Squinting under the bill of his baseball cap, Leonary Marcus scans the treetops for ripe clusters of palm fruit to hack down with the aluminum scythe hanging from his shoulder. When a flame-red bunch catches his eye, he hooks the tool at the crux of the branch and yanks downward with all the muscle a 17-year-old can muster. The canopy shakes, a squawking bird flees and the fruit crashes to the ground in scattered heaps for him to gather into a rusty wheelbarrow. Leonary wipes the sweat from his face and moves on to the next row of trees, as he has done almost every day for the past five years.
The boy was invisible from the skies I flew in over the day before, wandering alone somewhere under cover of the plantations that blanket Malaysian Borneo. The monoculture is carved by muddy rivers where crocodiles lurk and laterite roads that lead to processing plants with belching steel smoke stacks. Patches of clear-cut earth indicate where some farms are being expanded to keep the boilers full and the profits flowing into the coffers of the multinational agro-businesses that own them.
On the ground, in the void between the giant trees, Leonary stands out. He plods along, despite the heat and unexpected arrival of an outsider with questions about where he's from, why he's not in school. After moving from Indonesia as a boy with his migrant worker parents, he attended a learning center run by a local non-profit organization. But because he did not have any legal documents, he was barred from secondary school, leaving him with no choice but to work the same farm as his parents for about $7.50 a day. "There is no other option for me," he says.