May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Traditional village institutions and the Village Law

Published: May 09, 2017
The Village Law provides recognition for traditional village institutions, but villagers in Bali and Mentawai are not interested

Villages in Indonesia organise themselves in a great variety of ways. The Dutch colonial rule as well as Suharto’s New Order attempted to curtail this diversity. They gradually imposed a Javanese model of village governance on other parts of the archipelago. The New Order put the village government in the hand of a relatively powerful and state-approved village head. The Village Law might restore the varied character of village government, as it provides for the possibility of converting villages into desa adat (customary villages). This provision enables villages to adopt different kinds of village institutions more in line with traditional forms of village governance. Yet so far villages outside Java are remarkably reluctant to become desa adat. Focusing on experiences in Bali and Mentawai, we discuss why this official recognition of traditional village institutions, made possible by the Village Law, has limited appeal. 

Variety of village institutions

When the New Order adopted Law No 5 on Village Administration in 1979, it imposed a homogeneous model of village governance on a highly varied landscape. The Javanese kepala desa (village head) was not so prominent outside Java. In Mentawai, West Sumatra, the unit of the village was of less importance in everyday life. Social life was organised around the uma, patrilineal family networks which connected people living in many different villages. While during the New Order the village heads gained in prominence, the uma maintained considerable authority over social life as well as control over customary land. Collective decision-making within villages regarding, for example, access to land or the settlements of disputes depended on consensus among the member of different uma. As a result, a kind of hybrid structure developed where the New Order’s formal desa structure was adopted but the uma’s autonomy and authority was preserved.

In Bali another dual village structure developed, albeit of a different kind. The Dutch colonial rulers imposed an administrative village structure (desa dinas) for the purpose of arranging corvée labour and facilitating tax collection. Yet they left traditional village structures intact. Community life for ordinary villagers continued to revolve primarily around traditional institutions such as the banjar, a customary institution operating at the level of hamlets within villages. In village hamlets the banjar basically performed the functions that the formal sub-village administrative hamlet leaders (kepala dusun) performed elsewhere. While the domains of adat and dinas are institutionally divided at the village level, at the level of hamlets the kelihan banjar (the banjar chief) simultaneously serves as kepala dusun (the hamlet head). 

The fall of Suharto’s authoritarian regime led to calls to respect and strengthen such alternative, traditional forms of village governance. In Mentawai, local elites and NGO activists started to campaign for a ‘return to the laggai’, a Mentawaian-style of village settlement that existed before colonial rule. This laggai was an old adat village institution. The call for a ‘return to laggai’ was an attempt of local elites to convince Jakarta that Mentawai was culturally distinct and therefore deserved to have a new, separate district administration.

Similarly, in Bali local elites demanded that the national government respected Bali’s own adat system of village governance, termed desa pakraman. Both Balinese and Mentawaian elites consider the realization of desa pakraman and laggai as the culmination of a political struggle for state recognition of adat. They believe that the return to desa pakraman and laggai would restore adat governance, reinforce customary rights, and strengthen local leadership. 

Two options

Partly as a response to such pressures, the 2014 Village Law offered villagers a choice. Article 6 of the Law enables a village to choose either desa adat or a desa dinas (or, for urbanised areas, kelurahan) as a framework for local governance. While the desa dinas model largely leaves the current mode of village governance intact (see Ben White’s piece in this special issue), in the desa adat model traditional customary institutions would obtain legal recognition. This would also strengthen the collective control of these institutions over their (customary) land and territories, while preventing customary leaders from usurping control over this land. Yet customary leaders could replace the current village head. The law gave villages one year to decide whether or not to become a desa adat.

Mentawai Village - Source: Agung Wardana

This option sparked lively debate in Bali. The Balinese association of adat villages (Majelis Utama Desa Pakraman, MUDP) took a strong stance. Supported by the provincial parliament, the association proposed the conversion of current dualistic village governance into the new adat village structure. They argued that this conversion would provide the desa pakraman with legal recognition, and that this autonomy would prevent the interference of the state in the internal affairs of villages. Yet in contrast to MUDP, district government officials, the association of dinas village heads and local academics proposed to retain the current structure. They argued that choosing desa adat would actually lead to a weakening of the autonomy of traditional institutions. They would be too closely associated with the state, and burdened with administrative tasks. In the end the district governments in Bali ended the debate prematurely. They decided on the desa dinas structure over desa adat, and thus retained the current dualistic village structure. 

In Mentawai, in contrast, public debate about the issue was limited. The interest of district intellectuals, local NGOs supporting adat rights and villagers to register as a desa adat was limited. Villagers talked more enthusiastically about the village fund rather than the establishment of desa adat. In the end Mentawaians also took no action to change the status of the current desa dinas structure. 

Who is afraid of desa adat?

At first glance, this lack of enthusiasm for desa adat is puzzling. Given the long-standing campaigns for recognition of traditional institutions, why did local communities not seize on this opportunity to strengthen the legal standing of their customary associations? We identified three main reasons why villages did not convert to desa adat. A first important reason is that the alternative adat institutions in Bali and Mentawai are not organised around villages. This makes the desa adat an unattractive means to protect these institutions. In Bali the banjar institutions are organised around hamlets within villages, while the family-based uma structures in Mentawai supersede the village level. As a result these institutions are not so easily incorporated in the framework of the desa adat model proposed by the village law. In fact, the focus of the Village Law is seen as a threat to these traditional institutions: by focusing on and strengthening the village as an administrative unit – be it desa dinas or desa adat – the Village Law threatens to weaken institutions like the banjar and uma that are not organised around villages. This threat is perceived to be more acute when the village also takes over the mantle of these traditional institutions. In this sense keeping the existing desa structure is actually seen as a means to protect the uma, since the current desa dinas does not interfere with the authority and autonomy of the uma to regulate access to customary land.

A second reason lies in the strategic considerations of district governments. The opposition of the Bali’s local government to the desa adat is based on pragmatic reasons. The government feared legal and administrative complications. The district government would be responsible for facilitating the changing status from one village structure to the other through a regional regulation, to provide technical support for delineation of adat village territories that very often are not as clear as that of the administrative village. Just as importantly, district officials feared that a new type of village government would complicate their access to land and other resources within the district territory. Any kind of strengthening of customary control over resources could limit the control of district officials over these resources. This would complicate the execution of development projects and, just as importantly, curtail their rent-seeking activities. 

A third reason is that the current structure of village government is actually not unpopular. We observed particularly in Mentawai that the movement of ‘return to laggai’ was not well received by ordinary villagers. Villagers recounted the time of laggai as the period of the absence of government and the presence of clan feud that brought back the memory of conflict and violence. They also feared that the laggai would end up introducing an artificial institution and inserting a new source of power that could change the balance of powers and curtail the autonomy of uma. They preferred the existing desa structure since it has been practiced over decades and, more importantly, it does not change customary land tenure and uma’s autonomy. 

In short, villagers do not perceive the desa adat of the Village Law as an instrument for strengthening their autonomy or their voice. 

Agung Wardana ( obtained his PhD at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, and is a lecturer at Faculty of Law, Gadjah Mada University.

Darmanto ( is a PhD student at the Cultural Anthropology and Sociology Department, Leiden University.

Inside Indonesia 128: Apr-Jun 2017{jcomments on}

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