At the end of the 1980s, the commercial search for rattan in the newly-established Kerinci-Seblat National Park in south-western Sumatra relied on debt bondage as a means of labour control. In a village at the fringes of the park, land and water were ample and free resources but labour power was scarce. Since their land was of no monetary value, the local rice farmers had to pawn their own labour power to secure loans from traders. The focus in the article is on how this debt-bondage was negotiated and discursively constructed on an everyday basis between the indebted rattan collectors and their creditors. In these micro-politics of debt-bondage, the collectors relied on subsistence ethics to openly default on what they called ‘war debts’ to limit the degree of their exploitation. The article shows that this case of debt bondage in forest product collection was an inherently contested and unstable institution that was embedded in notions of mutual obligations within patron-client ties.