The struggle for land

Down to Earth No 40, February 1999

Indonesia's farmers are organising to challenge the powerful business conglomerates and the unequal distribution of agricultural land.

The fall of Suharto, the economic crisis and a desperate need to grow food have intensified the battle for farmland now being fought in many parts of Indonesia. Rural communities are continuing to re-occupy lands stolen from them by well-connected businessmen and state plantation companies. The pressure for land and food is increasing too, with huge numbers of unemployed workers from the cities joining the millions of rural people thrown into poverty by the continuing economic crisis.

Subsidies on agricultural inputs are being phased out under the IMF bail-out scheme, but the "safety net" programmes which are supposed to help the millions now suffering food shortages are failing to reach some of those most in need. The only recourse for many families is to resort to looting food, cash crop plantations, teak forests, rice warehouses - anything they can eat or sell. Rioting and looting in towns is still widespread (see DTE 39). There has been a number of reports about vehicles transporting food or other commodities being hijacked by groups of men along certain popular roads and there is talk in the media of Indonesia's likely descent into anarchy.

Whether it presents a fair reflection or not, such talk is being used by the Habibie government to validate his increasing reliance on the security forces to keep 'order'. This means forcibly removing farmers from reclaimed land: the Suharto ranch at Tapos near Bogor, and the Cimacan golf course (see DTE 38) are two cases where brute force has been used to confront the farmers. Near Medan, North Sumatra, six farmers were wounded by rubber bullets after they re-occupied lands taken from them by a state-run tobacco and oil palm plantation. According to local reports, armed police were called in after clashes between the farmers and company officials trying to evict them.

There appears to be little difference in style now between Habibie and his predecessor on the question of land. Under Suharto, farmers were swept aside to make way for the large scale debt-financed projects that were the hallmark of his regime. Regulations on compensation were routinely flouted with corrupt government officials consistently siding with developers. Vast areas were appropriated in this way for the Suharto family and their circle of business cronies.

What is different is that the economic and food crisis is providing more impetus for farming communities to organise. And now Suharto has been toppled, there is more freedom to do so. Farmers' organisations are being set up in several regions, often joining forces with students, environmental and legal aid groups. They are looking beyond individual land disputes to push for political change and total land reform.

In Lampung, southern Sumatra, thousands of farmers and students descended on the provincial Governor's office in November last year to demand political reform and a solution to land disputes in Lampung. The 8 km march, which ended in an occupation of the governor's office, was organised by the Lampung Farmers' Council (Dewan Tani Lampung). The group's manifesto, published in the same month makes common cause with workers and students to demand political reform and the withdrawal of the military from politics. The Dewan's short term programme of work includes reclaiming farm lands; demanding lower prices for essential goods; establishing communication posts at village level and forming co-operatives to develop the local economy. [These are not the state-run 'co-operatives' which have been a vehicle for corruption in the New Order regime for many years]. In the longer term, it hopes to pioneer a Dewan Tani organisation at national level. (Lampung Post 10/11/98; Manifesto Dewan Tani Lampung 9/11/98. See also DTE 38 for farmers' action in Lampung)

In October a regional workshop of the Victims of Large Plantations was held in Bengkulu, western Sumatra. The meeting, which included representatives from Aceh, West Sumatra, South Sumatra and Lampung, was facilitated by the environmental organisation WALHI. The delegates issued a list of demands including the return of their lands; no more intimidation by the security forces and a review of all laws and regulations which are used to legitimise land-grabbing by powerful companies. (WALHI: Temu Rakyat Korban Perkebunan Besar Regional Sumatera 23/10/98)

The previous month the same city had seen a meeting of farmers and indigenous people joining forces to defend lands and forests. The meeting issued a declaration entitled "Land for the People" and set out a list of demands, including the return and recognition of rights to land and natural resources; review of land laws and regulations; action against investors who steal and clear land by burning; and action on various land cases in the province. (Pernyataan Sikap Masyarakat Adat dan Petani Bengkulu 24/9/98)

In Central Sulawesi, Oppressed People's Solidarity, a group of farmers involved in three separate land disputes with plantation companies organised a protest against large plantations at the local parliament in December. (WALHI Sulteng 17/12/98)

One of the first farmers organisations to be set up in the post-Suharto era was the United Federation of Indonesian Farmers founded in Asahan, North Sumatra last July (see DTE 38).


The IMF rescue plan and Indonesia's resources

A central plank of the International Monetary Fund's US $43 billion rescue plan for Indonesia's economy is to generate income by stepping up the exploitation of Indonesia's natural resources. This means immediate and long-term misery to millions of people in Indonesia; it is accelerating the destruction of Indonesia's natural forests and depriving forest peoples of their livelihoods and cultural identity. The much-vaunted social 'safety net' programme funded by the World Bank was never designed to reach all Indonesia's poor and is failing to attain even its limited goals. More than half of Indonesia's population is now officially living below the poverty line.

