Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Food sovereignty and peasant activism

Farmers and would-be farmers in Lombok are fighting a land-rights battle against the tourism industry

Sarah Mourney

Muhammad lives in Sembalun village, nested in the foothills of Mount Rinjani. He works as a porter for tourists who come from all over the world to climb Rinjani, an active volcano well known for its stunning natural beauty. Lombok’s tourism industry is booming. Increasingly it receives the overflow of tourists from Bali, and some observers believe that tourism will be a real boost to local employment. But even though Muhammad works in the tourism industry, he regularly goes to meetings hosted by AGRA (the Land Reform Alliance), who are actively campaigning against the growth of local tourism. 

Muhammad does not want to work in the tourist industry. He calls himself a ‘landless peasant’. At an AGRA meeting hosted in a village leader’s house he tells the group, ‘I joined AGRA because I want my own land so I can be a farmer.’ But as more and more land is taken or bought from farmers and handed over to developers, the dream of owning land is becoming increasingly unattainable for people like Muhammad. 

Peasant activism

Land disputes began in Lombok in the 1980s. As more and more tourists visited the island, speculators started buying land from farmers for a pittance and then selling it on to developers for a large profit. These speculators tended to be government officials, police officers and soldiers from Lombok, Bali and Java. They often used intimidation and in some cases violence to force farmers to sell their land. In response, farmers in affected areas have been petitioning the justice system for recognition of their rights to the land or for reasonable compensation for the land they have lost. In Kuta, South Lombok, farmers are still fighting to have their land returned to them after being coerced into selling it to the Lombok Tourism Development Corporation in 1989. 

Peasant activism in Lombok grew in response to attempts to claim their land. The first activist network in the 1990s was a local movement called SERTA (Peasant Union West Nusa Tenggara), which in 2000 joined a national coalition of agrarian movements called SPI (the Indonesian Peasant’s Union). But in late 2014, some members of Lombok’s SPI group abandoned the organisation. One of these dissatisfied activists was Titi Suhada. Titi was disappointed that the national SPI leadership did not help the peasants in Tanak Awu, whose land was taken by the government in order to build the new Lombok International Airport. Titi responded by reaching out to AGRA to form a chapter of their organisation in Lombok. 

AGRA, like SPI, is a national network of regional and village-based peasant movements. It has over 250,000 registered members. Both AGRA and SPI now operate in Lombok, and Titi facilitates collaboration between different villages.

Food sovereignty

AGRA and SPI are part of the global ‘food sovereignty’ movement. The concept of food sovereignty was first popularised by Via Campesina, a global network of agrarian (or peasant) activist organisations based mostly in the Global South. Activists in Via Campesina believed that the idea of ‘food security’ served the interests of powerful states and transnational agribusinesses. To activists, food security is a euphemism used by the Global North to promote neoliberal economic policies by removing domestic subsidies, price controls and any other barriers to the free trade of agricultural products. 

A village leader in South Lombok at an activist meeting discussing food sovereignty  Sarah Mourney

At the 1996 World Food Forum, Via Campesina announced their alternative approach to food security: food sovereignty. Food sovereignty prioritises democratic control over the production and distribution of food, and supports interests of smallholder farmers instead of large agricultural companies. 

In 2007, at a global conference of peasant movements in Nyéléni village in Mali, delegates defined food sovereignty as ‘[t]he right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems’. Food sovereignty resists the free market discourse of food security and promotes policies of protectionism and egalitarianism.

Rahmat Ajiguna, the secretary-general of AGRA and the Asian Peasant Coalition, explains the difference between food security and food sovereignty: ‘If you are going to talk about food security, it is about stock, is food available? But food security does not talk about how people access or afford food, and it doesn’t talk about how nutritious the food is. But when we talk about food sovereignty, the food is produced in our country, not from overseas or from imports. The other thing is when we talk about food security it is about the economic liberalisation of food, it’s about market mechanisms.’ 

Rahmat believes that food security has a harmful impact on peasants. ‘The reality in Indonesia is that the majority of people who produce food are small-scale peasants. They have small areas of land, they produce food for themselves. But now their land is occupied, it is sold off by the government. So it means that they have no sovereignty to produce for themselves’. 

