Who Owns the Land? - Peasant Struggles in Indonesia

In German language

In Indonesian language

In December 2008 about 500 cops and hired thugs attacked the Suluk Bongkal, a hamlet in the province of Riau, and drove away its inhabitants. Two military helicopters bombed the hamlet with napalm to burn down the 700 huts. Two children were killed, 200 people were arrested, the other people were able to escape. The Sinar Mas Cooperation had ordered this attack.

In Indonesia only a small share of the land has an ownership title attached to it - on the main island Java it is about a third of the total land, on the smaller islands it is even less. There are hundreds, if not thousands of disputes, but not many of them become public.. People get killed (in the first half of 2011 there were at least seven victims) or injured. There are numerous arrests. But all of these struggles remain confined to a local level and there are hardly any direct links between them.

1610: The Verenigden Oostindische Compagnie VOC established its first trade base in Ambon.

1619: The VOC conquered Batavia (the contemporary Jakarta). It monopolised the trade and forced the Rajas under its rule by playing them off against each other.

1800: The VOC went bankrupt. The Dutch state takes over administration in a direct sense.

1811: The British state conquered Batavia and Jawa during the Continental System which was installed against Napoleon due to which an enforcement of (Dutch) troops was impossible.

1814: The British return administration to the Dutch, which was confirmed during the Vienna Congress.

1830: A system of enforced plantation (sugar, coffee) was installed.

1924: The Partai Komunis Indonesia was formed.

1942: Japan occupied large parts of the contemporary territory of Indonesia.

1943: The Japanese military administrations introduced a system of forced labour, which resulted in several 100,000 people being abducted to various countries within Asia.

1945: Still being under Japanese occupation the Republic of Indonesia was founded.

1945: The Dutch state conquered Batavia, the national liberation war lasted till 1949 (mainly fought with arms which had been left by the Japanese).

1950: Indonesia became member of the UNO.

1965: A military coup brought Soeharto into power. In the following months several hundred thousands of 'communists' were massacred, first of all on the countryside.

1998: Soeharto was toppled on the peak of the 'Asia Crisis'

1998 to 2001: Period of the so-called 'Reformasi'. Indonesia was a relatively 'free' country and the recent history was publicly revisited - but this movement lost momentum, partly because the old elites regained their influence.

Domination, Exploitation, Land Grab - A Short Summary on Peasant History

Indonesia could be paradise: a tropical climate, fertile soil, water in abundance. This might be one of the reasons why during pre-colonial feudalism it was inconceivable that 'land could be owned by someone'. Feudalism is characterised by personal, direct relations of rule and domination. In order to uphold these relations the feudal regime needs ideology (religion) and weapons, which are only available for one of the sides.

In Europe, as a legacy of the Roman Empire, there had always been a close relation between rulers/ruled and 'their land' - this is despite mass migration and numerous expulsions due to wars and feuds etc. The peasants worked on 'their land' and it stayed this way - in principle - even when master changed. The peasant paid him a share of what he had wrenched from his soil, a feudal tax e.g. in the form of the tithe for the monasteries.

In Indonesia, a feudal lord did not own land, he owned peasants and entourage. These had to pay a head tax. When the Raja allocated a new territory to one of its inferiors, the latter would bring 'his peasants' with him and expel the local population. Land was then allocated to the individual peasants for them to yield their head tax. (Onghokham, 11f) A notion of land as property did not exist, neither amongst the rulers nor the ruled. Given the low population density it was always possible for people to access land somewhere else.

The head tax was paid per village and the village head had to make sure that conditions were right for generating the tax. Irrigation of the paddy fields were usually a common effort of the whole village; also the land was administered in common, meaning, by the village head. In some cases the land was re-allocated after each harvest, in some cases only once the 'former owner' had died. (Kano, 60)1

The notion of land ownership was introduced by the colonial powers. The Dutch VOC only administered a minor share of the total land directly. The VOC forced the feudal lords to pay taxes, so that initially things did not change much - apart from the fact that exploitation of the peasants increased. Only the British (during the Continental System 1806-14) introduced western law and the idea of land property. They assigned the total land to the state, meaning to the feudal class, which in turn could lease it to the village heads, who in turn leased it to the peasants (Vlekke, 300). The Dutch later on snatched the land back from the feudal lords by paying them a small apanage - the feudal lords hardly grasped what it was that they sold. This resulted in the village heads and local regional administers ('Bupati') becoming rich while the mass of peasants were impoverished. Many died during the dreadful famines and epidemics. The peasants did not just put up with this, but they resisted - either by fleeing or by taking part in uprisings. During the 18th and 19th century in nearly 'every year' there were local peasant rebellions (Mustain, 125). Unlike for example on the Philippines, in Indonesia private large landholdings never developed. Therefore, at the end of the colonial era the Republic of Indonesia inherited an enormous 'nationalised' land property. 2