Promoting the massive expansion of oil palm plantations is one part of the IMF strategy that sanctions the transfer of agricultural land from smallholders to large-scale commercial interests and the eviction of indigenous peoples from customary forest lands. Lifting the export ban on logs is expected to lead to further forest loss in the future.

At the same time, the reliance on foreign loans and investment to rescue the economy increases the debt burden for future generations and perpetuates a central feature of the business climate under Suharto: one that makes it easy for the likes of Freeport, Rio Tinto and Mobil Oil to disregard the interests of local communities and the environment. Helping to rid Indonesia of corruption, collusion and nepotism is all well and good, but replacing the Indonesian monopolies by selling off the country's natural assets to foreign-owned multi-national companies cannot be in the best interests of the Indonesian people.


Plantation development continues

The need to oppose plantations is made more urgent by the commitment of the Indonesian government and its main creditor, the IMF, to export crops as a way out of the economic crisis. Oil palm, which fetches good prices on international markets is being developed the most intensively, with about 2.4 million hectares of forest land already converted into mature and immature oil palm plantations as of early 1998. The government plans to have yet another 3.1 million hectares converted, particularly in Eastern Indonesia. Other crops like rubber and tea are also in favour. In September the government announced it was allocating Rp 10 trillion (approx. US$ 1 billion) to extend plantation land under these crops by 200,000 hectares during the next two years in regions outside Java. In another project, three billion rupiah ($300,000) has been provided to the East Kalimantan government to plant oil palm along the Samarinda - Balikpapan road. This is one of the areas badly hit by the 1997/8 forest fires, near the Bukit Soeharto reforestation project.

But it is the private sector that will have most impact. Recently announced projects include a 360,000 hectare oil palm plantation and processing factory project worth Rp 5.5 billion ($550,000) in East Kalimantan. The investors are from neighbouring Brunei. (Kaltim Post 12/12/98)

In this way, large areas of Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi and West Papua are being parcelled out to commercial interests without consultation with indigenous communities. The process is depriving communities of lands and forests that provide them with most basic needs, and is transforming land-owning farmers into at best badly-paid wage-labourers on the plantations. In Kalimantan and Sumatra the oil palm invasion is leading to the destruction of vast areas as burning to clear land sparks uncontrollable forest fires. The developments are affecting many indigenous Dayak communities whose traditional rights over forested lands are not recognised. In one recent case, Dayak villagers took company machinery hostage in order to get the plantation company to negotiate over compensation. The company involved is PT London Sumatra, one of those identified by the Forestry Department as being responsible for starting forest fires. (Manuntung 15/9/98, Kaltim Post 10/6/98, 28/11/89 via Sawit Watch; Antara 6/10/98, E. Wakker, Inside Indonesia forthcoming.)


The Central Kalimantan mega-project

There are more signs that the disastrous million-hectare peatland conversion project in Central Kalimantan will be turned over to oil palm (see DTE 39). According to a report from the Indonesian NGO Sawit Watch, quoting a local newspaper, Dutch investors are being offered the opportunity to invest in the project. The announcement was made by Research and Technology Minister Prof. Dr. Zuhal Abdulqadir. (Sawit Watch 30/12/98, Kompas 12/13/98)


An alternative model

Indonesian NGOs have long been calling for a total re-think of the government's policy to convert large areas of forest and farmland into large plantations. One NGO which promotes alternatives to current forestry management practice is SHK, based in Bogor, West Java. In December SHK's East Kalimantan branch issued a statement arguing that the problems of large plantations should be discussed from the point of view of the local economy. It criticised the current nucleus estate/smallholder system (PIR] and argued that indigenous farming methods provide a better basis for developing an alternative community-based forest management model. (SHK 2/12/98)



The fall of Suharto has created much-needed space for public debate on reforming the basic laws governing land and natural resources.

The Basic Agrarian Law (BAL) of 1960, drawn up under President Sukarno, aimed to redistribute land for the benefit of small farmers, setting limits on ownership and absentee landlordism. It allowed for both communal and individual ownership and aimed to encourage the registration of land. The redistribution didn't get very far in the five years before Suharto seized power, however. The New Order regime regarded the BAL as suspect, stopped redistribution and introduced limiting regulations, including those which provided for forcible appropriation of land by the state. Although Suharto never repealed the 1960 law, what happened in practice was a reversal of its original intent: instead of more land for small farmers, more land has come under the control of the business and political elite. At the same time, the Basic Forestry Act of 1967 placed forested lands firmly outside the ambit of the BAL and effected their transfer to the loggers.

Since the fall of Suharto the calls for land reform have become more insistent. Apart from the new farmers organisations, many of the main NGOs concerned with rural peoples' rights and natural resource management are demanding change. The Bogor-based Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA) a coalition of NGOs and peasants organisations is one of the leading voices on land reform.

Along with other organisations the group is calling for restoration of farmers' land rights and the customary (adat) land rights of indigenous communities. KPA is also focussing its attention on the World Bank-funded land registration project or "Land Administration Project" currently running in Indonesia. KPA is opposing this because it ignores communal and customary land tenure, discriminates against women and promotes the commoditisation of land.