Non-existence within existence: a case study of the excessive burden placed on women peasants in two villages in the Halimun Ecosystem

Down to Earth No 63  November 2004

By Ulfa Hidayati, RMI (The Indonesian Institute for Forest and Environment). (Abridged translation by DTE)

The capitalist economy has dominated ecological, social and cultural aspects of local peoples' lives in the Halimun ecosystem which covers part of Bogor, Sukabumi and Lebak districts, West Java. In the name of development, particularly in the upstream areas, local people have been confronted with state and private plantation companies, the state-owned forestry company, Perum Perhutani Unit III, and the state-owned mining company, PT Aneka Tambang. These companies' business activities are the legacy of exploitation during Dutch colonial times.

As a result, local people, including the Kasepuhan people, have lost access to land and resources needed for food, clothing and medicine as well for their spiritual life.

Interviews conducted by RMI staff and volunteers with people in several villages in the Halimun ecosystem provide indications of how people feel about development:

"Before Perum Perhutani came, this area used to be sawah (wet rice fields), worked for the most part by our parents. The takeover of land for Perhutani's production area was done by force. Rice plants were destroyed, totally cleared."
(Ibu El from Kampung Nyungcung (Nyungcung Hamlet), Malasari Village)

"Before, we could still get Ki Beling in this area, but now we have to go to Cibareno River." [Ki Beling: medicinal plant used by women after childbirth].
(Ibu Sr, a midwife, from Kampung Cikaret, Sirnaresmi Village)

Now the Halimun people - who previously were owners, managers and guardians of the ecosystem and the natural wealth it contains - have become alienated in their own land. They are forbidden from collecting forest products in areas once managed by their ancestors, but now claimed by others.

The marginalisation of the majority of people in Halimun, especially women, has not been taken account in planning and implementing forestry, conservation and agrarian policies - a fact which shows that the paradigm of state control (Hak Menguasai oleh Negara) is still strong.

A change in control over land and forest resources from the local population to outsiders - plantation companies, Perhutani Unit III and PT Aneka Tambang - in the Halimun forest ecosystem, followed by massive scale exploitation, has caused ecosystem destruction in the upstream areas, drought, infertile land, landslides and outbreaks of existing and new pests. For women farmers, who provide food to sustain their households, this has meant additional work. Aware of this, women have started to empower themselves by learning together, facilitated by RMI and ICRAF, to initiate efforts to restore the damaged ecosystem.


The Halimun ecosystem covers around 211,464 hectares. During the Padjajaran era, this was part of the kingdom's hinterland. During Dutch colonial times, it was considered part of the Western 'jungle'. It is the only part of West Java which still contains a tropical forest ecosystem that acts as an important buffer or support for the densely populated areas around Halimun, including Jakarta and Tangerang. It is a vital water catchment area - 50 rivers rise in the Halimun mountain range. The rich ecosystem is complemented by the rich socio-cultural and economic values still evident in the everyday life of the Kanekes and Kasepuhan peoples. According to the beliefs of the Kasepuhan Sirnaresmi and Citorek peoples, this area must always be safeguarded from all damaging activities, such as felling trees. The only permitted activities are collection of non-timber forest products such as rattan, honey, fungi and medicinal plants.

In the 17th century, along with several other areas in Indonesia, Halimun was used by the Dutch East Indonesia Company (VOC) and then the Dutch colonial administration to grow coffee, tea and other plantation commodities. This changed the tenurial system and reduced the living space of the local peoples. Villagers were introduced to intensive farming systems (sawah), and a culture of commoditisation and monetisation. These changes were the start of a long historical process of expropriation or theft of the Halimun peoples' access to and control over land and forest resources. The majority of Halimun people, men and women, were forced to become labourers on the plantations.

By Indonesia's independence, living space for the peoples of Halimun - Kanekes and Kasepuhan peoples and plantation labourers - had become increasingly confined. The exploitative economic activities inherited from the VOC and Dutch colonial government were continued and further developed. Local and indigenous peoples' land now overlaps with conservation areas (Gunung Halimun National Park), large scale commercial monocultures (state and private sector) production 'forest' (Perum Perhutani Unit III) and gold mining (PT Aneka Tambang in Cikotok and Pongkor).