The young republic first took over the laws of colonial power, added by the principle of 'land to the tiller'. Absentee landlords were dispossessed, but hardly any land was actually redistributed. In 1960 the law of the 'land reform' capped private land-ownership and entitled every peasant to land. In principle this law still exists today, but it has never been implemented. Still, the millions of poor peasants who were organised in the peasant front of the communist party PKI often took the land redistribution into their own hands. The massacre 'of the communists' after the military coup in 1965/66 was largely a massacre of poor peasants by rich landlords, who feared for their landed property. The dictatorship under Soeharto tried to push a 'Green Revolution' on the state plantations, but without much success. The state plantations administered not only the old state land property, but they also grabbed the peasants’ land, particularly of those 'communist' peasants who did not dare to resist. According to Abdurrahman Wahid, the president in 2000, around 40 per cent of the property of the state plantations had been stolen from poor peasants (Dunia Dalam XX, 14). The poverty in the countryside did not decrease.

In 2000 around 42 million families in Indonesia (around 124 million people) were registered as peasants. Around 10 million of these families don't own land at all, another 10 million own less than half a hectare. Out of 190 million hectare of land surface, the peasants own 8 million and the state plantations own 23 million hectares (FMN). Since 2000 a third party has developed which had not been of importance previously: private capitalist plantations. This is mainly about the oil palm. Having been introduced in Indonesia around 100 years ago, the most fertile soil for this tree is moorland, meaning, recently cleared rain forest. In 1995 oil palms grew on one million hectares. Today the cultivated area has grown to more than six million. No one really knows how many hectares of rain forest had been cleared for this expansion; but it is sure fact that there are open concessions for the clearing of a further 41 million hectares of forest and that despite the recently settled 'clearing moratorium' they will be able to go ahead with the concessions (The Jakarta Post, 11-10-10).

The struggle over land has two front-lines, which partly over-lap. Firstly, since the fall of Soeharto a lot of peasants fought for the return of their land, which had been grabbed during the times of the dictatorship and handed over to the state plantations. Many (legal) cases are still undecided. Secondly, for the few years the conflicts between peasants and private plantation corporations have been on the increase; by some means the corporations got hold of the rights of utilisation and now claim the land of the peasants. 


Primary forest in Sumatra 1900, 1960, 2000 and 2010

The Example of Tapsel - Statistics and Reality

Tapanuli Selatan used to be a very rural, sparsely populated and poor governmental district. The district is situated 300 km to the south of Lake Toba and belongs to the province of North Sumatra. Since the passing of law on 'regional autonomy' in 2004, the central government is only responsible for the primary (first-growth) forests, whereas the district government administers the rest of the forest and has distributed concessions for oil palm plantations rather generously. An increasing amount of corporations entered the district and bought land from the local population. Initially the local peasants were pleased about this, given that the corporations paid for land, which had previously been of little value to them. The peasants did not receive much money for their land, but it was more money than they had seen in their lives. It is said that there were even cases of demonstrations of peasants whose land had not been bought.

In most cases the plantation corporations acted under a local name. Usually the authorisation for utilisation of the Bupati is silently extended to the neighbouring rain forest. If the ministry for forests discovers this transgression, the corporation changes its name. At that point the rain forest will have already been cleared. So the administration of the 'cleared land' automatically shifts to the Bupati; or the forest will directly be transformed into 'secondary forest'. The corporation Newmont, for example, makes use of the aid of NGOs, which 'rescue' Orang-utans - or if necessary, tigers etc. - by catching them and transferring them to nature reserves. If there are no animals, which have to be saved, the forest becomes 'secondary forest'. The former peasants try to use the money to create new sources for making a living, which often fails - how many taxi drivers or small shopkeepers are needed in a village? Sooner or later they end up as agricultural workers on the plantations; only a few manage to move to the cities.

Many peasants don't sell to the corporations, either because the compensation is too meagre or because they don't want to become dependent on the plantations. In this case conflicts will arise instantaneously: once plantations have taken roots, other forms of agriculture become impossible. It is impossible to grow paddy in the midst of oil palms - all pests, first of all mice, will devour the remaining fields (see: Situmorang1). In this way the peasants are forced to grow oil palms themselves.

