|Picture from here|
Over the past month or so two land disputes on the
have gained a significant amount
of media attention. The first case
gained coverage worldwide as farmers in Lampung province alleged that at least
32 farmers have been murdered by palm oil companies since 2008. The second case so far has been limited to
the regional papers and is still unfolding.
In Jambi province villagers have repeatedly attacked the base camp of a
palm oil plantation, claiming that they have been wrongfully evicted from their
land by the company. In the most recent
attack the villagers destroyed heavy equipment, set fire to buildings, and
severely injured (one subsequently died) personnel from the company. In my mind these two incidents illustrate two
separate problems related to land tenure on island of Sumatra Sumatra. I'll begin with the first case.
Case #1: Mass Killings in Mesuji
|Graphic from Jakarta Post|
On December 14, 2011 several residents of the Mesuji region of Lampung (the Southern part of Sumatra) journeyed to
seeking a meeting with members of the
House of Representatives. They were
accompanied by a retired army general, who served as a kind of spokesperson for
the group. The group claimed that since
2008 dozens of farmers have been killed (hundreds injured) by private security
forces working for two palm oil companies: PT Sumber Wangi Alam and PT Silva
Inhutani. Clashes between the companies
and the villagers stemmed from conflict over land; the villagers claimed
rightful ownership while the companies insisted they had been granted use
rights by the government. The group
showed video of gruesome killings, including beheadings and mutilation of
bodies, allegedly perpetrated by the security forces. The accusations sparked outrage within the
government and across the country, and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono promised
to launch a full-scale investigation into the issue. Jakarta
|Poster from here|
Since the story initially broke a significant amount of confusion has emerged surrounding the land conflict. One of the most embarrassing things that has come out concerns the origin of the videos used. Close examination reveals that they were most likely made in the Pattani region of southern
, where separatists have
been locked in a bitter struggle with government forces. No one disputes that killings actually took
place, though. The main point of
contention lies in identifying the aggressors; as mentioned in the previous
paragraph the villagers claim they are the victims of brutality perpetuated by
private security forces, whereas the companies claim that the villagers have
ambushed their work camps, killing several personnel. The team dispatched by the House of
Representatives to investigate concluded that at least 9 people were killed in
April (1). But there is still a lot of back and forth about who is to blame. Thailand
This whole conflict boils down to the control of land, which is a pretty big issue in
. Land "ownership" is complex problem
and can be understood in a number of ways, but to really get to the heart of it
we need to understand a little bit about land in Indonesia . Under the Dutch, who controlled most of the
territory that would become Indonesia ,
a western system of ownership (domein) was introduced. In many places this system of private and
state ownership was in conflict with local systems of management, which as a
general rule are more communal in nature.
Moreover, across the 17,500 islands of the archipelago there is
tremendous variability in local systems of land management, but the colonial
authorities replaced these with a one-size-fits all simplified system. When Indonesia became independent in
1949 the new leaders inherited the Dutch system. During the early years of the Republic some
minor reforms were enacted, but the most significant move to codify land use
regulations was contained in the Basic Agrarian Law (#5/1960) which outlined
the main forms of tenure recognized across the country: Indonesia
- Hak Milik (right of ownership): this is what most people think of when they think of "land ownership"; there is no time limit and land can be transferred and mortgaged
- Hak Pakai (right to use): applies to usufruct rights but doesn't imply ownership of the land.
- Hak Guna Usaha (right to exploit): this arrangement was established mainly so that extraction companies (mining, plantations, etc) could use government land for a certain period of time.
- Hak Guna Bangunan (right to build): means you can construct structures on the land, but not own the land.
Though there were token efforts to incorporate traditional (adat) systems into the overall legal framework stalled when Suharto came to power in 1967. In fact, with the passage of the Basic Forestry Law (#5/1967) the national government, in the form of the Ministry of Forestry, granted itself ownership and the right to manage all land classified as "forests", which amounted to about 75% of the country. In "forest" areas this law replaced the Agrarian law and gave a huge amount of power to the central government while at the same time marginalizing virtually every local user group and system in the country. In other words, even if people had been working land for generations, the central government could (and very frequently did) take the land and award it to some mining, plantation, or logging company. Any opposition was harshly put down by the army and national police.
