the exhortation from the head of the association to establish local cooperative societies to run shops and to buy and sell all their goods at such shops.

Furthermore, and it is not clear whether this represented the views of the Kadazan Cultural Association or that of the Rungus visitor, he said that they were told not to work for the Chinese if they had enough food. He also said that the Dusunic speakers are today the slaves of the Chinese, so buy from Kadazan shops, go to school, learn to use the Chinese scales so that you will be no longer cheated by the Chinese, and do not sell to the Chinese. They were also told to buy sewing machines and make their own pants and shirts, so as not to have to buy them from the Chinese, and continue to weave cloth for women’s skirts. Finally, the Rungus visitor said he asked the members of the Kadazan Cultural Association how long they had been wealthy. And they reported that about 40 years ago they had become Kadazan and for the past 25 years they have been wealthy.

Other meetings of the Kadazan Cultural Association were held locally. And it was again emphasized that if the Chinese were giving any trouble, they should tell the leader of the Kadazan Cultural Association.

Agricultural Development Schemes

Land development schemes for rural populations are purported to improve the economic status of such populations. But if they result in monoculture, they can also make such populations more vulnerable to external economic conditions and therefore less able to adapt. This may be exacerbated if in the process the adaptive resources of the indigenous culture are lost through educational policies that ignore local resources and through various attempts to reorient the local population towards the values and objectives of the center. Not only can this lead to a crisis of identity and a sense of loss, producing social bereavement and what I have termed “the social separation syndrome” (see Appell n.d.a), but also this can result in the affected rural populations becoming economically deprived during periods of economic recession if they have lost their old adaptive skills.

But land development schemes have other functions that perhaps provide stronger motivating forces for government intervention. They redirect the labor and reorganize the local resources for the benefit of the national economy and the support of a growing government bureaucracy. In sum, they capture some, if not all, of the surplus value of labor for the benefit of the government hierarchy and economic interests in the center to the loss of the rural populations. It is in this light we must analyze the various land development schemes that were designed for the Rungus.

The British government, for some time prior to our first field work, had tried to get the Rungus to take up title to land under the government system of land tenure and to plant coconuts or put in wet rice fields. There was some agricultural support for both plans in terms of subsidized coconut seedlings and help for dam building. Then, in 1959 the District Officer in charge of the Rungus area mistakenly perceived that there were vast amounts of jungle not being used by the Rungus. And this would become available to agricultural development because of a road to be put through the Rungus territory. The District Officer did not understand the Rungus system of land tenure. And he was not knowledgeable enough to see that most of the forest was secondary jungle regenerating after being used for swiddens (see Appell 1966a). In fact, the Rungus had just about reached the peak of utilization of their ecosystem without starting degradation of it.3

However, the District Officer planned to open up the areas along the new road for Chinese settlement both for economic development and to “shock the Rungus into change,” he said. The Rungus, according to his stereotypes--the standard ones of colonial society--were lazy, not motivated by economic interest, improvident in their expenditures for their ceremonies, hampered in their economy by their traditional religion, and backward. An inversion of reality.

The Rungus were greatly concerned about the loss of their land. They had seen this happening in the areas around the district headquarters and were experiencing this locally as the Chinese attempted to obtain land for plantations, spreading out from their small settlements at the heads of estuaries where they also operated small shops. The administration would not accept any applications for land near a Rungus village without the headman signing it as an indication of the community’s approval in order to prevent the incursion of Chinese interests. However, it was common knowledge that some headmen would take bribes to sign land applications for Chinese without telling the community.

When the government permitted the formation of political parties, the leader of the Dusunic speaking party objected to the government about the growing economic power of the Chinese vis-`a-vis the Rungus and particularly their growing control over Rungus land. Thus, when a new District Officer came in charge in 1961 who was more educated, open, and sensitive to these issues, this complaint, along with my representation of the Rungus land tenure system, resulted in a change of the agricultural development project along the road. It was now to be open only to the Rungus, and agricultural subsidies were provided for planting coconuts and housing.

