Indigenous rights vs agrarian reform in Indonesia: a case study from Jambi

15 Apr 2014

Indigenous rights and agrarian reform may be on a collision course in Indonesia, adding to the complexity of resolving land conflicts there.

Overview: A longstanding land conflict in Jambi province, Sumatra, highlights the tension between two strands of civil society: the movement to protect indigenous rights and the movement for agrarian reform. As the former succeeds in drawing attention to customary (adat) land unfairly taken in the past for corporate concessions, the latter sees the same land in terms of its potential for redistribution to the poor far beyond just the indigenous claimants. The goals of both movements are legitimate: customary groups deserve restitution for past injustices, including return of land wrongfully taken, while access to land could significantly improve the lives of the 14.4 per cent of rural Indonesians living below the poverty line. The problem is that using adat land as the vehicle for agrarian reform may be planting the seeds of future conflict between indigenous groups and migrants while doing little to address the needs of the landless poor. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of any workable mechanism to adjudicate land conflicts quickly, decisively and fairly, leading some groups to conclude that the only way they can get attention to their cause is by mass action – and sometimes violence. Establishing such a mechanism should be an urgent priority of Indonesia’s next government.

Across Indonesia, and particularly in Sumatra, poor farmers have been displaced by rapid agrarian change that has seen land once used for shifting cultivation transformed from forests to timber concessions to plantation agriculture in just a few decades. In 1968, for example, Indonesia had 120,000 hectares (ha) of land under oil palm cultivation; today it has at least 10.8 million ha, with over 600,000 ha added each year. Many of the original adat owners lost their land to these concessions, sometimes with nominal compensation, often with none and almost never with full information about what was happening. The process also generated major demographic shifts as landless and land-poor migrants from other areas poured in to look for work or settle on newly cleared land. Some of this influx was through the state-sponsored transmigration program, especially in the 1980s, but much of it was spontaneous, and many of the new settlers found themselves competing with adat groups for scarce land or uprooted in turn as palm oil cultivation expanded.

The Jambi conflict illustrates the complexities involved. Since 2003, an indigenous group known as SAD113 has been trying to recover 3,550 hectares of customary land that the Indonesian government ceded to a palm oil company in 1986, at the height of Soeharto’s New Order. SAD is an acronym for Suku Anak Dalam (literally, “tribes of the interior”); the 113 is the number of original claimants. The land in question included smallholder rubber plots, fields used for shifting cultivation, residential areas, gravesites and secondary forest, all of which the claimants and their families considered customary land, in use by their families for generations. From 2006 to 2011, the group tried to negotiate with the company, PT Asiatic Persada, through an NGO-led mediation process, to recover the land. Frustrated by the failure of these mediation efforts, SAD113 turned to the National Farmers Union (Serikat Tani Nasional, STN), the peasant wing of the People’s Democratic Party (Partai Rakyat Demokratik, PRD), a leftwing party established in 1996 by radical students.

PRD/STN used mass action in front of television cameras to attract the support of politicians and bureaucrats. To get more people on the streets and to raise funds for the struggle, it encouraged non-indigenous migrants to join in. In some cases, SAD113 members sold these outsiders land, promising two-ha plots once the land was returned in exchange for a significant payment up front. They drew in others to help harvest oil palm fruit from the concession area, even though the company and the police considered this theft. “Theft” led to arrests, arrests to protests, protests to violence and forced evictions in a regular cycle, but all this just helped raise the profile of the struggle. It also raised the profile of the local PRD/STN coordinator who decided to run for a seat in the provincial assembly.

Up to a point, the confrontation strategy worked. In 2012, PRD/STN secured an agreement from all parties, including the company, that the 3,550 ha should be returned in full, contingent on a mapping of the area that the company would have to fund. When the company stalled on providing the funds, no government agency was willing or able to force it to do so. In late 2013, with the April 2014 national elections providing a convenient deadline to focus all energies, the company offered a different solution. All those verified as “indigenous” would receive a two-ha plot in a smaller abandoned concession area adjoining the main plantation. Many accepted, despairing of getting anything better. PRD/STN is still holding out for the full package, but its SAD clients are dwindling. The hundreds of migrant families who poured in to Jambi over the past five years, lured by the promise of cheap land, may find they are left with nothing.

The ramifications of this battle go far beyond Jambi. Across Indonesia, as land and resource conflicts fester, groups like PRD/STN are moving in to exploit struggles over customary land for their own political agendas. That agenda may be noble, such as securing land for the poor. But in the process, they are encouraging adat groups to expand their ranks to the point that the concept of historic, descent-based claims loses all meaning. Worse, indigenous status becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold. When large numbers of migrants are encouraged to join (and contribute financially to) the struggle to recover land, and then the government moves in with a legal regime for indigenous groups only, the unintended consequence may be a new form of conflict between locals and migrants. This problem may become more acute if a new draft law on indigenous rights is adopted by the Indonesian parliament or if a May 2012 decision by the Constitutional Court to remove “indigenous forests” from state control moves toward implementation.

The competition among NGOs adds another layer of complexity to the difficulty of resolving land conflicts in Indonesia, where the obstacles are already legion: lack of good cadastral records, poor maps, contradictory laws and regulations, confusing lines of bureaucratic authority, corrupt courts and poorly trained officials. Addressing all of these weaknesses should be high on the agenda of a new government, but change will be slow in coming. In the short term, the best hope of resolution may lie in continued international and local pressure on corporations to adopt and apply codes of ethics on human rights and sustainability, combined with skilled local mediators.

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