In Lombok, Titi uses advice from AGRA and her local connections with peasant villages to build awareness about the idea of food sovereignty and to rally peasants against harmful government policies. Titi says that her previous activist organisation SPI also promotes food sovereignty, but they are less radical in their activism than AGRA. 

Land dispossession

Dianto Bachriadi, who is a commissioner at Komnas HAM (the Indonesian human rights commission), is deeply concerned about land dispossession in Indonesia. ‘Since the start of Komnas in 1993 the majority of complaints have been about land conflict. So for instance, in the past three years we received 5000 to 7000 complaints, and 25 per cent of those are about land conflict.’

Titi is an eyewitness to land dispossession in Lombok. She meets with student activists from FMN (the National Student’s Front), youth activists from KPSPM (the Rural Youth Organisation), and peasants from villages all over Lombok who are concerned about their ability to make a living as farmers. The primary concern of these people is that the tourist industry will take their land and leave them jobless. 

Peasants are at a disadvantage when corporations or local government elites try to take their land without compensating them. Most peasants in rural villages have not completed primary school. One village head in South Lombok only knew how to read and write because student activists from Mataram University had taught him. 

Peasant activist movements help to even the playing field by educating peasants and assisting villages in court battles. AGRA disperses pamphlets to teach peasants about other successful campaigns to preserve farmlands. They sometimes secure victories for peasants, such as a group of Yogyakarta residents who successfully campaigned to retain their land when the government tried to build a new airport there.

Nevertheless, local peasants are questioning whether simply joining AGRA or SPI will be enough to save their land. The leader of Sukadana village is concerned that if the local government does not recognise his village’s land rights, the International Tourism Development Corporation might steal his village’s land. ‘Food sovereignty is about farmers’ control of land. But now, farmers are struggling so hard to get access to their land. The government here only cares about the business; only cares about the economy. They don’t care about farmers.’

Jokowi’s food sovereignty agenda

Although President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, has used the term ‘food sovereignty’ to describe his position on agricultural policy, activists are sceptical about the government’s commitment to peasants. In late 2014, Jokowi posted on Facebook ‘Food security is different from food sovereignty. Food security is simply the availability of foodstuffs (logistically) in warehouses and in the markets regardless of the origin whether from import or locally produced. Food sovereignty means we produce and market our foodstuffs ourselves, while the surplus of agricultural crops is exported’.

As part of Jokowi’s food sovereignty agenda, last year he raised the price of rice for the first time in three years and capped the price of staple foods during periods of peak demand such as Ramadan. He established a 10 per cent tax on Australian cattle imports to promote local cattle production, but in March abandoned the policy.

Peasant activists believe that Jokowi is distorting the meaning of food sovereignty to serve his own agenda. As one activist phrased it, Jokowi is only interested in food sovereignty because it is a ‘sexy issue’. For Jokowi, the language of food sovereignty is a way to justify pursuing self-sufficiency in rice production, decreasing imports, and increasing control over Indonesia’s maritime borders. These policies are popular with many Indonesians but peasant activists do not think that Jokowi is helping to secure their livelihoods and land rights.

In Lombok, the village leader of Mawun believes that ‘Jokowi doesn’t know about the concept of food sovereignty. Jokowi came to Lombok… but he supported tourism. If he supports tourism, he will take our land. When Jokowi supports tourism, that’s a warning for the farmers to keep defending their land’.

Muhammad, the porter on Mount Rinjani, is still only 20 years old. He is hopeful that one day he might have land of his own, and that by connecting with other peasants from his village and from across Indonesia he can be part of a successful movement to achieve food sovereignty. While the State is also talking about food sovereignty, this connotes policies of national self-sufficiency but not of peasant empowerment. Despite this lack of genuine responsiveness from the government, peasant activists are strongly committed to ensuring peasants’ rights to land are upheld, and that traditional farming practices are not sidelined by the tourism industry. They will not let their land be taken without a fight.


Sarah Mourney graduated with first class honours from the University of Sydney where she wrote an honours thesis on food policy in Indonesia. She currently works as a policy officer in the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet.


Inside Indonesia 126: Oct-Dec 2016{jcomments on}

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