This exploitation by outside parties has led to genetic erosion - of local rice varieties - as well as drought, infertile land, landslides and outbreaks of pests, as described by local people:

"As the forests above have been felled and turned into pine plantations, the water in our wet-rice fields isn't cold anymore. This water is obviously not suitable for pare ageng [a local rice variety] So, like it or not, in order to still eat, we are forced to plant pare bubuk [IR rice - a high-yielding commercial variety introduced during the 'green revolution']. 
(Ibu An, Kampung Malasari, Malasari Village)


Non-existence within existence: how have Halimun people adapted?
As a result of the loss of land and local production sources, the majority of men from Halimun have been forced to seek work in big cities like Jakarta, Bogor, Tangerang and Bekasi, running the risks involved in becoming cheap labourers and/or working in destructive mining as gurandil [a local expression for gold miners, called unlicensed miners by the government] and in illegal logging (as logging and log transport labourers).

"To fulfil our needs, my husband goes to the mountain (as a gurandil miner) for a week, then comes back for a week to rest and process rocks from the mountain. The next week, he goes back to the mountain again. I carry on the sawah activities in the Kahutanan [Perum Perhutani] land and work as paid labourer in several sawah belonging to my brother and sisters or other people. This is our everyday life."
(Ibu Ln, Nyungcung, Malasari)

In the villages, women face dual pressures. Firstly, they experience confrontation with outsiders in their role as food providers, collectors of fuelwood and water:

"One day, when I was in the huma (shifting cultivation field), a Perhutani man came and, staring angrily at me, said to my mother 'You can't open huma here because it's Perhutani land!' But I didn't take any notice, because this land provides us with a living. If the land is stolen by Perhutani, it's the same as wanting to kill me and my family..." 
(Ibu Kn, Kampung Lebak Larang, Mekarsari Village)

Secondly, in the patriarchal cultural life of the community, women must also fulfil the role of cook, household manager, child-carer, nurse, cultural guardian and teacher for the children. In the Kasepuhan Sirnaresmi and Ciptagelar peoples, fathers remind their daughters of their subservient position when the daughters get married: "From the ends of your hair to your toes, from each drop of blood to every single hair, a wife belongs to her husband."

Women try to overcome these injustices by working Perhutani land (with all the risks that entails) and working as cheap paid labour or sharecroppers on land owned by others. Whether they have money or not, women must provide the family food supply. There is no rest in a working day of at least sixteen hours. This situation means that most women in the Halimun ecosystem (as also experienced by women elsewhere) do not have time to consider their own health - everything is done for their family.

The younger generation of women, as with the men, go to work in factories or as maids in the big cities, some even becoming migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.


Malasari village: a volatile situation 
Malasari is classified as an underdeveloped village under the state's Inpres Desa Tertinggal programme. It has an administrative area of 4,756 hectares, in Nanggung subdistrict, Bogor district, West Java. Tea plantations were developed on village land, and were expanded in 1973 to around 971 hectares. The plantation is now owned by PT Nirmala Agung, a subsidiary of PT Sari Wangi. In 1978, an area classified as protection forest by the Dutch colonial government was handed over to Perum Perhutani Unit III along with part of the land used by villagers for sawah andkebun talun [the traditional agroforestry system in West Java] since the 1940s. The remaining forest was included in the Gunung Halimun Nature Reserve in 1979, which became a National Park in 1992. Under forestry ministry decree 175/2003 (not yet implemented), the whole of Malasari now lies in the Gunung Halimun - Salak National Park. In 1992, part of the northern area of Malasari village, Ciguha, was included in a 30-year mining concession, covering around 4,058 hectares, awarded to Aneka Tambang.