The protests of peasants or former peasants have been contained by the united power of capital, state and the church (in this case the Protestant Batak Church). A climate of mental and physical intimidation has been created. The previously calm, backward and poor Tapsel is now divided into three districts, there are hotels, three air-ports and a station of the mobile task force of the special police. The guy who reports on the situation in Tapsel is an experienced activist of the trade union and environmental movement in North Sumatra. His family still lives there on their own piece of land. He currently does not see a chance to build an open protest movement. He therefore wants to tackle the issue from a different angle: the labour productivity of the peasants is extremely low. He thinks that if the peasants became less poor, they would also be less prone to fall for the deceptions of capital. Last year he brought the first motor hoe to his village.



The Example of Persil 4, Tungkusan - The Spectres of the Past

The peasants of the village Persil 4, situated about 40 km from Medan in North Sumatra, became victims of the anti-communist campaign after the Soeharto coup in 1965/66. In 1956 the land was handed over to them as official property, but after the coup they were expropriated in favour of the state plantations. After 1998 two older men started to drag out the old property deeds and tried to convince the other peasants to reclaim their land. This entails around 400 families claiming between 0.8 and 2 hectare each. They undertook years of effort trying to overcome the fear, which was still prevalent, and to convince the young people who had already found some income in the cities. They went down the legal path, but also chose a direct one: the first occupation resulted immediately in violent clashes with thugs who had been hired by the state plantations in the urban areas. Several people were heavily injured - the attacks happened under the supervision of a massive police deployment. The repression caused slight discouragement of the people involved, but also triggered the interest of left-wing students in Medan, who since then have supported the peasants morally, with public campaigns and legal advice. After long years of procedures the legal path was actually successful: the high court granted them the land and the state plantations had to pay them back the tenure for the whole period of the dictatorship. This was not the happy ending of the story, given that the legal decision has to be enforced in the anti-communist swamps of corruption, which surrounds the state plantations. So far the state plantations have neither paid back the tenure nor do they allow the people to enter the land - saying that it might be the fact that the land does not belong to the plantation, but that the oil palms do. Further occupations and clashes followed; the people themselves have now hired 'thugs' - people from the neighbouring villages to whom they promise a share of the possible gains.


„Announcement:: This land belongs to the sugar factory, by the law of 2004..It is forbidden to cultivate or to put cattle out to pasture“


The Example of Polongbangkeng, Talakar - Enclosures 2008

Takalar in South Sulawesi is located about an hour's drive from Makassar. In 1960 the peasants had started to settle down in the area and to work the land. In 1978 the corporation of an influential politician came and grabbed the land for sugar cane production. The corporation was issued with permission to build a sugar mill; the peasants were supposed to be compensated with a meagre sum. The peasants resisted this as early as during the time of the dictatorship, but without success. Still, only a few accepted the compensation. The corporation passed on the land to a state plantation, which obtained a utilisation permit for 25 years. Around 2000 the peasants again started to agitate. When the permit ran out in 2005 they occupied parts of the land and planted maize. The movement spread to other villages, where more land was occupied. In 2008 the Bupati of the district Takalar renewed the permit of the state plantation for 4,500 hectares up until the year 2024. Sugar was in demand and world market prices high, while the maize and cattle of the peasants seemed to contribute little to the development of the area (and thereby little to the income of the district administration).

In October 2008 the mobile task force of the police shot and killed four peasants who were in the process of bringing in their cattle from the fields. Since then the atmosphere in this village and the neighbouring areas is tense. Many peasants want to continue with the movement and try to obstruct the sugar cane production by small actions e.g. by sabotage of the irrigation system. The police return frequently to the area and arrest people. This is partly the reason why the peasants act 'underground' without developing 'leaders', although obviously there are local 'acknowledged activists'. At the same time they are very open towards people who want to support them. The peasants maintain very friendly relations with the anti-authoritarian group 'Kontinum' from Makassar.

The peasants still have small gardens in front of their houses, but given that these don't create enough food or income, the peasants look for work in Makassar (on construction-sites or as rickshaw drivers), or they go to Malaysia for seasonal work on the plantations. They won't work on the sugar cane plantations at home - the harvest 'at home' is done by agricultural labourers from the island Java, who are housed in miserable barracks.



