Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Understanding Adat in Indonesia 1: What is Adat?

Image from here.   This is one of the
first images that comes up when
you do a google image search of
"adat Indonesia" and is the type of
thing that drives anthropologists
nuts.  More on why in the next
post in the series.  
It's been a long time since I've written anything really substantive in this blog and a lot has changed.  Since my last entry I have finished my PhD in geography, so hooray for me!  Anyway, over the past few months I've been reading and writing a significant amount about local communities and customary systems of social, economic, and political organization in Indonesia (generally referred to in Indonesian as adat), and so I've decided to write a series of blog posts introducing this concept along with some history and a description and analysis about how the role of adat is changing in Indonesia today.  The definition and recognition of adat has become an important and contested topic in Indonesia.  In this post I'll describe the definition and historical emergence of the concept of adat law during the colonial era.  In the next post I'll discuss adat in the post-colonial era, focusing mainly on the effects of Suharto's "New Order" on adat communities.  Then in the following post I'll turn to the role of adat and "indigenous peoples" in the post-authoritarian era.  At the end I promise I'll turn the whole thing towards a discussion of local people, forests, resource management and the environment, but you'll have to bear with me.  

Defining the term...

As I've often pointed out in this blog, Indonesia is a country of stunning diversity.  Many people are aware of the incredible biodiversity of the archipelago, but fewer are familiar with Indonesia's cultural diversity; there are more than 1000 ethnic and subethnic groups from Aceh to Papua and hundreds of languages spoken in between.  These many groups seem to epitomize Indonesia's national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or "Unity in Diversity".  This multiplicity of peoples stems from the fact that Indonesia is a relatively new creation; it was formed in 1945 when nationalists declared independence from the Dutch, who had, in one form or another, been the dominant colonial presence in the islands since the beginning of the 17th century.  In fact, the idea of Indonesia only emerged in the early 20th century.  Prior to this the only thing really uniting the peoples of the thousands of islands was a history of domination by the Dutch.  There had never been any coherent state that had ruled over all of the islands (though history records a number of kingdoms that were fairly expansive; read about them here and here).  

Map from Wikipedia.

Hence for most of history the conduct of social, political, and economic affairs in most parts of what is now Indonesia was primarily a local endeavor, with individual villages, village federations, and sometimes larger chiefdoms exercising relatively independent sovereignty over governance and social organization.  In other words, politics, economic activity, and culture were more or less local concerns, and thus codes of social organization emerged out of fairly specific geographic circumstances.  As you might expect this circumstances gave rise to a significant amount of geographic variation in terms of the way villages were run, resources managed, and people governed.  The term adat has come to encompass these locally-rooted systems of social organization, but as we shall come to see, hammering down an exact and satisfactory definition, or even translation, for the term is easier said than done.  Let's look at a couple of examples.       

Two of the foremost scholars of Minangkabau adat in West Sumatra not that "adat in Indonesia has become a generic term to indicate an often undifferentiated whole constituted by the morality, customs, and legal institutions of ethnic or territorial groups" (von Benda-Beckmann and von Benda-Beckmann 2011:168).  They also note that before the arrival of outside religions (Islam, Christianity, etc), adat also covered cosmology and cosmogony (and in some places it still does).  This is a really interesting definition for a couple of reasons.  First, they point out that adat encompasses "morality, customs, and legal institutions".  If we compare this to social organization in the US, for example, we can see some important contrasts.  In the US we find very well codified legal institutions, along with clear procedures for operating and changing them.  However, we often think of morality and customs as separate from the law (though many laws are based on moral assumptions), and for many of us our spiritual view of the universe comes from an organized religion, and our morality is rooted in the religious view as well (1).  At the same time, a clear separation between church and state is a fundamental precept of the political and administrative foundation of the United States.  In other words, cosmology and morality are understood by most to be in a separate societal sphere from governance.  But according to this definition of adat, all three of these elements are part of a complex tapestry comprising the social fabric (ha!). 

Other concepts of adat include Tyson's (2010:1), who explains that "adat is a fluid, contingent concept encompassing a wide range of customs and traditions unique to each of Indonesia's major ethnic groups".  In a seminal collection Henley and Davidson (2007:3) write that adat "is a complex of rights and obligations which ties together three things--history, land, and law-- in a way that appears rather specific to Indonesia".  From this definition adat seems to resemble a sort of social contract or compact, which is a familiar concept to anyone that's taken a class in the history of Western political thought.  The Lockean "social contract" is a cornerstone of our socio-political organization in the US and many other places that have modeled their constitutions and legal systems on those of the US.  However the striking thing here is that the social compact is rooted in very specific local contexts; its terms of reference are downward rather than upward.  In other words, the social contract exist between members of a community rather than a nation, which to me suggests different relationships and obligations between people.   

