[Jakarta, 15 April 2014] Indigenous rights and agrarian reform may be on a collision course in Indonesia, adding to the complexity of resolving land conflicts there.
In its latest report, Indigenous Rights vs Agrarian Reform in Indonesia, IPAC examines a case in Jambi, Sumatra where for the last decade, indigenous farmers have been trying to recover more than 3,000 hectares of customary land taken for a palm oil concession in 1986. Like many such conflicts in Indonesia, this one involves a powerful company, vested political and economic interests, contradictory laws and regulations, confusing lines of bureaucratic authority and poor historical data. But the differences between two strands of the civil society movement add another complication.
“Until now, more effort has gone into exposing past injustices and seeking redress than thinking about what happens if land is actually recovered,” says Sidney Jones, IPAC director. “But across the country, as pressure to resolve conflicts begins to bear fruit, differences over who gets the land will become more apparent.” She notes that one factor in improved prospects for land recovery is changing attitudes of corporations, responding to consumer demands that they be more attentive to the needs of local communities.
Advocates for customary (adat) rights see the ultimate goal as recovering land once held collectively by particular descent groups – getting it back to those who lost it. Peasant unions see the ultimate goal as redistribution of land to the landless and land-poor, beyond the original claimants, and fault the indigenous activists for being insufficiently concerned with class. Tactics also differ. For the most part the indigenous advocates favour mediation, negotiation and lobbying; the peasant unions prefer mass action and see land conflicts as an opportunity to build a political base.
The new report shows how these differences have played out in the struggle of hundreds of families known as SAD113 to recover customary land from a palm oil company, PT Asiatic Persada. “SAD” is short for Suku Anak Dalam, literally “tribes of the interior”; 113 refers to the original number of claimants. Years of mediation failed to recover the 3,550 hectares lost but helped persuade the company late last year to offer two hectares per claimant in a different part of the concession area. Only those verified as indigenous were eligible to take part.
Separately, mass action campaigns under the auspices of the National Peasant Union (Serikat Tani Nasional, STN, an affiliate of the leftwing People’s Democratic Party, PRD), helped convince the government’s National Land Agency in 2012 to order the return of all the land taken, contingent on a mapping process. To date, the agency has shown no capacity to enforce its decision, but in the meantime, the ranks of SAD113 have steadily grown as STN encourages local migrants from elsewhere in Sumatra to join forces on the promise of getting a stake in the land recovered.
Indigenous farmers are now divided between those who have taken up the two-hectare offer, despairing of getting anything better, and those holding out for full restitution. Many of the migrants, however, have already lost out, having been sold plots on spec for land they may never see, and tensions between locals and migrants could rise.
“The most important lesson from Jambi is not that one approach is more effective than another,” says Jones. “It is that the longer these conflicts are allowed to fester, the more complicated they become. Indonesia urgently needs an institution that can quickly, fairly and decisively adjudicate land conflicts.”