Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Land for the landless

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Why are the democrats in Jakarta not interested in land reform?

Dianto Bachriadi

In May President Gus Dur told farmers he would have 40% of state-owned plantation land redistributed to landless peasants. He said this because farmers had begun unilaterally to occupy plantation land they believed belonged to them. Some of these actions had resulted in arrests, injury and even death. The landless farmers reacted with great enthusiasm, but there has been no follow-up.

Their claim on the plantation land had a historical basis, but the New Order government acted inconsistently with Sukarno's Old Order, resulting in thousands of farmers being pushed off land they had worked for many years. The recent economic crisis increased the desire for land among people who used to look to the cities for work. A scarcity of land made them take the step of occupying other land. Under the influence of reformasi, and with the security apparatus showing more restraint, about 60,000 hectares of plantation land have been taken over and farmed in these massive farmers' actions, leaving about 120 plantation companies feeling aggrieved.

These figures came as no surprise to the Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA), a non-government organisation that has been following land conflicts for a long time. Their records show that throughout Indonesia land disputes, particularly on plantation lands, are more numerous than any other type of legal conflict.


How many farmers need land, and is there enough to go around? The last census in 1993 showed that 5,989,534 peasant households in Indonesia, or 28% of the total, owned between zero and 0.1 hectares of land. The economic crisis will have increased that figure as unemployed people return to the land from the city. Many of them had migrated to the city in the first place because there was no more land.

A similar number, 6,315,091 households or 29% of the total, had between 0.1 and 0.49 hectares. If we consider half a hectare as adequate for small agricultural production we can see that 57% of rural households in Indonesia do not have enough land. This is a minimal figure, because it does not count all those who have been permanently removed from the land but who still want to return there.

But how much land is available? Ironically, the government does not make available comprehensive data on the amount of land available for land reform. The figures it does release are clearly too low when compared with more credible sources. One such source, Maria Soemardjono, estimates that the cumulative total is 1,397,167 hectares, of which 787,931 hectares or 56.4% had already been redistributed by 1998. It's not quite clear what kind of land is being referred to here.

The 1960 Agrarian Law provides for four kinds of land to be redistributed: (1) land that exceeds a certain maximum area, (2) land held by absentee landlords, (3) land (formerly) owned by traditional ruling families or courts (swapraja), and (4) state-controlled land. All land subject to reform is in practice first declared to be state land before being redistributed.

The National Land Agency (BPN) said in 1998 that about 84% of all the land for which it had issued a location permit for commercial purpose (izin lokasi) was in fact not being used productively. One reason was land speculation. This amounts to 2,543,944 hectares. Unproductive plantation land, meanwhile, amounted to 2,431,75 hectares. New rules say that land left unused (lahan tidur) or not being used for the purpose of the lease returns to the state to be given to those who will use it. The point is that a certain amount of land is available under the existing law on land reform.

Another rarely mentioned matter is the absentee landlord. The state agency BPN never releases figures in this area. No one knows whether they don't have them or don't want to publish them. Maybe they are afraid of offending the officials (including BPN officers), big businessmen, generals and so on, who control this land without living on it. But whenever we visit the country everyone can point out the land owned by absentee landlords. The BPN office in Bekasi (east of Jakarta) once said 20% of land is absentee land. Research by William Collier and his colleagues says 13.8% of agricultural land in Java falls into this category. If on average each village in Java has 150-250 hectares, redistributing just this absentee land alone would give between eight and fourteen families in every village enough land to live on.

Of course absentee landlordship is a difficult problem to solve without very strong political pressure. Even during the most intensive phase of land reform in the 1960s, only 39% of absentee land could be successfully redistributed. If land reform had been slow under that government, it stopped altogether after the New Order regime took over. The massacres and horizontal conflict of 1965-66 were held up as a reason for viewing land reform, which is blessed by the constitution, as 'unrealistic'. Even though the New Order regime kept talking about land reform and even publishing statistics, this was merely political rhetoric without substance. The populist land reform program effectively died in 1969.

