May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Land for the people

Published: Jul 30, 2007


Until my hair turns grey, I'll never be able to own land, unless we ask for the land back that belonged to our ancestors. Even if I had money, no one is selling land, or if they are it's far too expensive. If the state or the state plantation really want this land back, there will be war, that's for sure. We'll all die.

(Suroto, a farmer who cut down cocoa plants at the Kalibakar plantation in South Malang, speaking in July 2000).

A land certificate is not important. The state plantation, for example, has a certificate, but they can't use the land because it has been taken over by the people. The important thing is to be able to work the land. Having no certificate is not a problem.

(Imam Sudja'i, village head who led the land takeover at Simojayan village, South Malang, speaking in March 2000).

At US$3-4 a kilo, cocoa beans are valuable. The 2,050 hectare cocoa plantation at Kalibakar, South Malang (East Java) was planted in 1965. The area was first leased from the local community in 1941 by a Dutch investor, who planted coffee. In exchange for the 35-year lease, every village received 350 pieces of silver and two rolls of cloth, plus a car which was used by the village head. When in 1959 all Dutch ventures were nationalised, it became a state-owned plantation, run by PTPN XII, the Twelfth State Plantation Company. Farmers who knew this as their land tried at various times to get it back, beginning in the mid-1970s, but they always failed.

However, on Monday 24 August 1998 the farmers living in five villages around the plantation struck in force. Thousands of them invaded in a well-prepared operation. Carrying clubs, knives and saws, they cut down hundreds of thousands of cocoa bushes, then occupied the land. The economic crisis of 1997-98 had made them desperate. Many poor relatives had returned to the country from the city, straining farmers' food supplies. They were also taking advantage of the euphoria of 'reformasi' following President Suharto's sudden resignation the previous May. This created chaos in government ranks. The big August action followed sporadic raids since the previous December.

Land remains the key asset for this farming community. Theirs was one of many actions around Indonesia to reclaim land at this time. The state claims monopoly control over land, but it has been insensitive to its social and economic importance to farmers. The August 1998 land action was not a case of banditry, but a valid community response to unceasing structural repression. Instead of being responsive in this reformation era, the state in many ways has behaved worse than the Dutch colonial state did in the late nineteenth century. As a result, farmers have faced not merely the power of the investors or the market, but of the state itself.


Today, more than three years later, the farmers have consolidated their position. They have won some significant victories, but still do not have formal recognition of their ownership. The farmers claim that the lease awarded to the Twelfth State Plantation Company in the 1980s is legally flawed. They also say PTPN XII should have made a bigger contribution to local welfare by providing more employment at better wages. Since its presence was illegal and of little local benefit, they decided to take the land back and work it themselves. PTPN XII, on the contrary, says the lease is perfectly legal, and that it makes a substantial contribution to Indonesia's export earnings.

Apart from actually working the land, the farmers have concentrated their efforts on getting legal recognition, and on redistributing the reclaimed land so that everyone has a share. Their efforts to resolve the conflict to the satisfaction of all have been increasingly intensive this past year.

Government at the Malang district level, led by the district administrator (bupati), is actively trying to bring various parties together. Money has been made available for the farmers in the Malang district government budget.

The farmers have also won support within the district elected assembly (DPRD-II). On 10 June 2000 the assembly issued a resolution supporting their struggle for justice. The two main farmers organisations are Papanjati (Paguyuban Petani Jawa Timur, East Java Farmers Association) and Forkotmas (Forum Komunikasi Tani Malang Selatan, South Malang Farmers Communication Forum). This resolution was a highly significant moment. It effectively brought these two organisations into an alliance with the main political parties in the assembly (PPP, PDI-P, PKB).

The land reclamation issue has played an important role in South Malang village politics too. As village head elections were held in most of the villages that took part in the 1998 action, rival candidates wooed voters by promising to fight for rights to the PTPN land. Those village elites with connections outside - village head candidates, farmers with money, even local crime bosses - have cooperated on a single agenda, namely village rights to negotiate over the land.

Villagers talk a lot about how 'Dutch' the plantation company managers always were. Foremen, for example, used to demand that their workers demonstrate 'loyalty' by feeding their cows free of charge. Villagers remember how little the company cared to help maintain local infrastructure such as roads. Overloaded company trucks damaged the roads and left them virtually impassable.

They also recall how unjust the system of sharecropping at the plantation used to be. They grew food crops on unused land in the plantation, but were forced to sell the harvest to the plantation company cheaply before it was ready (the so-called ijon system). And they recall how they were jailed or fined for stealing even small quantities of cocoa or cattle feed from the company.

Probably the most important external factor is the paralysis in the legal system, especially in 1997-98. When I asked one farmer why he took direct action instead of taking the matter to court, he said: 'When someone up there does something wrong, the only thing that happens is some words of criticism, and then people say "we must respect the principle of innocence until proven guilty". But when the little people do something wrong they often find themselves staring down a rifle barrel.' This was a very popular response among the farmers when asked about the justice system.

The district government is now hardening its position somewhat. They are talking about a compromise in which some land stays with PTPN XII, some goes to the farmers, and some goes to the provincial government to support its budget requirements. The latter, in the era of local autonomy, is an important consideration for them.

Meanwhile among the farmers themselves there are also tensions. The players here include the land redistribution committees, the chairpersons of the groups who actually cut down the cocoa shrubs, the village heads, the various brokers who deal with the outside world, and the thousands of individual farmers who received land and are now working it. The debates are over who precisely is entitled to land, how much, and where.

Three kinds of leadership have emerged among the farmers. Two village heads in particular use an authoritarian approach. One belongs to a family that has inherited control of the village for generations. The other is a crime boss. Their word is simply law. This approach is top-down, but fairly effective.

Some other villages use what we may call a 'corporatist' approach, in which the formal village bureaucracy forms an alliance with the land redistribution committees. The problem here is that it results in a lot of corruption. The relatively small number of people involved allows land transactions to take place under the table between people who are often related to one another. This in turn has led to violent resentment on the part of those left out.

Other villages again use a much more democratic approach, that we could call 'mass pluralism'. Any conflict arising must be brought before the village mass council, which consists of all the village land committee chairpersons and their advisors. The formal bureaucracy is not involved at all - a result of having opposed the land action in the first place. After the coordinating secretary explains the problem, all present are invited to put forward alternative solutions. A facilitator, also from the village, then steps forward to discuss the pros and cons of each alternative. Next, everyone present is invited to put up their suggestions and criticisms. At the end a decision is taken which is binding on all. Anyone who goes against this decision risks the wrath of the entire village - they could be ostracised or even killed.

The story of South Malang's farmers shows that agrarian reform in Indonesia can only be begun by the farmers themselves.

Sukardi ( is a lecturer at Universitas Merdeka Malang. He is a postgraduate student at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta.

Inside Indonesia 69: Jan - Mar 2002

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