Why systemic agrarian conflicts are continuing to break out across the land

Protesters call for land reform, Jakarta, January 2012.

DTE 93-94, December 2012

By Noer Fauzi Rachman*

The systemic agrarian conflicts referred to in this article are protracted conflicts arising from opposing claims made on particular pieces of land, or over natural resources and community-owned areas or territories, by giant corporations in the business of infrastructure, production, resource extraction and conservation, and where each opposing side is taking direct or indirect action to negate the claim of the other. This type of agrarian conflict arises from the granting of licences and concessions to corporations by public officials—including the Minister for Forestry, Minister for Energy and Mineral Resources, the Head of the National Land Agency (BPN), regional governors and local district heads—which sanction them to use land, natural resources and territories for infrastructure, production and extraction projects as well as conservation.

The way the law is applied, the use of force, the criminalisation of local community figures, manipulation, fraud and coercion are all used widely and systematically. These tactics are often used to deny local people’s land claims or to transfer control over land, natural resources and territories into the hands of these giant corporations for their projects/concessions. They also exclude local people from, or limit their access to, land, natural resources and territories. Conversely, direct opposition on the part of local people—whether facilitated by social movement organisations, NGOs, or by the political elite—challenges this transfer of control, forced exclusion of the local population, or limiting of access to the land.

The case of palm oil plantations

The production of crude palm oil (CPO) has been increasing rapidly from year to year. Indonesia is the biggest producer of CPO in the world. According to figures from Indonesian Commercial Newsletter (July 2011) CPO production climbed from 19.4 million tonnes in 2009 to 21 million tonnes in 2010. In 2011, it is estimated that production will rise by 4.7%, to approximately 22 million tonnes. Total exports of CPO are also increasing, from 15.65 million tonnes in 2010 to an estimated 18 million tonnes in 2011. From the total amount of CPO produced in the country, only around 25% (approximately 5.45 million tonnes) is consumed by the domestic market. This level of production is supported by the ongoing expansion of oil palm plantations, which increased from 7.5 million hectares in 2010 to 7.9 million hectares the following year.

Data from the Directorate General of Estate Crops in 2012 shows that the extent of oil palm plantations in Indonesia has reached 8.1 million hectares. However, according to the Indonesian NGO network Sawit Watch, the actual area covered is much higher, thought to total around 11.5 million hectares. It is often the case that palm oil plantations develop areas beyond their legal boundaries. A proportion of the total area noted by the Directorate General are plantations cultivated by farmers on their own land. According to Dirjenbun data (2012), this amounts to 40% of all oil palm cultivation; Sawit Watch (2012), however, maintains that the proportion is actually less than 30%. With an expansion rate of 400,000 hectares per annum, driven by the government, private businesses and local farmers, the area of land that will be devoted to palm oil cultivation by 2025 is projected to reach 20 million hectares. The question remains: where will this land for expansion come from?

The data presented at a sustainable plantations coordination meeting in Pontianak, West Kalimantan on 25 January 2012 by Herdradjat Natawidjaja, the Director of Post-harvest and Business Development of the Directorate for Estate Crops at the Ministry of Agriculture,  makes very interesting reading. He stated that about 59% of the 1000 oil palm  companies across Indonesia are currently engaged in land-related conflicts with local communities. A team from the Directorate General for Estate Crops has identified such conflicts in 22 provinces and 143 districts. In total, there are around 591 conflicts, most of which are concentrated in Central Kalimantan (250 cases), followed by North Sumatra (101 cases), East Kalimantan (78 cases), West Kalimantan (77 cases) and South Kalimantan (34 cases).


Problems stemming from large scale land acquisition for investments in infrastructure, plantations, mining and forestry—or, to use a more partisan term, land grabbing—score the highest number of complaints from the public, as repeatedly reported by the National Commission for Human Rights. From a human rights perspective, the grabbing of land, natural resources and territories is a violation of the people’s economic, social and cultural rights. When violent conflict breaks out between corporations, the security forces and local people, it becomes a matter of civil and political rights violations. The squeeze on community land, and the resulting decline in people’s ability to fulfil their daily needs independently through farming, marks the early stages of the transformation of their existence as farmers with diverse livelihoods towards a state of landlessness. Some of them will become wage labourers and others will be unemployed or underemployed.