When the first Five Year Plan (Repelita I) was unveiled in 1969, land reform no longer appeared on the 'agricultural development' agenda. Instead the effort was directed at agricultural intensification based on the green revolution. The term land reform did reappear in subsequent plans, but it was connected with transmigration and the resettlement of nomadic tribes people. The special land reform court was abolished in 1970, showing that the program to create a more balanced system of agricultural land control had been systematically abandoned.


Another aspect of Indonesian land reform is that the law is limited to land owned by individuals. It makes an exception to the maximum area rule in the case of land leased by a company. This has allowed companies to control huge tracts of land. Another exception is that land controlled by village chiefs (tanah bengkok or tanah jabatan) is not subject to land reform, with the result that some chiefs control up to 10% of the entire village land.

If the New Order neglected land reform, so did the transitional Habibie government and today's Gus Dur government. In particular they have often allocated land controlled by the state (such as ex-forestry or ex-plantation land), not to landless farmers as the land reform law requires, but back to the big companies who will invest in agribusiness. The two governments that followed Sukarno's Old Order government continued the manipulation of plantation land originally leased by the Dutch that was nationalised in 1957. Leases were given to state-owned plantation companies.

In reality, local farmers had worked a lot of this land since the Japanese occupation and since the revolutionary independence struggle of 1945. That reality was validated in Emergency Law no.1/1958. In some, but unfortunately not all, places this occupied land was formally handed over as part of the national land reform program in the 1960s. It all depended a lot on local political dynamics. As a result a great deal of this land, which had been worked by farmers continuously since that time, was only protected by a few formal acknowledgements. The New Order routinely regarded these acknowledgements as legally invalid. New research I did with Anton Lucas has shown how easy it has been to seize this redistributed land in manipulative ways from the farmers working it.

Things became even more complicated when those state-owned plantation companies (PN Perkebunan or PT Perkebunan) then passed control to large private concerns to be used for a plantation, tourism, or luxury housing. The New Order usually just issued a new lease (Hak Guna Usaha) without considering the fact that the land was in fact being worked productively albeit without formal certification.

The land reform law unfortunately only has jurisdiction over land owned by private individuals, and not that controlled by companies or cooperatives that might be active in plantations, forestry, shrimp farms, or other agro-industry. Only in 1999 did two new government regulations come out in response to reformist pressure to limit mainly the expansion of oil palm and forestry concessions (Hak Pengusaha Hutan) over land. We still need to see how effective these regulations will be.

The uncontrolled seizure of land by big business interests has given rise to serious conflicts with ordinary people all over Indonesia whose productive farming land has been taken over. Much of this land in fact lies fallow as it turns out the company is unable to put it to immediate use.

There are so many farmers who badly need land. Will the Gus Dur government - or anyone else interested in taking his place - listen to them by reviving the land reform program? The executive branch of government is increasingly being controlled by parliament. Yet until now parliament has never asked the government why it is not implementing its constitutional duty of land reform. All the parliamentarians seem to be concerned about is how to increase their party's share of power. KPA has put up a resolution on agrarian reform to the country's supreme parliament the MPR. Plantation interests opposed discussion of this resolution, and two years later it has evoked virtually no comment from those who call themselves the peoples' representatives. They invariably say that land reform is 'not realistic' for Indonesia.

Dianto Bachriadi can be contacted through the Konsorsium Pembaharuan Agraria, KPA (kpa@kpa.or.id) in Bandung, or through penk@bdg.centrin.net.id.

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000

Latest Articles

Essay: Testing out my Bahasa Indonesia

Jul 09, 2024 - PATRICK J MAHONY

We need to learn more about each other. If we do, we will find that in many ways we have much in common

Asbestos danger

Jul 08, 2024 - GWYN ROBERTS

What can be done to prevent suffering in Indonesia?

Obituary: Stop telling, start listening

Jul 04, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Owen Podger’s guide to aid-giving

Essay: What remains of the 1998 tragedy for the post-1998 generation


Hearing about my mother's experiences in May 1998 became a pivotal moment that has shaped my life. 

Obit: Bob Muntz, 1947-2024

Jun 24, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.