However, during our survey in 1986 we found that only a few villages had taken advantage of the government plantation scheme along the road. And many of those individuals who had originally taken part in it had subsequently withdrawn. There were various reasons for not participating in the scheme. First, in some villages the plans to develop plantation plots along the road interfered with the allocation of land to individuals that had been done informally within the village. Second, the plots were long and narrow to provide as many as possible with road frontage. This form was not believed to be efficient use of the land by some Rungus, which caused them not to enter the scheme. Furthermore, the land selected was not particularly good for coconuts, and the Rungus who did not join argued that the acreage alloted could not provide sufficient income to support a family. Also people were supposed to build individual houses on these plots. But these houses were not popular, partly because they were isolated, and partly because this land development scheme did not easily permit the Rungus to practice fully the human ecology of their domestic family system.

A second type of agricultural development program began in the mid-1970s. Three contiguous plots were chosen as a site for starting an oil palm plantation and cooperative. Some of these villages did not want to go into it, but they were pressured into it by the government. The government built a large resettlement area in which they constructed individual houses on small plots. The houses are a considerable distance from water, and a limited amount of water is trucked in. Each family is given a daily allocation which is insufficient for its household needs.

The members of this scheme were paid to plant and cultivate the oil palms with the idea that when they fruited in six years or so the land would be divided up into plots of ten acres for each of the resident families. This never came to pass. Also, employment on the scheme changed from full time to part time after the palms had begun to fruit, which did not provide enough income to adequately support a family. Many members of the scheme have moved out, and a large number of the houses are now vacant. Even more so than in the previous scheme, this development interfered with the human ecology of the Rungus domestic family. The house plots are both too small and the soil too infertile to do any useful gardening. And the rules of the scheme prevent the planting of any fruit trees, even bananas. This form of a monoculture economy conflicts with the experience of the Rungus who traditionally practice a diverse agroecology. And this diversity provides a safeguard against disaster if any one of their sources of subsistence fail. Consequently, when the oil palm scheme failed to provide income in the face of seasonal fruiting and price fluctuation, the traditional household agroecosystem was validated as more adaptive in their eyes.

In the late 1970s another government scheme was developed to provide employment for the Rungus. This involved the planting of fast growing species of trees which in eight to ten years were to be harvested for pulp. Another goal of the project was to reforest land that had become marginally productive in agricultural terms. Again only some villages agreed to the scheme. Most villages refused to join the scheme because of their fear that they would lose control over their land. The tree planting program involved the employment of the villagers in preparing the land, planting, and caring for the trees afterwards. But, again, once the trees were growing well, employment fell off so that the workers were only employed for about a third of the month, and their cash income was not enough to support a family.

Many Rungus commented on these schemes to the effect that those villages involved had no land left for their own people.

The failure of all three of these agricultural development schemes to come to full fruition was, in my opinion, because they did not include in their design means for the Rungus to practice their traditional household ecology in which diversity of economic opportunities is critical. This is more adaptive in the face of fluctuations in commodity prices beyond local control than is monoculture (also see Eder in this volume).

There is now considerable discontent in those villages that went into the oil palm scheme because the income of the members has dropped, and there has not been a distribution of land as promised. It is believed that the new government that was voted in in 1985, which included a Rungus representative to the state legislature, will correct these perceived inequities.

The Rungus Response

As I have pointed out, the response of the Rungus population to their psychological deprivation and devaluation was not to fall into apathy or develop a flawed personality organization. Nor did they draw back from the challenges that increased in the early 1960s with development and the possibility that they would lose control over their economic futures. Instead, they took realistic action. Rungus families sought out as much education as possible for their children. They perceived that they would be able to right the political and economic imbalances through education and the job opportunities that would open up. And they wished to get Rungus representatives into the higher echelons of government service and in good paying jobs in the private sector.

Thus, while land had been of great importance to the Rungus, and still is, they realized that power came from political position and access to cash income. Under the old method of subsistence agriculture, cash had been in short supply, and the value of cash, such as that obtained from a job, came to have a higher value than its actual monetary value. To achieve these goals the Rungus family gladly gave up the labor of their children in the fields so that they could attend elementary and secondary school. Furthermore, they searched for the funds to support their children in residential schools in the major towns, even though this cut the family income by over 60 per cent, according to one estimate.