Differences between the generations have arisen and many younger people have opted to work in non-farming jobs, leaving their parents to the maintain the food production. Fewer people are left to sustain the village population, above all in producing the staple food - rice. Moreover, very limited land is available: villagers only have access to and control over 283 hectares or 5.95% of total area of village land. To sustain the village's population of 1,782 families, this means only 0.16 hectares per family, so it isn't surprising that conflicts over land have arisen between people and the national park and companies operating in the area. It has also had the effect of altering one link in the cycle of community-based forest resource management activities - huma activities - so that all efforts to fulfil the rice needs are now focussed on sawah.


Mekarsari: Between Adat (custom) and Reality
In the southwestern part of the Halimun ecosystem, 900m above sea-level, Mekarsari village is regulated by two institutional systems - the village administration system and the Kasepuhan system. Mekarsari can be said to be a plural community consisting of a small group of local people living in Kampung Cibeber and three groups of Kasepuhan people, Ciptagelar, Sirnaresmi and Sinerresmi, totalling 4,231 people, living in eight other kampungs.

Of the total village administrative area of 3,697.9 hectares, around 686 hectares of land (0.53 ha per family) can be accessed and controlled by the people - for housing, infrastructure, wet rice, dry rice, wood plantations and agroforestry. The remaining 3,011 hectares, covering 7 kampung, is a Perhutani area, while one kampung is part of the Gunung Halimun - Salak National Park.

As with Malasari village, the limited land available has directly influenced the Kasepuhan villagers' supply of food, obliging them to shorten the dry-rice farming cycle. This means that the fallow stage of the cycle - reuma - has started to disappear. In the past, fallow periods were up to 20 years once rice had been harvested. Various fruit and timber trees were planted on these plots, and different species of plants would grow naturally, providing materials for making medicines for women after childbirth. Now that there is much less reuma land, women's knowledge of medicinal plants and how to prepare mixtures for medicines is disappearing with it. This is especially so for traditional midwives (mak beurang). The ritual values in traditional medicinal practices of the Kasepuhan Sirnaresmi and Ciptagelar are being eroded too.


An excessive burden for women: securing and maintaining the right to eat
In all societies, rights relating to land, water, crops, livestock and other natural resources are gender-specific. In other words, distribution, access, control and division of labour in managing land and natural resources is different for men and women. There is also a difference in the meaning of 'natural resources' for men and women. Differences in class status in the community emphasise these differences in meaning.

For women peasants in Malasari and Mekarsari, land for sawahhuma and gardens is not just a very important factor in production, but also provides social security.

Group discussions with women peasants about the division of work between men and women showed that:

  • In Mekarsari, women are responsible for land preparation, planting, maintenance, harvest and processing the harvested crop. For huma, there are 7 stages of activity done by women, 5 by men and 7 done together. For sawah activities, 6 stages are carried out by women, 6 by men and 4 together.
  • In Malasari village, 5 stages in sawah activities are carried out by women, 4 by men and 4 more are done together.

With men working away from the farms accessed and/or controlled by the family, women are taking over the tasks usually performed by men.


A collective initiative, restoring a damaged ecosystem
Women's adaptations to restricted access to land have not been accommodated by state policies. This is shown by Forestry Ministry decree 175/Kpts-II/2003 which expanded the area of Gunung Halimun National Park. Without any process of prior communication with the people who live in or around the park, the government increased the area of the park from 40,000 ha to 113,357 ha, covering the Halimun and Salak mountain ranges. Based on studies done by Hanavi et al (2004), 108 villages, each with hundreds of inhabitants, are today 'officially' inside the 'new' areas of the park.

Faced with increasing difficulties in meeting food supplies, especially for fruit and water, and concerned about the risk of landslides, several women peasants' groups have started to explore opportunities for improving their situation. Women peasants started by learning together in groups and then worked collectively to restore eroded land currently within the boundaries of the national park and production forest areas of Perum Perhutani. Women's groups in Kampung Nyungcung, Malasari village, are carrying out a series of activities such as discussions involving village people and local officials, collecting fruit tree seeds and seedlings, cultivation of seedlings, mapping to ascertain suitable areas, terracing the eroded land and steep slopes, and planting fruit tree seedlings between secondary crops (known as palawija crops) on land which has already been terraced. Women peasants groups in Kampung Ciladu, Mekarsari, have held consultations and reached agreement with the whole kampung, with the members of the Kasepuhan Sirnaresmi 'adat government' and village officials; and have mapped six springs in the Pasir Jirak area.

