The Tragic Legacy of Gaplek: A Forgotten Chapter of Indonesia’s Agricultural History


In a small corner of the newspaper Het Nieuws van den Dag, edition of October 28, 1938, amidst reports on the construction of the Darma Dam and a dignified portrait of the Vice President of the Dutch East Indies Council, there was a brief news item: four natives had just died. The news, consisting of only 25 words, mentioned that six indigenous people in Srengat fell ill and that two children and two adults among them had died after consuming gaplek. At the time, the deaths of indigenous individuals were not seen as a tragedy but merely as a statistic. The newspaper only needed numbers, not names. Little did anyone know that these six individuals were likely impoverished peasants or farm laborers, whose economic status was evident from their consumption of gaplek, dried cassava left under the sun for several days to prevent spoilage. However, the daily consumption of gaplek turned out to carry a hidden poison.

In May of the same year, an employee of the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS) in Batavia dealt a blow to the valuable export commodity of gaplek. After years of declining demand, the commodity succumbed to competition from American wheat, rendering its shipment unprofitable for Dutch East Indies merchants. Nevertheless, just ten years earlier, the export of gaplek had reached a record value of 14,780,000 guilders, equivalent to 110 billion Indonesian rupiahs today. Gaplek, or cassava flour, was once a coveted commodity in Europe, primarily as animal feed for cattle and pigs. Farmers discovered that a mixture of barley, cornmeal, and starchy cassava flour was a nutritious and inexpensive feed option. The extraction of gluten-free flour from gaplek, known as tapioca, further increased its value. The demand for tapioca in Europe led to a booming export industry. Even Hamburg established a tapioca factory using Javanese cassava as a raw material.

The gaplek business exploded, and vast areas of rice fields in Central and East Java, as well as Madura, were converted to cassava cultivation. These regions briefly became the epicenter of the Gaplek empire. The abundance of cassava led to low prices, with a pikul of cassava purchased for 0.8 guilders in Wonosari. However, the overreliance on a single commodity created a fragile market. In 1929, just one year after the most successful period of gaplek export in Dutch East Indies history, the Great Depression struck. The global economic collapse resulted in a severe decrease in purchasing power, leading European countries to halt imports, including gaplek. As a result, stockpiles of unsold gaplek piled up, and no ships were willing to transport them. The highly valued commodity had turned into a worthless heap. This period of economic misery was aptly named “Gaplek-misère,” and it had dire consequences for both merchants and farmers.

For farmers, the misery was an ordeal of life and death. With no buyers, they could not sell their cassava, and without income, they could not afford to buy rice, especially as many had stopped growing it. Desperate, farmers turned to the land and the sun. They consumed a portion of the cassava they grew and dried the rest into gaplek as a reserve during the prolonged crisis, which lasted for a decade. However, the longer they depended on gaplek as their staple food, the greater the risk they faced. Improperly processed gaplek retained the naturally occurring toxin found in cassava called linamarin.