By 1986 the Rungus not only had their own representative in the state legislature. There were also Rungus individuals holding important jobs in government and in the private sector. Thus, the building of a school in the area in 1961 and the various new economic opportunities that arose as education and development progressed have radically altered the opportunity structure of Rungus society.

Changes in the Opportunity Structure: The Status of the Rungus Economy in 1986. In the coconut development scheme and in the tree planting scheme, the Rungus are still largely able to control their economy, which is not the case in the oil palm scheme. This account of the present status of the Rungus economy does not apply to the oil palm scheme, and it primarily depends on data from our research village, which did not participate in any of the development schemes.

The population of the research village has grown from 356 to 681 individuals in a 23 year period (1963-1986). In addition to resident families, this includes children away at school, unmarried children working away, and married individuals working away but keeping a house in the village. And the number of domestic families resident there has grown from 71 to 111.

Village membership has markedly changed. With increased travel for education and job opportunities, the number of intervillage marriages has increased, extending the tendency already beginning before 1963 (see Table Three). Intervillage marriage now also involves members of other ethnic groups, a situation that had not arisen during our original field work. In our sample of 156 marriages from our research village there were 20 marriages to members of other ethnic groups: Chinese, Sino-Dusun, Coastal Muslim, and members of various other Dusunic speaking groups. About half of these resulted in residence in our research village so that the membership now includes 9 non-Rungus individuals. The village also has living within its old boundaries four Chinese and Sino-Dusun families as a result of land alienation.



Marriages Intravillage Intervillage Total
Prior to 1953: 69% 31% 100%
Between 1953 and 1963: 43% 57% 100%
Between 1963 and 1986: 38% 62% 100%

a Size of Sample: “prior to 1953” = 68; between 1953 and 1963 = 53; 1963 and 1986 = 156. For census data up to the beginning of 1963 see Appell (1966b). The time period “prior to 1953” was selected as it represented a ten-year period prior to the final census.


Residence has also changed. Traditionally, residence was uxorilocal. However, it was stated in 1962 and 1963, in response to questions on how the change in land tenure would affect residence choice, that residence would in the future be virilocal. Although there were other alternatives of solving this conflict between residence and land ownership (see Appell 1968b), Table Two illustrates that this has indeed become the tendency.


Percent of Marriages

  1963 1963-1986
Uxorilocal 90% 39%
Virilocal 10% 54%
Neolocal -- 7%
Total 100% 100%

The residence patterns of those who are employed have also contributed to the change in village organization. Whereas before all families resident in the village lived and worked there making swiddens, this is not the case for those who hold jobs. Some work in the village and its environs; some work in nearby towns or government facilities, commuting to work daily; and others work in distant towns so that they have to reside there (see Table Three). These keep a house in the village and may leave their families in their village house, visiting them on the weekends. Or they may take their families with them for short or extended stays where they are working. Sometimes their wives also find jobs there. Four families who work outside the region and who have no house in the village are not included in this sample.




  Males Females
Residing and Working Outside Village But Owning House in Village
14 10
  Married: 5 1

Residing in Village and Working in Its Environs

10 2
  Married: 12 2
Residing in Village and Commuting to Work
  Unmarried: -- --
  Married: 7 1
Residing in Village and Run Own Business
-- --
  Married: 3 --
  Totals: 51 16

a The sample is taken from the total population of Matunggong of 681 individuals, of which 182 males and 169 females are in the work force either employed or cultivating plantations and swiddens.

Thus, while the population increase has put additional pressure on the land base, this has been partially alleviated by the fact that not all families are now dependent on swidden agriculture (see Table Four). However, many working in the labor market full time and residing in the village depend on small-scale farming on the side to supplement their income.



