Reform, farmers and action in West Java

Down to Earth No. 48 February 2001

This article is a summary of an Indonesian language report by land rights activist Andi Achdian, written following recent field work in West Java. The report details the impoverishment of farmers in Tegalbuleud sub-district during the Suharto years. It provides a valuable insight into how farmers are reclaiming rights to village land, appropriated by the state over thirty years ago, as a way of coping with the impact of the economic crisis and in response to new opportunities for change.

Tegalbuleud, a sub-district in Sukabumi district with a population of around 30,000 people, is on the southern coast of West Java. The current population comprises people who moved into the area during the late 1950s and 1960s. They were offered parcels of land under the government-sponsored "local transmigration" scheme. They were then joined by others - some from outside West Java - under the "voluntary" (sukarela) transmigration scheme. The transmigration scheme stopped in 1972 when all land classified as agricultural land had been divided up. Farmers who had cultivated rice fields in the area under the guntai system (under which farmers used the land for planting and harvesting, but did not live in the area) also settled in Tegalbuleud village when guntai was outlawed under the 1960 Agrarian Law (UUPA 5, 1960).

Farming is the main source of livelihood for the population, with other activities including the government bureaucracy, education, trade and transport. The farmland consists of 1,576 hectares, of which 729 ha are irrigated ricefields and 847 ha are rain-fed rice fields. These produce two harvests per year. During the rainy season, farming absorbs most of the productive workforce in the village and requires labour from outside the area. The level of education has improved in the sub-district with the building of primary schools during the 1970s and secondary schools (SMP) during the 1980s. However, education has not guaranteed upward social mobility for the villagers: this has been hampered by the land division and land ownership system combined with a decline in available farmland. The squeeze on land and the non-availability of new land has meant that it is increasingly difficult for second and third generation farmers to stay in the sector. Most of those who do stay in farming are working smaller and smaller plots as land is divided among children according to the inheritance system. Most farmers in the area own between 0.25 and 0.5 hectares each. This provides only a subsistence living, susceptible to failure in times of crisis.

The economic crisis in Indonesia has hit the farmers of Tegalbuleud hard. Prices for farm produce have declined (bananas have gone down from Rp 900 to Rp 700 per bunch, for example) while the prices of bought goods, including clothing and food, have gone up, leaving villagers with less cash to pay for daily necessities.


Land disputes in the Suharto era

There has been a series of conflicts between the villagers, the authorities and companies at Tegalbuleud. The main cause of the conflicts over land, and the widespread poverty faced by Tegalbuleud villagers was the collaboration of government officials and entrepreneurs in exploiting the villages' natural resources.

The first conflict centred on a hybrid coconut plantation developed for the favourable export market at the beginning of the 1980s. The land taken for the 200 hectare nucleus/estate (PIR) project, was formerly farmed by villagers, holding 2 hectares each. This was planted with cloves, fruits and other crops, all of which were destroyed when the plantation was established. Farmers who refused to give up their land were subjected to intimidation and bullying tactics from village officials. Their efforts to defend the land, including legal action, failed and eventually the villagers gave up trying. The farmers did not get their land back under the PIR project. Instead large portions went to village officials who received government credit to plant coconut trees and then profited from the results. Farmers were later employed as labourers on the land they once owned.

The next conflict came when more farmland was appropriated for shrimp farming. A well-connected businessman, Haji Hari Kader, used government credit to convert around 200 hectares of rice-fields near the river and seashore, into a shrimp farm operated by his company, PT Bumi Lestari Abadi. Those who refused to hand over their land at prices far below the market price were accused of being anti-development. The villagers say the land acquisition process was also fraudulent, meaning that the farmers lost out even more.

The 1980s and 1990s were a nightmare for the farming families of Tegalbuleud. Poverty rose, with the loss of farmland due to theft and forced sale to the plantation and shrimp industries. Gone were the relatively prosperous early days of the settlement - in the 1970s Tegalbuleud was known as an area where many could afford to go on the Haj to Mecca.

Now, instead of going to the Middle East to fulfil a religious duty, villagers were going there to work as labourers or house-maids. In the 1990s the majority of village women worked as maids in the Middle East. Their travel costs were typically financed by the sale of any remaining land or by taking out loans. There were financial rewards: the deteriorating value of the Indonesian Rupiah increased the value of overseas earnings, but with little experience of handling capital and few appropriate skills, villagers tended to spend the money on building 'city-style' houses and buying electrical goods. When the cash ran out, the women went back to the Middle East to work.