So we can see that there are different definitions of what adat actually is.  We also often come across the term masyarakat adat, which is sometimes translated as "indigenous people", but which I prefer to translate as "customary communities" (or better still, "adat communities").  This term refers to groups of people that have adat systems, but it too is a fairly contentious concept.  But for a definition of masyarakat adat I'll refer to AMAN, the Indonesian Alliance of Adat Communities (Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara), an important and influential non-governmental organization (NGO) in Indonesia: "a group of people who, based on ancestral origin, live in a specific geographic area, have a distinct value and sociocultural system, sovereignty over their land and natural resources and control and take care of their survival by means of customary laws and institutions".  

Lastly we have a more legal definition of another term, hukum adat ("adat law"), which also appears frequently.  This definition comes from Supomo, whom we'll learn more about below: "Adat law is a non-statutory law which is mainly customary law and, for a small part, Muslim law.  It also includes case law, viz. decisions of the judge containing legal principles in the milieu in which he delivers judgment.  Adat law is deeply rooted in traditional culture.  It is a living law because it expresses the actual feeling for the law of the people.  In accordance with its very nature, adat law is permanently growing and developing like life itself" (Supomo 1953: 218-9). 

Hmmm.  Lots of different definitions referring to different things.  You can probably understand why this is such a contentious issue.  In the next section we'll look at how the colonial government used the concept of adat.   

The Construction of Adat...

"What was termed customary law could therefore not be considered timeless, precolonial local law, and despite the assertion of an unbroken continuity, actors have actualized, invented, or reinvented 'traditional' legal forms..."  von Benda-Beckmann and von Benda-Beckmann, 2011:169.    

Today most people in Indonesia have a fairly definite mental image of what the term adat refers to and can describe a number of perceived characteristics of masyarakat adat.  Many would probably even tell you that adat is a unique and distinctive characteristic of Indonesia, and that the existence of many variations of adat are part of the special identity of the expansive archipelago.  Part of this image of adat is that it is old, predating the Dutch colonial era.  However, the term adat law was first applied in 1893, and it only became a subject of scholarly scrutiny around the turn of the 20th century (Fasseur 2007).  Prior to this the Dutch colonial apparatus exhibited little if any official curiosity about the details of traditional social organization.  Rather, customary legal institutions had utility insofar as they facilitated the colonizer's strategy of indirect rule on the "outer islands", whereby they "fostered mediating institutions, adat chiefs and adat councils, enhancing the position of elites in the process" (Li 2001: 658; see Galizia 1996 for an excellent account of the relationship between Rejang elites and the colonial establishment).  In other words, in exchange for support and preferential treatment from the Dutch colonial apparatus, local leaders served as de facto representatives for the colonizers.   

The Dutch colonial concern for local custom arose out of changing sentiments about the nature of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized.  Around 1870 the idea that the Dutch had the responsibility to "improve" the lot of the natives of the East Indies became popular, and from this arose what's come to be known as the "Liberal Policy".  For advocates of the Liberal Policy, their native wards needed to be modernized, and the best way to do this was to create the conditions necessary for free markets to operate.  But then around 1900 the colonial zeitgeist changed again as a new monarch was installed.  The new thinking, which gave rise to the "Ethical Policy", held that the natives needed to be civilized and educated in a western mold.  If it sounds terribly condescending and even racist that's because it is, but in the spirit of the times this was a common perception, not just among the Dutch, but for all colonial powers administering overseas possessions, including the United States.  To the colonizers, local custom, and especially local law, was an impediment to the modernization and civilization processes, and so there was a movement within the Dutch parliament and colonial administration to impose a unified law code over the entire colony.  This code would replace any indigenous law, and would theoretically provide a certain and stable legal environment, which was thought to be a prerequisite for investment and economic development.  The movement to pass this unified code gained momentum in the early decades of the 20th century.  

At the same time, local communities and their customs were drawing unprecedented interest from scholars in the Netherlands.  Perhaps the most influential person in the emergence of adat as a recognized category worthy of study was a Dutch scholar named Cornelis van Vollenhoven (1874-1933), who pioneered ethnographic study of local communities in the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) after earning his doctorate and being appointed to the newly-created chair of native law at Leiden University in Holland (2).  Van Vollenhoven was extremely influential as a champion for the recognition of adat as a legitimate form of social organization, supervising numerous dissertations during his three-decade tenure at Leiden, where many colonial administrators as well as future Indonesia nationalists studied law (3).  Van Vollenhoven would eventually classify all adat systems into 19 general adat law areas (adatrechtskringen) based on kinship systems and village organization.  