  Males Female Totals
Laborers (G and NG)b: 28 3 31
Semi-skilled Laborers (G and NG): 7 -- 7
Office Messenger (G): -- 2 2
Telephone Operator (G): -- 1 1
Carpenter (G): 1 -- 1
Police (G): -- 1 1
Nurse’s Aid (G): -- 2 2
Hospital Attendant (G): 1 -- 1
Office Manager (G): 1 -- 1
Teacher (G):
-- 3 3
Agricultural Field Officer (G):
2 -- 2
Community Development Officer (G): 1 -- 1
Nurse (G): -- 2 2
Nurse (NG):
-- 1 1
Pharmacy Attendant (G):
-- 1 1
Dresser (G):
2 -- 2
Administrator (G):
2 -- 2
Assistant Native Chief (G):
1 -- 1
Small Store Owner (NG):
1 -- 1
Entrepreneur in Transportation (NG): 2 -- 2
Part-time Church Workers (NG): 2 -- 2
Totals 51 16 67

a Based on a working population of 183 males and 169 females.

b G = Government; NG = Non-government employment. Laborers: G = 20 males, 2 females; NG = 8 males, 1 female. Semi-skilled laborers: G = 5 males; NG = 2 males.

Some argue that wage labor provides more cash than farming with less effort and greater security of income. But the opportunities for employment in the village are limited largely to jobs working for the government on the road, in the agriculture department, or the department of medical services (see Table Five). In the village of our research, two individuals work in the district capital about 33 miles way and return at night to their homes in the village, commuting by bus or motorcycle.




Males Females Totals
Government Employment
36 14 50
Non-government Employment 15 2 17
Total 51 16 67
a Derived from Table Four.

Many, however, dislike being laborers, particularly the older Rungus who are accustomed to their independent entrepreneurial livelihood based on agricultural activities and the trading of gongs, brassware, and ceramic ware. Thus, most still find their livelihood in agriculture: swiddening, wet rice farming, selling copra from their coconut plantations, part-time market gardening, raising and selling pigs, chickens, and water buffalo, supplemented with occasional income from sporadic, short-term government employment in village improvement projects. Many are now putting in rubber with the help of government subsidies. Cash income is also supplemented not only by such agricultural subsidies but also by old age assistance and by support to widows with children and to the needy. Some parents are supported partially by income coming from their children working away.

There are also many Rungus entrepreneurs in the new economic sectors. A few have borrowed money to buy lorries or pickups to go into the transportation business either full time or part time. Several individuals in one village have learned how to make gongs out of culvert and water tank metal, and these have become a fast selling item throughout the country. Others have gone extensively into part-time trading with other ethnic groups, traveling all over the country to make a profit selling and buying beads, brass rings and bracelets, brassware, gongs, etc.

However, the growing economic prosperity of the Rungus and the increase in availability of cash has not resulted in improvidence such as a splurge of consumer spending and material display. Television sets are common in the village, but they are relatively cheap. There are a few motorbikes, but these are used to take people to work in other villages or at the main town of the district. Cars, pickups, or lorries when bought are usually used for commercial purposes. And considerable funds go into financing the education of their children, since those who wish to complete secondary education have to go to the main town in the district and board there.

Furthermore, when the Rungus do have extra cash they are apt to put it in a savings account in the bank. I believe that this is an extension of their traditional economy into the modern one. Traditionally, the Rungus would invest their agricultural surpluses in gongs, jars, brassware, etc. These then served as the basis for bride-price, or if there was a bad agricultural year, they could be converted back into rice. Now bride-prices include cash payments.

The Amount of Landlessness and Attitudes Toward It. The ownership of permanent crop land has not as predicted fallen largely into the hands of men (see Appell l968b). Women also own land, although not to the same degree. During the period of our original field work, applications for land for coconut plantations or wet rice fields were primarily being made by men. Since that time, women have been applying for land or inheriting it from their fathers. Native title, which carries with it a lower land payment, is limited to fifteen acres per individual. When a husband has applied for fifteen acres, any additional land is frequently now applied for by the female founder.