At the same time, a newly-rich middle class was developing in Tegalbuleud. This consisted mostly of officials who controlled the village's natural resources, the distribution of credit and the land acquisition process. The role of the lurah (official one step down from village head) changed from being responsible for dividing and registering village land, to freeing up productive land in the village for the use of investors and state-owned companies. In addition to earning 'formal' income from the plantation PIR project, the newly-rich have become involved in the lucrative illegal logging business. This trade has become more and more prevalent with the economic crisis and the rising value of roundwood on the export market in relation to the declining Rupiah.


Village forest versus Perhutani

The most recent conflict in Tegalbuleud is the dispute over 300-400 hectares of village land with state-owned forestry company, Perhutani. This land was entrusted to Perhutani in 1963 by the then lurah on the grounds that villagers were less likely to destroy the land - planted with teak - if it was under Perhutani management. The teak forest had been used by villagers for house-building and other purposes. It was also being used by guntai farmers living in the Jampang area. On taking over the land, Perhutani then replanted the land with teak seedlings employing village labour to do this.

In the following years, as those in power became more aware of the value of these natural resources, they forgot about the fact that this was village land and its status was changed to become Perhutani-owned. Villagers were forbidden to take timber or plant crops in the area and, if they violated the regulations, they would be arrested and detained in the police or military district office for several days.

Once the Suharto regime collapsed and the impact of the economic crisis hit at village level, the farmers started to demand the return of their rights over the village land. The recent series of actions to take back this land and open it up for farming are, thus, the result of a long-running dispute.


"Land occupation" and "land-clearing"

In recent years, there have been reports in the media about land "occupation actions" (aksi pendudukan lahan) becoming widespread in several parts of the country. The term is used to describe farmers entering village forests and working land controlled by Perhutani and state-owned plantation companies. This biased expression has been adopted by the mass media, mainly from government and company sources: officials, plantation managers as well as social commentators who live in cities.

I made the mistake of using this expression when arranging my study programme. There was an awkward situation when I asked the village farmers how their "occupation actions" were going. The farmers looked a little confused at how to answer the question. I realised my mistake when I noticed the farmers always described what they were doing as "opening the forest / clearing land" (membuka hutan or "nyacar" in the local language). [The distinction is between "opening the forest" or "clearing land" which implies the moral right of the people of Tegalbuleud to use their village land and "occupying land" which implies less or no moral right to the land -ed].

Understanding this is important because the area the farmers have already cleared is still within the limits of village land which was lent to Perhutani over three decades ago. The issue is so important for the villagers that they took me, together with a "living witness", to inspect the boundary between village and Perhutani land - no easy task since the exact boundary is only known by the witness and is not easily accessible.

So far the "land clearings " have happened in two of the four villages in the sub-district, in Sumber Jaya and in Tegalbuleud. Similar actions are in the planning stage in Buni Asih and Calincing villages. Before going ahead, all four villages sent a delegation to the district head (bupati) and district assembly offices in Sukabumi. Although the response was rather unclear, the farmers considered that the bupati had approved their request. The first stage of land clearing went ahead at the end of October 2000, followed by more at the beginning of November. The action was initiated by those farmers who had long been active in the struggle for the land which, in their view, had been stolen by Perhutani. Their action inspired others to follow in groups of 30 to 50 people. Before these actions, discussions on how to divide the land were held by a wider group. These took into account the number of people and the amount of land, resulting in an agreement to open up 0.5 hectares each. The process of opening up forest land is not easy, involving felling teak trees and clearing the undergrowth. When I visited the site, the farmers had cleared some of the young trees, but had left the fairly tall, older trees standing. Some didn't know what they would do with these trees, but from discussion with the group leader I learnt that they would be sold for cash to buy seeds and to provide funds to finance their struggle. The group leader said they had to take good care of the trees so that they didn't become a target for thieves who often operated in broad daylight, right under the noses of village officials and Perhutani staff. It was already common knowledge in the village that those involved in timber theft were in positions of authority in their village.

The climate of Reformasi has given the villagers in Tegalbuleud sub-district the confidence to reclaim and open the village land for farming - land which has been controlled by the state for over three decades. It has also inspired them to form new and active peasants' organisations to fight for their interests. The land actions are still continuing and the farmers I met were convinced that the new land would enable them to improve their lives.