Van Vollenhoven has been accused of "essentializing" adat, or simplifying and generalizing it.  Perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps because circumstances dictated it, van Vollenhoven created an understandable, legible catalog of adat, boiling it all down to questions of law.  Jaspan (1965:253) notes that "before van Volenhoven and his school began codifying what to Western jurists appeared to be the juridical aspects of native custom, adat law was not a separate and independent entity, but was in most cases intertwined with the history, mythology, and institutional charters...of each ethnic or cultural unit".  Van Vollenhoven's immediate goal was to defeat the draft law that would impose the aforementioned unified legal system on all local communities throughout the NEI in order to protect common property regimes against business interests and the colonial government (Henley and Davidson 2007, Burns 2004).  One of van Vollenhoven's central observations was that a system of community property existed among most adat communities in which an area of land was held in common by all the members of the village unit.  He called this beschikkingsrecht, but now the Minang term hak ulayat is commonly applied.  Members of the community could gather forest products or graze animals depending on the characteristics of the land, but the rules were part of the overall adat framework.  Moreover, one common feature was that land could be opened up for cultivation by members of the community, and as long as the land was under cultivation the person that opened it up had the right of avail.  However, if the land was left idle for a certain period of time (determined by local adat rules), it reverted back to the community.  

Van Vollenhoven was ultimately successful in convincing enough members of the legislature in the Netherlands to vote down the law, and so it was never implemented.  Van Vollenhoven died in 1933, just as the world was entering the deepest depths of the Great Depression.  Then in 1942 the Dutch would be expelled from their colony by the invading Japanese, and even after the Japanese were defeated the Dutch never regained possession of the NEI.  


So we've seen an interesting progression here.  At first, adat was of no interest to anyone outside local communities, but for them it was essentially the rules of life.  Then in the late colonial era, thanks to the efforts of van Vollenhoven and his students, adat is codified and cataloged, but at this point it becomes expressed in terms of law, as a kind of indigenous, local analogue for western law, but incompatible with it.  But if we refer back to the definitions of adat I quoted in the second section of this article, adat seems to be much more than a mere code of laws.  Thus something must have happened between van Vollenhoven's time and the present day, some sort of adat awareness raising, or maybe even a revival!  In the next post we'll continue the story of the lives of adat in Indonesia.  


(1)  I'm not suggesting here that morality is dependent on the practice of an organized religion, so settle down.

(2) He changed the emphasis of study of this chair from Islamic law to customary law in Indonesia, which would have lasting implications for ethnographic study in Indonesia....for an excellent exegesis see Gibson 2000.

(3)  Supomo, who would go on to write Indonesia's Constitution, was a student of Van Vollenhoven's

References and for further reading

von Benda-Beckmann, Franz, Keebet von Benda-Beckmann.  2011.  Myths and Stereotypes about Adat Law: A Reassessment of Van Vollenhoven in the light of current struggles over adat law in Indonesia.  Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 167: 2-3 pp167-195.

Burns, Peter.  2004.  The Leiden Legacy: Concepts of Law in Indonesia.  Leiden, Netherlands: KITLV Press.  307pp.  

Davidson, Jamie and David Henley.  2007.  The Revival of Tradition in Indonesian Politics: The Deployment of Adat from Colonialism to Indignism.  Abindon, UK: Routledge.  377pp.

Fasseur, C.  2007.  Colonial Dilemma: Van Vollenhoven and the struggle between adat law and Western Law in Indonesia.  Ch 2, pp50-67 in The Revival of Tradition in Indonesian Politics: The Deployment of Adat from Colonialism to Indigenism.  Jamie Davidson and David Henley, editors.  Abindon, UK: Routledge.  377pp.  

Galizia, Michele.  1996.  Village Institutions after the Law no 5/1979 on Village Administration: The Case of Rejang-Lebong in South-Western Sumatra.  Archipel 51:1 pp135-160

Gibson, Thomas.  Islam and the Spirit Cults in New Order Indonesia: Global Flows vs. Local Knowledge.  Indonesia 69, pp41-70

Jaspan, Mervyn. 1965. In Quest of a New Law: The Perplexity of Legal Syncretism in Indonesia.  Comparative Studies in Society and History 7:3 pp252-266.

Li, Tanya Murray.  2001.  Masyarakat Adat, Difference, and the Limits of Recognition in Indonesia's Forest Zone.  Modern Asian Studies 35:3 pp645-76

Supomo, R.  1953.  The Future of Adat Law in the Reconstruction of Indonesia.  pp217-235 in Southeast Asia in the Coming World.  Edited by Philip W. Thayer.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.  306pp.

Tyson, Adam.  2010.  Decentralization and Adat Revivalism in Indonesia: The Politics of Becoming Indigenous.  Abingdon, UK: Routledge.  210pp.