Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Palm Oil Plantations Vs. Villagers on Sumatra

Picture from here
Over the past month or so two land disputes on the island of Sumatra 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 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 Jakarta 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.

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 Thailand, 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.

This whole conflict boils down to the control of land, which is a pretty big issue in Indonesia.  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:
  1. 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
  2. Hak Pakai (right to use): applies to usufruct rights but doesn't imply ownership of the land.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 Indonesia 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.  

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 Kerinci Seblat National Park in Merangin district, which I described in a previous post, were also from other districts and provinces.

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 taken together.  

Cases like these are frequent in Indonesia.  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.


(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 Southeast Asia.  

(3)  "PT" indicates a corporation.


  1. i was surprised because Sumatra has such a fertile land particularly for palm oil, but mass killing happened in Masuji. it was because of land conflict. I think that the government and the citizens should talk and understand each other without violence.

  2. I am studying geography and Indonesia in this week.
    I have never known the conflict between oil pantation and villagers on Sumatra before I read this entry.
    Oil plantations cannot avoid to involve people in the villege, so it is very complicated.

  3. I did not know that many conflicts happened in Indonesia. Many villagers and people who worked at palm oil companies killed each other and many people died for fighting natural resources. I think that fighting each other is not good because the conflict is going to continue interminably. As a result, many people are injured and killed, so I think that other countries such as America, Japan, and China should intervene in a conflict and villagers and workers solve the problem peacefully not using violence.

  4. After reading this story, I just have to wonder why news like this doesn't reach to a more international audience. I mean, with people dying and governmental disputes, you would think that someone might step and help settle it.

  5. It is very sad to read that so many farmers have been killed in so little time. Unfortunately it's not the only problem. The palm oil companies don't just kill human beings, which is one of the worst things you can do. They also kill what many people claim to be "The lungs of the earth" - Rainforests. A big problem with the deforestation is that some animal species are being seriously endangered.

  6. Why can the Indonesian government set firm law so there won't be any confusion on land ownership? There seemed to be gray area within the land laws in Indonesia.

  7. The government needs to fix their land ownership laws. Make it so that it's illegal and punishable to use already owned land. The farmers should receive titles as proof and clearly mark the area of owned land. The farmers are killing because they feel that the oil companies are using their land, but they have no title of ownership. Why would you get mad if the land wasn't yours to begin with?

  8. In terms of Case #1 do you think that the officials from the house of representatives will ever come to a conclusion on who was truly at fault? Also who do you side with? I can tell there is a lot of grey area on both sides but i was curious on your opinion.

  9. I was really surprised that there was this many conflicts happening in Indonesia. And before reading this i did not know that villagers have been murderd by palm oil comapnies in 2008. But overall i think more people should learn about what is happening so something can be done to stop the conflict over natural resources.

  10. Before reading this I had no idea that there was this many conflicts happening in Indonesia. It surprised me that 32 farmers were killed by palm oil companies in 2008. Before reading this article I was not even aware that there was even a conflict between palm oil companies and villagers from Sumatra. I believe that more people should learn about and be more aware of conflicts happening in Indonesia and other parts of as well. So we can help stop future killing over natural resources from happening.

  11. I think it's very sad that the laws are so indefinite and poorly enforced, especially because of all the lives it has taken. I am also a fan of the underdog, so maybe I'm being a little biased, but I doubt that a company would hire a private security agency for no reason. Whether the residents of the Mesuji region attacked first, or some kind of impending retaliation was about to happen, all of this could have been brought to government attention. I also feel for the people that are just trying to survive with what little education, resources, and support they have.

  12. Indonesia seriously needs to better regulation of land ownership. While there is some sort of national system for registering land, it does not seem to be very efficient. Sixty years is much too long for the country to complete the process. By that time, the conflict will escalate into something that the government may not be able to control. In regards to Case #2, I am still confused as to who owned the land that was being used by the oil palm plantation company. In this situation, who was in the wrong? Also, the conflicts in both Case #1 and #2 seem to be further complicated by the fact that the "villagers are underserved by the system and are frequently in the dark about the legalities of land as well as district development plans." Maybe if people were more informed, they could make better decisions about when it is actually acceptable to be upset about "their land" being taken. If they don't even understand the legalities of the land, then their understanding of ownership and rights will obviously not correspond with the government's definition of such concepts.

  13. I enjoyed reading this blog because I had no idea that there were so many conflicts over land ownership in Indonesia. It was very sad to read that villagers and farmers have been killed due to these palm oil companies over the last four years. Prayers to the villagers on Samatra.

  14. The government needs to be held liable for allowing such disputes over land to its people. The farmers and people need to unite and protest the government until they hear there plea for land justice.

  15. This situation sounds like anarchy. There's too much confusion over who owns the land. I agree with most of the above comments. If these skirmishes are to end, the government needs to organize its land ownership rights and start enforcing them. Citizens need to respect lawfully acquired land rights which, on the other hand, I can't blame them for not respecting given the history and the corruption present is in the courts.

  16. its a sad situation, and yet not surprising. i would assume there isnʻt much solidarity between differnet villages, which might or might not help. unity against foreign companies could possibly make it easier to resist, although that doesnʻt address, what seems like, the governments complete disregard for the their people. and if both sides already share a willingness to kill, then a lot needs to happen before any agreements are to be made. thats, again, assuming that the palm oil companies are willing to compromise and appreciating the idea that locals shouldnʻt have to.

  17. It's sad to hear that people are dying because of these ever expanding plantations. Palm oil plantations are great example of massive deforestation. The demand for palm oil is very high and the plantations provide a steady source of income for many people. But these plantations destroy large areas of biodiversity and replaced them with one species (the oil palm). Borneo was once covered by a massive forest that extended across the island. Since the palm oil plantations started this massive forest has been cleared away and replaced with the oil palm. It’s estimated that the rest of forest will be completely gone in less than a decade. I Hope that eventually there will be some resolution on the use of these lands before is too late for Indonesia’s forests.