There is a deep rooted attitude among the Rungus that they must maintain their land base. The degree of this varies from village to village. But in our research village and the ones surrounding it, the feeling is incredibly strong. For example, there is a primary forest reserve lying between several villages. Many years ago the headmen of the concerned villages agreed this must never be cut. It is the source of raw materials for building and, being at the head of the catchment basins for the area, it is the source of the water supply for these villages. However, in 1980 through various political maneuvers, a Chinese firm got rights to log this primary forest. This set up an unprecedented uproar in the villages. It was said that people began sharpening their parangs for warfare. The Chinese workers were physically threatened as was the government figure responsible for the decision. The threat of physical force up till that point was an unprecedented behavior in Rungus culture (see Appell 1966a). Eventually, the government backed down and the reserve stood. But deep seated feelings had been aroused, which were still being expressed in 1986 when we were there.

The problem of selling land to outsiders is also a highly charged emotional issue. When a Rungus makes an application for land, it must carry the signature of the headman. However, when the individual receives his title, he can sell the land to whomsoever he wishes--Chinese, someone from another village, etc.--without the approval of the headman. Therefore, when titles have been obtained, the residual rights of the village over the use of its land ceases. As a result of sales of land being made to nonvillage residents, the village moot has decided that in the future if an individual does sell title to his land he will not be permitted to apply again for land in the village reserve.

However, the amount of land available for application varies between the villages. Some have little left. It was estimated that approximately 90 per cent of the land in the territory of our research village has been applied for or spoken for. However, not all has yet been put into permanent crops such as coconuts or rubber. And some individuals have no title to land, having sold their land to others. These individuals, like many of the village members, still cut swiddens. And swiddening proceeds on land that has been applied for or spoken for but which has not yet been put into permanent crops.

It is stated that there will be enough land for those now coming of age, but there will be insufficient land for the next generation. But the real status of land scarcity depends on a number of interactive factors.

First, some prefer wage labor to farming, arguing that they can make more money that way than by full-time agriculture. Then there are a number of the younger generation that are getting well paid jobs with the government and have no need to continue any agriculture, even part time. Consequently, the demand for land may lessen as more of the population moves into the labor force. And as the amount of land left for swiddening or for plantations dwindles and becomes less fertile, it may force more individuals into the labor market.

Then, the amount of land needed to support a family varies with the price of the commodities being raised and the fertility of the land. There appears to be no input from the agricultural department to those who are deciding land policies as to what amount of land is required to support a family. Furthermore, most of the land now in plantations could be made more productive, but whether the effort will be made to do this depends on the price of the agricultural commodities.

However, the home village to the Rungus is more than just land. It is a close network of kin, and it is a source of support when outside sources for a livelihood fail. This is illustrated by the manner in which individuals in the labor market manage their residence (see Table Three above). Even though they have employment in other areas of the country, their primary residence is their home village.

In sum, as land has become scarcer and as other economic opportunities have arisen, swiddening has become less important. The range of economic activities has vastly increased. But those that depend solely on monoculture or wage labor leave the individual more vulnerable to economic vicissitudes that are beyond his control, being driven by events outside the village and even the country. Such individuals may be less able to cope with economic change. And this goes against the stance that the Rungus take towards their opportunity system. They are what might be called optionizers, if I may coin this term. That is, they want to keep all their options open so that if they have a bad experience in one aspect of their economic activity, they have others to fall back on. And this is why the land development schemes which depend on monoculture and do not consider the human ecology of the Rungus domestic family are not popular.

The importance of having multiple paths for making a livelihood rather than being dependent on one source of income is further illustrated by the recent drop in the price of copra. Processing the coconuts from their plantations into copra provided income to many up until the price drop in late 1985. Now coconuts lie unprocessed on the ground where they fall. And this has had a multiplier effect. Land that would have been available for swiddening has been taken out of circulation by plantations. Such land could have provided an income, certainly at least subsistence. But now these lands are economically fallow, which puts added pressures on the remaining land resources.

Changes in the Social Structure. The social structure may be conceived as consisting of the jural realm. The opportunity structure is defined by the social structure, but it in turn helps determine changes in the social structure (see Appell 1987). The British colonial government, by changing the structure of opportunity with regard to land ownership, initiated a chain of events that has had ramifications in the Rungus social structure.

Individual ownership of land introduced a new scarce object into the property system, but not a new jural entity. Traditionally, individuals could hold assets, through the inheritance of durables such as jars, gongs, and brassware. The consequence of individual ownership of land, however, was to undermine the jural personality of the village and that of the family.

