Jul 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Land and social justice

Land and social justice

Judith Mayer

    Land rights are crucial for social justice
    Judith Mayer

Questions of who controls land and how – and of who profits and who suffers as a result – are among the most contentious social and political issues facing Indonesia. Conflicts over land have seethed and erupted in Indonesia for decades. Successive governments have prioritised state development projects and the interests of corporate investors, plantations, timber and mining companies over local communities’ concerns for their own livelihoods and land heritage. Indonesia’s basic legal framework has often failed to protect the rights of local communities. The 1945 Constitution, for example, asserts that the nation’s land must be used for the benefit of Indonesia’s people, but fails to specify which people should benefit, or how the government will guarantee that promise.

The promise of reform

A decade ago the collapse of the Suharto regime and the subsequent reformasi period raised hopes that a new Indonesia would prioritise social justice and reinvigorate the land reform goals that had animated so many Indonesians during the country’s first years of independence. Reformers also hoped that new regional autonomy policies, which devolve revenue and administrative power to local governments, would create space for local people to influence decisions on who has access to land and natural resources.

There have been some real success stories. Experiments in local control and management of land, from urban riversides and sacred mountains in Java to forests and plantations in Kalimantan and Sumatra, draw on a mixture of contemporary interpretations of local adat (customary law), new models of community participation, and new enabling legislation, both national and regional.

Yet regional autonomy not only brought devolution of authority over land use and land allocation. It also shifted the locus of political patronage from the central government to the regional level. Many reforms that affect land ownership and land use are now ensnared in complex webs of local collusion, corruption and nepotism. Thousands of communities remain vulnerable to government-licensed appropriation of their lands, and to land and resource exploitation by private companies. Social movements across Indonesia have emerged to resist displacement and to promote a vision of land use that puts local communities first.

National issues, local struggles

This issue of Inside Indonesia presents a broad picture of recent struggles over land and social justice in Indonesia. The articles describe a range of local cases, and highlight some of the many social movements that aim to advance community land rights.

The first two articles, written by two of Indonesia’s most prominent activists on land and social justice issues, illustrate the interweaving of national context and local struggles that characterise most controversies over land in today’s Indonesia. Sandra Moniaga traces a century-old struggle for local land rights in rural Lebak (West Java) from colonial land laws through ongoing reforms, finding more continuity than change in state attitudes. Her article also introduces a basic history of structures, institutions and reform in Indonesian land law. Noer Fauzi calls for Indonesia to return to the fundamental goal of redistributing land to poor farmers that was proclaimed in the Basic Agrarian Law of 1960. Drawing attention to the government’s new efficiency in issuing land title certificates, he urges agrarian reform advocates not to confuse universal private land titles with the redistributive land reforms that poor people need.

Next are three accounts of local struggles. Alexandra Crosby recounts the Saminist movement’s resistance to efforts by a state-owned cement company to gain control of Central Java’s Kendeng Mountain as the site for a new cement factory and gravel quarries. Laurens Bakker moves the focus to East Kalimantan, showing how devolution of authority to make land use decisions has become an important source of political patronage for local elites. With inter-island immigrants added to East Kalimantan’s multi-ethnic ‘indigenous’ mix, ethnicity plays a key role in the complex politics of land in the province. Even so, Bakker is guardedly optimistic that decentralisation will contribute to land tenure security.

Afrizal presents contrasting pictures of government and company attempts to deal with local opposition to corporate oil palm plantations in the Sumatra provinces of West Sumatra and Riau. In West Sumatra, the provincial government’s recognition of local adat land rights appears to be helping companies and their government supporters negotiate with local communities and quell their opposition to plantation developments. By contrast, Riau officials’ failure to recognise adat land rights continues to frustrate local communities confronting oil palm corporations.

Urban land

The last four articles focus on social justice issues in urban and urbanising areas. Gustav Reerink and Tristam Moeliono both focus on controversies surrounding the recent development of elite gated communities in the outskirts of Bandung. These developments are similar to hundreds of others that are taking over huge swathes of recently-rural land surrounding dozens of Indonesian cities. Gated communities are both reactions against urban sprawl and perpetrators of it. The articles decry the failure of spatial planning to safeguard environmental quality in Bandung’s watershed area, and the rights of the farmers and slum dwellers evicted by these huge private developments. Spatial planning reforms, in these accounts, have been hijacked to generate government revenues and political patronage.

Deden Rukmana explains Jakarta’s paradoxical approach of expanding the city’s green spaces while failing to control the massive construction that is a major cause of the city’s notorious floods. Jakarta’s leaders have designated open space areas along the banks of several rivers, streams, and catchment basins to protect against floods. Thousands of poor people have been evicted from their homes and sources of livelihood in the process. Yet the city has allowed new fuel stations to operate in ‘green’ areas and developers of luxury apartment complexes, shopping centres, and office blocks disregard the land use designations in Jakarta’s spatial plan with impunity.

However, there are some signs of hope for both social justice and improved environmental quality in Indonesia’s cities. Architect Antonio Ismael Risianto works with disadvantaged urban communities around Indonesia to improve their living and working conditions, their broader physical environments and their security in the face of both physical hazards like flooding and threats of expropriation. While most architects follow an easier path toward money, Antonio Ismael Risianto facilitates participatory processes and trains ‘barefoot architects’ emphasising social justice rather than developers’ profits.

In urban and rural areas, in Java and beyond, the articles in this edition of Inside Indonesia show that struggles for social justice throughout Indonesia continue to focus on demands for equitable access to land. They suggest that a land reform agenda must remain a central concern for all people who want to advance progressive social and political change in Indonesia.

Several articles in this edition of Inside Indonesia are revised versions of papers presented at an August 2008 seminar on ‘Law, Land Tenure and Reform in Indonesia’ in Leiden, The Netherlands. The seminar was part of the Indira (Indonesian-Netherlands studies of Decentralisation of the Indonesian Rechtsstaat and its impact on Agraria) project. Inside Indonesia thanks the participants in the project and especially Dr. Jacqueline Vel of the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance and Development at Leiden University for the agreeing to publish their findings in Inside Indonesia, and for the inspiration for this edition.

Judith Mayer (jmayer@humboldt1.com) is an environmental planner in northern California, USA. Currently Coordinator of The Borneo Project of Earth Island Institute, her recent research in Indonesia has focused on community based resource management in Kalimantan. Judith holds Masters and PhD degrees in planning, and has taught at Virginia Tech and Humboldt State University. She would like to acknowledge the assistance of Blair Palmer in editing this edition of Inside Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 98: Oct-Dec 2009

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