Melayu farmers' long struggle for land rights

Down to Earth No 63  November 2004

The North Sumatran organisation of peasant farmers, BPRPI, is engaged in one of Indonesia's longest running land disputes. Numerous confrontations between the indigenous community and successive state-owned plantations in Deli Serdang and Langkat over the last 50 years have resulted in deaths and imprisonment, yet BPRPI's thousands of supporters continue to fight for recognition of their customary land rights.

"It has been a long and bitter struggle," says BPRPI's veteran leader Afnawi Noeh, widely known as Abah Nawi to his supporters. The most recent incident was when, early in the morning of August 30th, PTPN II employees burned down shelters and cleared crops belonging to villagers of Terjun. Local people tried to protect their property, but were helpless against the plantation company's armed security guards who were accompanied by paid thugs.

The company claims that its actions were essential to protect its oil palm plantation. According to the community, the plantation, which had been established on their customary land, was no longer productive. Many plots along the main road have been claimed by local land speculators and used to set up bars and brothels.


BPRPI's history
BPRPI (Badan Perjuangan Rakyat Penunggu Indonesia) or the Indonesian Group for the Waiting People's Struggle was founded in 1953, shortly after Indonesian independence. The unusual name of the organisation stems from its history. The word 'penunggu' usually means watchman, guard or attendant. In this context, the word reflects the fact that these people are waiting for justice and for return of their land.

The land in question is a highly fertile area bounded by the rivers Sungai Ular in Deli Serdang and Sungai Wampu in Langkat district which is the home of east coast Malays (Melayu Sumatra Timur). Extensive tracts along the eastern coast of North Sumatra became plantations during the Dutch colonial period. The Melayu's ruler during the 19th century, the Sultan of Deli, rented out 62,000 hectares of communally held customary land to the Dutch for tobacco plantations, on the understanding that land use rights would eventually return to the indigenous community. But, after the Japanese occupation, control passed to Indonesian state-owned plantation companies (PTPN) who paid some compensation to the Dutch, not to the local people who were the rightful owners. The disputed area is now 59,00 hectares or less, as some land has been sold.

Peasant organisations became a powerful element in local and national politics during the early years of Indonesian independence. Even so, by the early 1950s, the people of Deli Serdang and Langkat were concerned that regulations issued by Sukarno's government favoured concession holders rather than indigenous landowners like the Melayu. So they set up the BPRPI to strengthen their position in reclaiming their communal land. Little did they know that their struggle for justice would continue over 5 decades.

Full-scale confrontation with the authorities began after the people's land was included in a state-owned plantation concession (then PTP IX) and a 1968 decree by the governor of North Sumatra denied all indigenous land claims in the province. BPRPI members in several villages immediately occupied their land, but were forcibly evicted by the security forces. The organisation continued to press its case through official local and national government channels, despite the risk of being stigmatised as communist supporters, but without success.


Mass occupation 
When Abah Nawi, the younger brother of one of the five original founders, took over the leadership of BPRPI in 1979, the organisation became more radical. BPRPI organised the reoccupation of customary lands long before the wave of 'reclaiming actions' which followed the fall of president Suharto in 1998. Local groups tried to take back land from the plantation in 1980, but it was only in 1995 that - frustrated by the lack of government response to their attempts to negotiate a settlement - the whole BPRPI membership decided unanimously to reoccupy their customary land en masse. Farmers moved into 27 locations around the villages of Mabar, Kelambir Lima, Percut, Tanjung Morawa, Batang Kuis, Bandar Kalippa and Patumbak from September 1995 to October 1996 where they grew rice, maize and vegetables and set up hundreds of temporary shelters and some simple prayer houses.

PTPN II, the state-owned plantation company which had taken over the concession, used its own employees and guards, reinforced by the local security forces, to force the villagers off their land and destroy their crops. BPRPI has a policy of non-violent resistance. Nevertheless, some people were beaten up and all suffered serious losses through the destruction of crops and property. Six people were shot in another incident when the police mobile brigade was called in to stop villagers from Tanjung Morawa from farming within the plantation concession in 1998. People who have cut down cacao bushes, sugar or oil palm to make room for their own crops have been arrested and sentenced to several month's imprisonment and heavy fines for damaging plantation property.

The local government has done nothing to protect the community; it treats BPRPI supporters as illegal squatters on state land. An official instruction from Jakarta during the Suharto years that 10,000ha should be returned to the community from the plantation concession was ignored. Worse still, according to Abah Nawi, this land was divided up and shared out between local and national officials and some has even become a golf course. Megawati's government added insult to injury by offering to give BPRI 5,000ha. "We are not asking the government for land," he said, "We want them to return our ancestral lands".


The people's demands
BPRPI continues to demand that the local government recognise indigenous communities' land rights and that the police and military stop forcing its members from their homes and land and destroying their crops. Its members are pressing the authorities to investigate and impose legal sanctions on people who have procured or sold customary land. When concession licenses expire, the farmers want the land to be returned to them, rather than the plantation permits to be extended or re-issued to new Indonesian or foreign-owned companies.

Letters to the authorities and attempts to resolve the dispute through discussions with the plantation company and the government at local and national levels have proved fruitless. BPRPI has held many demonstrations outside the offices of North Sumatra's local assembly, governor and police chief to press for negotiations - most notably in 2000 and again in 2002 when thousands of people attended.

Now 754 BPRPI members are taking legal action against the plantation company, the minister for state-owned enterprises and the agriculture minister, to force PTPN II to return their land and pay compensation. The basis of the legal action is the Agrarian ministerial decree No.5/1999 which provides some recognition of indigenous land rights.

BPRPI has, through the years, gained support from and given it to others who are demanding their land rights - nationally and internationally. Its allies include the Vía Campesina, a growing movement of peasant and farm organisations from all the regions of the world as well as the Indonesian indigenous alliance, AMAN.

Abah Nawi is expected to be one of the participants at an international meeting on plantations to be held in Jakarta Nov 28-Dec 1st. This meeting - organised by WALHI and the World Rainforest Movement - will bring together community representatives from all parts of the Indonesian archipelago and the South, plus people from national and international NGOs. The agenda will address the threats to local communities from large-scale oil palm and pulpwood plantations.

Sources: KPA 2/Sept/04; LBHmedan and interview with Abah Nawi.

More information on the BPRPI and the history of their fight for land recognition is in the book Badan Perjuangan Rakyat Penunggu Indonesia vs PTPN II by Budi Agustono, Muhammad Osmar Tanjung and Edy Suhartono (1997). It is available from Akatiga, Bandung, in Bahasa Indonesia only.