Previously, any scarce good created by the family was held as a corporate asset of the family. Now, coconut and rubber plantations and wet rice fields are held by the individuals who hold title to them. This moves out of the control of the family a critical productive asset, whereas the traditional family assets were not productive. Consequently, I would suspect that in the long run the concept of corporate family assets (indopuan do nongkob) will wither away in place of property owned by individuals or perhaps the married couple jointly. Specifically the ownership of retained farming earnings by the married couple rather than the family as a whole is encouraged by the fact that now children and young, unmarried adults do not put much energy into the running of the domestic family agroecosystem, leaving much of the work to their parents. Children are at school, traveling, or at jobs outside the village area. The capacity to earn cash on their own is also leading to sons providing a large part of the cash used for their bride-prices, where before the bride-price came from domestic family assets.

With young unmarried children away in school or at jobs, the corporateness of the family, which was a major part of the symbolism of ceremonies for the family--both in terms of health and the success of the swiddens, is no longer possible to achieve in symbolic action. The traditional rules required at times of ceremonies that the whole family be present. The fact that this is no longer possible is sometimes given as an excuse for not holding these rituals anymore. And these rituals were supported by the jural system, for if a delict was committed against any of the prohibitions by an outsider, he could be sued. So this part of the social structure is eroding away through disuse.

The jural personality of the village is being eroded and at the same time strengthened by new rights, although the net sum of this is in fact a diminution of the village jural personality. New entities are being established by the government in the village, such as the Village Security and Development Committee, which is allocated a certain amount of funds to spend each year. This adds to the jural personality of the village.

But as I have pointed out, the shift of land ownership to individuals has removed land from the control of the headman and village. Once title has been secured, the owner can sell it to anyone without any approval of the village. Thus, the village as a jural unit, which originally controlled the use of land in its reserve, has suffered an erosion of its capacities. The village has tried to exercise new rights to reassert control, by the village moot deciding not to permit anyone who has sold land ever to reapply for land in the village territory. But this is almost an empty threat, since there is so little land left unapplied for.

The jural personality of the village has also been eroded by other changes in the opportunity structure. A dispensary has been built at the edges of the village territory, as well as an elementary school for the region. Also, a kindergarten has been established within the village and several churches to service particular hamlets. A road has been built through the area, and there are new roads to each hamlet of the village. As a result, strangers are in and out of the village every day for work or on commercial vehicles. Before, when the village wanted to hold a ceremony to ritually validate its corporateness, the boundaries of the village had to be shut off to foreign visitors for several days and the inhabitants themselves were enjoined from selling certain products to outsiders. It is no longer possible to enforce these injunctions on movements or on Christian members who refuse to join in, so that corporate rituals for the village have ceased.

The village moots may yet complain to the government in order to establish a right to approve any sale of land to nonresidents. This would reverse somewhat the flow of rights away from the village to the individual, and would permit the village to maintain some control over its future. But this has not yet happened, even though the government has recently shown some concern over the land situation with regard to the village. Individual application for land has resulted in almost no land left in the village for housing areas. Thus, those families who want to live in a small hamlet rather than dispersed on their own land must do so on land that an individual owns. This is tending to encourage the development of patrilocal family clusters of a father and his sons situated on the land of the father.

However, the long and short of these changes is that the village is vulnerable to the loss of land to outside interests, and this includes the purchase of land by commercial interests, which possibly could lead to some of the villagers being transformed from independent farmers into semi-landless plantation workers.


The Rungus have experienced a shortage of land which is growing worse partly because of the increase in population, partly because of the loss of land to Chinese entrepreneurs, partly because of the government’s schemes for land development which have moved land out from under their control, and partially by the planting of land, under government insistence, in coconuts, which are no longer profitable to harvest due to the drop in commodity prices.

However, the economic squeeze that they have experienced, and which has increased as they were brought more into the national and world economic system, has been relieved by several factors. First, the opportunity to obtain schooling, which has opened up opportunities in the government and private economic sector, has been an important release valve. Second, the economy has been expanding as the government develops more and more rural services so that jobs have been available in the rural labor market.