When Suharto fell in 1998 so did his authoritarian system of control. Power swung back to district (kabupaten) governments, and people were emboldened to reassert traditional claims over land and other natural resources. However, adat systems, though recognized at some levels, have yet to be integrated into the national system of land titling and tenuring. Instead what has happened is that the formal and adat systems exist in parallel, with adat rules being subservient to formal rules. Moreover, in order to be recognized, an adat system has to be recognized by the government, and most haven't reached this level. This has created a significant amount of conflict, including the Mesuji case.
Complicating this is the fact that the system of land titling in
is fairly byzantine. It is difficult and
expensive (2) to get land ownership registered with the government, and so most
people don't do it. Over the past 40
years the national land authority (BPN, Badan Pertanahan Nasional) has
registered about a third of the country's privately-owned land, but there are
still approximately 60 million unregistered. At the current rate of about 1 million
registrations per year, it will take another 60 years to finish the job. Indonesia
The upshot of all this confusion is that there's really no good way to settle land disputes. District governments grant usage rights to companies without regard to local claims in an effort to increase revenues. Villagers are underserved by the system and are frequently in the dark about the legalities of land as well as district development plans. No one really trusts the courts since they are open to outside manipulation.
Case #2 Villagers vs. Oil Palm Developers in Jambi
|Palm oil picture from here|
The second example comes from Tebo district in Jambi province, where as many as 300 villagers last week rampaged though an oil palm camp belonging to PT Lesari Asri Jaya (3). Newspaper reports describe the attackers as "encroachers" (perambah), which to me indicates a bias towards the company. Other villagers prevented the police from reaching the seen of the attack. The dispute is over claims to an area totaling about 60,000 hectares. The difference between this case and the Mesuji case, though, is that the violence has been perpetrated by "pendatang", or people that have recently settled in the area. According to Tebo district authorities the villagers come from other districts and acquire land through illegal transactions with locals. This is a common occurrence on Sumatra; the group encroaching into
district, which I described in a previous post, were also from other districts
and provinces. Kerinci Seblat
This second case illustrates a dynamic that seems to have received less attention. In Central and
South Sumatra, at least, there is a phenomenon whereby
local people sell land to outsiders.
This happens in protected forests and national parks. What motivates local people to do this is unclear;
they may view the land as rightfully theirs or they may be motivated by shear
opportunism. The reasons aren't really
important for this discussion; what is important is that there are several
enabling factors that allow this to happen.
The first is that in many places there is little enforcement or
patrolling, so it's relatively easy to squat on land and be reasonably certain
that nothing is going to happen to you.
another enabling factor is the lack of recorded titles to land; land is
frequently bought and sold without survey and paperwork here. A third enabling factor is the existence of a
ready market of people that are willing to move to a new place and buy the land
on the word of the villagers alone. This
market exists, according to many sources, because there are no other
opportunities for the people. What makes
more sense to me, however, is that this movement into "frontier
areas" is the result of all of the previously described land problems
Cases like these are frequent in
. USAID estimates there are at least 1500 major
land conflicts that have yet to be settled. The cases seem to be increasing since the fall
of Suharto, which has in many cases created a power vacuum in which various
local interests struggle to gain control over natural resources and land. Though there are many capacity and advocacy
NGOs working in the field to improve the situation, the recent violence shows
that these issues are far from being resolved. Indonesia
(1) According to one account, tensions between PT Sumber Wangi Alam and the villagers came to a head when a grandson of a village leader was beheaded by security personnel for attempting to confiscate the company's harvest. Several hours after the murder, approximately 200 villagers descended on the plantation, killing 5 SWA workers.
(2) According to USAID, the cost of registering land averages out to about 11% of the total value of the property. This is three times greater than the average cost across
(3) "PT" indicates a corporation.