Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country and one of the largest democracies, is making steady progress
Indonesia is one of the world's largest and geographically most dispersed countries, consisting of more than 17,000 islands. Of the southern chain of islands, the largest are, from west to east: Sumatra, Java, Bali, and Lombok.
To the north of this chain is the island of Borneo, the southern part of which consists of the Indonesian provinces of Kalimantan. To the east of Borneo is the island of Sulawesi, and furthest east are the Molukas and New Guinea, the western half of which is the Indonesian province of Papua. Most of these islands have volcanic mountains covered in dense tropical rainforests that descend to often swampy coastal plains.
Indonesia's people are as diverse as its topography. By some counts, there are more than 300 ethnic groups with almost as many languages. Many of these groups are related and most are of Malay origin. The largest is the Javanese, who live on the centre and east of Java—the western portion of which is occupied by the Sundanese.
Other large groups are the Madurese and the coastal Malays. The many smaller groups include tribal peoples, such as the Dayak, who inhabit the interior of Kalimantan, and people of Melanesian descent in Papua. In addition, Indonesia also has eight million people of Chinese origin who live mostly in the cities and allegedly control half the economy. Ethnic and religious differences have often led to violence particularly in the Malukus.
Indonesia has also suffered from natural disasters. In recent years these have included a tsunami that struck Sumatra in 2004, killing 233,000 people and levelled the capital of Aceh, and major earthquakes—in 2006 in Java and in 2009 in Sumatra.
Despite the large land area, Indonesia's population is fairly concentrated. Half the islands are uninhabited and around two-thirds of the population live on Java, Madura, and Bali. The majority of people profess to be Muslim, though religion has not so far been a dominant force in political life. The official language is Bahasa Indonesia, which is based on Malay. Only around 10% of people use this as their first language; most have it as their second.
Faced with a fast-growing population, the government in the 1970s and 1980s instituted a programme of family planning and the annual growth rate has slowed to around 1.4%. A more controversial demographic initiative was the ‘transmigration’ programme which moved people from densely settled areas like Java—which has around 60% of the population—to other islands. There has also been extensive labour migration—particularly to Malaysia, where over one million Indonesians work on plantations.
As a result of steady economic progress, Indonesia has seen a reduction in the poverty rate, to around 16%—though unemployment is still a problem with around 30% of the workforce unemployed or underemployed. And although standards of education and health have improved, many schools and health centres, particularly in the rural areas, are still in a poor condition.
Around half the population still make their living from agriculture. Only about one-tenth of the country is suitable for agriculture, but the rich volcanic soil on the major islands is very fertile. Farmers here, most of whom are smallholders, primarily grow rice in the lower areas, and fruit, vegetables, tobacco, or coffee on the higher slopes. By the mid-1980s, with heavy use of ‘green revolution’ techniques, they had made the country self-sufficient in rice, though imports subsequently resumed. The land on the outer islands is less fertile and is primarily used for tree crops such as oil-palm, rubber, and coconuts, as well as cocoa and coffee.