"We want our kampung to be green again, as it was before Perum Perhutani came"
(Ibu Um, Kampung Nyungcung, Malasari)

"We want to harvest fruit, collect firewood and fresh spring water like before; We don't want a landslide in our village." 
(Anon woman Kampung Nyungcung, Malasari).

This collective work represents the beginning of an awareness, social acceptance of and support from the household and the community at kampung-level for these women's initiatives to secure and maintain the right to food security and to live in a safe environment. It points to the development of a negotiation process, between women's groups and kampung community on the one hand and the government and others, to assert elements of their basic rights and to secure genuine benefits from the presence of others (the National Park, Perhutani) on their land.

Conclusion The investigation of how women have adapted to the changing land and natural resources situation in these two villages shows that access to land, water, trees and food crops/plants is a vitally important condition for fulfilling basic needs in the household and in spiritual and cultural life.

This study shows that marginal groups are becoming increasingly distanced from their rights to land, water and natural resources, both in quality and quantity. As found in field studies by Argawal (1994), returning them brings benefits in three ways - security, efficiency and equality/being empowered.

If there is an accommodation of women's rights over land, water, plants etc, this provides security because it substantially reduces poverty, the threat of poverty and risk that poverty will appear if there is a family break up or separation due to divorce or death of the husband. Efficiency is shown where women, if given the same land and other resources in the same quantity and quality, plus the same technology, training and information as men, can increase productivity. Increased agricultural productivity and other natural resource management activities guarantee the supply of food and economic resources for the family throughout the year. Equality/being empowered shows that when there is equality between women and men in obtaining and safeguarding rights to land, water and other natural resources, this empowers women economically and, at the same time, opens the door to social and political empowerment. This leads to women being more valued and securing a stronger bargaining position, not just in the family, but also in their relations with landowners, employers and in the local political arena.

In the legal context, as a framework for negotiation, there are several opportunities for us to push the government harder to fulfil its commitments according to the international covenants it has ratified. From the perspective of legal pluralism, the view of law as a framework for negotiation has a lot of potential. In addition to international law and state law, 'people's law' - consisting of customary law, religion, traditions, norms, agreements and joint initiatives - can also be viewed as law, all elements influencing and interacting with each other.

It is extremely urgent to mobilise support for initiatives by marginal groups, especially women, in securing and maintaining these rights. Strategies include:

  • Increasing legal understanding among women, local government bodies and other institutions involved in the Indonesian tenurial system.

    One difficulty faced by marginalised women is their lack of understanding of the structure of the laws they are faced with. For example, some of the women in Mekarsari think 'law' means 'jail', while for some of the women in Malasari, 'law' means a difficult thing to use for upholding justice. Efforts are needed to increase understanding of the law through critical educational activities. Along with grassroots education, it is also important to increase understanding of local, state and international law, among government officials and in other related institutions.

  • Implementing communal rights for women, by working together with women.

    In a context of rapid land and natural resource privatisation, implementing communal rights will strengthen the bargaining position of women in the household, community and state. Provided with an understanding of law and critical consciousness of the importance of their rights, women can formulate management and rules for communal management of land and natural resources they access.

  • Supporting women's groups and/or organisations.

    It is important for women to organise themselves so they can collectively represent themselves to and work with other parties to negotiate their rights and to strengthen their legal status within their communities. Only in this way can women really secure and protect their rights over land and water.

Real change towards genuine justice doesn't come without strong collective pressure from us all, especially from women.

Note from DTE: This paper was presented at the International Conference on Land and Resource Tenure, Jakarta, 11-13 October 2004. The writer was part of a panel of women speaking on the theme of women and tenurial rights. For further information see