One of the consequences of protracted agrarian conflict is the way it spreads: disputes over land claims, natural resources and territories can turn into conflicts about other issues. Longstanding agrarian conflicts may precipitate a socio-ecological crisis: forcing villagers to migrate to new areas to seek new farmland or to join the ranks of the urban poor. In this way, rural conflicts become the source of  new problems in the cities.

In extended agrarian conflicts, people want to know what the government position is and what role it plays. Communities can sometimes feel there is no protective or supportive government at all. In the early stages of the dispute, they protest against the government. When they are then criminalised, they feel that the government is against them. In turn, their loss of faith in the government can erode the victims’ sense of being Indonesian, part of the nation.

The articulation of agrarian conflict can take other forms too, including disputes between landowning farmers and plantation workers, ethnic conflicts between local communities and migrants, and inter-village conflicts. A 2012 study by the Peace-building Institute (Institut Titian Perdamaian) shows that the majority of large-scale ethnic and religious conflicts that occurred during and after Indonesia’s transition to democracy (1998-1999) were rooted in struggles over land, natural resources and territories.

Quo vadis the Integrated Agrarian Conflict Resolution Team?

When these conflicts persist at high-intensity, communities seek access to social movement organisations, NGOs, local government councils, the National Land Agency, the Ministry of Forestry, the National Parliament, the National Human Rights Commission, and so on. In a number of cases, some of the claims and needs of the victims can be addressed according to the authority or capacity of these organisations. However, this is often not the case with conflicts that have already become chronic, whose complexity involves multiple sectors and whose impacts have already spread.

This type of systemic agrarian conflict is perpetuated because of the unchecked decisions made by various public officials (Minister for Forestry, Head of the National Land Agency, Minister for Energy and Mineral Resources, as well as district heads and governors) who include community land, natural resources and territories in  concessions handed out to corporations for production, extraction and conservation projects. We know that, based on their authority, the motivation of these officials is to collect rents  and to achieve economic growth;  they therefore continue to grant licences and land rights to these giant corporations. We also know that if a correction is indeed made, these officials will in turn be sued by companies whose concessions are reduced in size or cancelled. The officials involved in such cases will certainly want to avoid the risk of incurring losses should they lose in court.

Systemic agrarian conflicts have now become chronic, with wide-ranging impacts. We can no longer rely on conventional methods to tackle them. At this point, we need an institution with full authority, that functions across the government sectors, and which has sufficient capacity to deal with past, present and future agrarian conflicts. Furthermore, systemic agrarian conflict needs to be overcome by dealing with the roots of the problem, namely the agrarian imbalance, marked by the dominant position held by corporations in the control over land and management of natural resources. Indonesia does not have legal and policy instruments in place to limit the maximum extent of land that the holding companies of predatory capitalist corporations can control. If we want to deal with the root of this problem, our commitment as agrarian reformers needs to be renewed.

At a cabinet meeting at the Attorney General’s office in South Jakarta on 25 July 2012, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono gave a directive to set up an agrarian conflict resolution team. The team’s terms of reference, including the extent of its authority and the team’s operational methods, are being formulated by the President’s Unit for Development Monitoring and Oversight (UKP4) so that it can then be implemented by the Office of the Ministry for Politics, Law and Security.

Quo vadis this new organisation?



*) Noer Fauzi Rachman holds a PhD in Environmental Science, Policy and Management from University of California, Berkeley. He is currently the director of the Sajogyo Institute in Bogor, West Java; he also teaches in the Faculty of Human Ecology at the Institute of Agriculture (IPB) in Bogor.

The original Indonesian language version of this article appeared in Media Indonesia in March 2012, and was translated by DTE with the author’s kind permission.