Third, the conversion to Christianity has been a factor which may have alleviated the situation for several reasons. It has provided a source of support against the encroachment of Muslim interests, although at times a very weak source of support. The church also provided opportunity for schooling before the government school system was fully developed, and afterwards has provided hostels for students studying away from home. And it has provided scholarships for post secondary education for a few.

But Christianity, I suspect, was also important in that it provided a means of dealing with these momentous changes. Because it offered an alternative, which at least cast doubt on their own religion, it permitted the Rungus to ignore the rituals of their religion, many of which were specific to swidden agriculture. And this has allowed them to expand out of their localized world view into a more regional and national one. But it has also caused ecological deterioration in that it has encouraged the Rungus to give up those rituals which supported ecological conservation (see Appell n.d.c). The Rungus have largely cut down their ritual groves around springs or shading the river pools that protected the water supply. And as a result the ecosystem has become drier. And there may eventually be health consequences, since Christianity does not respect the old rituals which provided support to psychogenic diseases. In a sense the conversion to Christianity has gone too far in that the missionaries have not attempted to integrate into the new culture either useful or health promoting aspects of the old culture. This is especially true in the relations between the sexes, as prostitution and elicit sexual liaisons are on the rise with their associated diseases.

A major feature of the current response to growing land shortage is the fact that the government has been relatively unauthoritarian in comparison to the Indonesian government. It has not forced people to resettlement areas by military force. If individuals want to leave these agricultural development schemes, they do, and there is no punishment. With the new government, which represents the interests of the Rungus much better than previously, there is the belief that problems arising from bad development planning and land shortage will be corrected.

Furthermore, rather than moving villages to services, which causes major social dislocation, the government has brought services to the villages. And it has provided good medical service and schooling that prepares the Rungus pupils for good job opportunities. It is my judgement that the Rungus experience, at least with the current status of the economy, does not conform with the argument of Hopkins, Wallerstein et. al (1982) that part-time proletarians are worse off than full-time subsistence agriculturalists.

Thus, growing land shortage while causing problems has not yet resulted in social disaster. However, if there is an economic recession, and there are not funds to continue the support of education, opportunities in government service, and rural services and improvement, and if opportunities in the private sector contract, then the land shortage among the Rungus will become a major focus for social unrest, as they will have to turn back to the land for a livelihood.

Finally, the Rungus have lost much of their traditional culture. But a crisis of ethnic identity has not yet been reached, largely I believe because of the hope for a better future and the opportunity to move out of their devalued psychosocial position. But if this hope fails, if a better future does not become available, the Rungus will have to deal with this loss. And then social problems and health impairments--behavioral, psychological, and physiological--may rise precipitously as a consequence.


1. I have coined the term “isoglot” to refer to the speech of a group of people who consider their language or dialect to be significantly different from neighboring communities and thus have an indigenous term by which to identify it (Appell 1968a:13). An isoglot refers, in other words, to that speech of a self-conscious, named speech community.

2. Our original field work among the Rungus was conducted under the auspices of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Research School of Pacific Studies, the Australian National University. I would like to express my thanks to the Australian National University for support of this research and the preliminary analysis of my data. I also want to express my thanks to: the National Science Foundation (Grant GS-923) and the ACLS-SSRC, which have supported the analysis and the writing up of my field data; and in particular the Halcyon Fund has been very generous in its support of my research over the years. To my wife, Laura W. R. Appell, I owe a special debt because of our unusual relationship. She has always participated fully in my research and the analysis and writing up of our data. Religion among the Rungus, with the exception of certain agricultural ceremonies, lies in the hands of Rungus females. Without Laura’s help it would have been impossible to gather data in this realm, for which she was primarily responsible (see L.W.R. Appell n.d.). I also owe a very special debt to my supervisor and friend, Professor Derek Freeman, who guided my field research.

Our recent field work has been supported by the Halcyon Fund.

3. The lack of interest by the British government in the indigenous system of land tenure was extraordinary. I tried to explain it to the District Officer, but I got no response. A consultant was brought in about this time from New Zealand to introduce the Torrens system of land titles, and I wrote him about the indigenous system but got no reply.


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