Peasants, Rural Labourers and Capital

The romantic notion that simple, traditional agriculture is both productive and sustainable is an illusion. There is hardly any ‘slowly developed ‘ traditional agriculture: it will be a very exceptional case if a family worked on the same land for more than three generations. Colonialism, war, Japanese occupation, national liberation movement and Transmigrasi-policies of the dictatorship have mixed up the population quite a bit, even in the countryside. As a result every peasant tries to extract from the soil what he or she can, using only a few mechanical devices, but often a large amount of chemicals.

Under the given conditions in Indonesia no one will really know how much land has actually been transferred into property of anonymous capital. In Kalimantan (Borneo), for example, ten widely known large corporations (Sinar Mas, Lonsum, Indofood, Bakrie etc.) own (as property or as utilisation permits) around 5.3 million hectare. In addition there will be quite a lot of land in the hands of camouflage corporations. And many others are on the hunt for land – for plantations, mining (gold to coal) – or as objects of speculation. The government endeavour to attract capital for setting-up ‘Food Estates’ developed relatively recently. Around 1.6 million hectares are said to be dedicated for this purpose in Merauke on West Papua – production is supposed to start in 2012. The main investor allegedly comes from Saudi Arabia.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the peasants – first of all young men and women – either went to the urban factories or the factories (like on Java) came to the countryside. This option rarely exists today, because there are hardly any new textile or shoe factories opening. The alternative – mainly for people who are able to commute back and forth between urban and rural areas– is labour on construction sites and in the informal sector. The informal sector is currently undergoing a wave of rationalisation of historical dimensions. At each street corner a new air-conditioned 24-hour supermarket gets opened, which sells exactly the same stuff previously sold by street vendors: cigarettes, toilet paper, drinks, snacks. Thousands of franchise-branches of Circle K, IndoMaret, 7eleven, Alfa etc. have come up during the last four years and have even entered the villages. In 2011 Carrefour alone plans to open 1,000 new supermarkets. Bicycle rickshaws – which were the classical employment for recently migrated peasants - are increasingly replaced by motorised rickshaws. Apart from the seasonal migration – men to Malaysia and women to the gulf states – most peasants will simply become agricultural labourers.



Journal of PERBBUNI 1999. This left-wing trade union doesn't exist anymore

Industrialisation of Agriculture – Factory or Manufactory?

The contemporary living conditions of plantation workers are not that different from those of the colonial times”, says an activist from Medan (Situmorang2, III). This is mainly true for the state plantations and the old capitalist plantation corporations i.e. the London Sumatra. The state plantations are still run in a capitalist mode of production of the manufactories: they rely on manual labour, even if here and there a tractor might be in use. Oil-producing plantations in Malaysia produce 33 tons of raw palm oil per hectare and year. The plantations in Indonesia produce 24 tons and the small peasants 14 tons (Protes!, 2/3 2010).

The new plantations seem to be slightly more modern, but only gradually so. They too take the conditions of the state plantations as a guideline. There are only few permanent workers, whose wage is not too high, but who at least receive the usual welfare services. There are ‘permanent day labourers’, who have a contract (but who rarely know what the contract says); and there are ‘free day labourers’ who are employed according to need and season. In some cases there might well be 100,000 of these day labourers employed per plantation. The state plantations have smoothly taken over the working relations from the late colonial regime – it suffices to look at the language in order to see the continuity: the day labourers are called ‘Annemer’, the individual areas are called ‘Afdeling’ etc.

The Soeharto dictatorship put loyal high-rank army people in charge of the state plantation’s management, which resulted in them becoming centres of corruption. There is close cooperation between the state plantation, police, army and former state trade union. Left-wing trade unions had modest successes in organising coolies during the period of Reformasi 1998 to 2002. Under the pressure of violence, intimidation and bribery most of these successes have been dissolved. There are still many trade unions and NGOs which somehow take care of the peasants. They offer training in improved methods of agriculture, they organise public campaigns and legal support in cases of conflicts. Practically no one cares for the plantation labourers – apart from the remarkable exception of the KPS in Medan.

Even after long working hours the wages of the day labourers are too low to eat and send their children to school. Even if both parents – and in many cases the children, too - work on the plantation. They try to survive by engaging additionally in small scale agriculture, by relying on mutual aid amongst neighbours, and by taking day loans from usurers. The children don’t have a chance to continue education after primary school.

The small peasants know all this and they also know that their mode of life and work will not survive long-term, compounded by the fact that a lot of young people have already left the countryside. They fight for their rights, for appropriate compensation, against further impoverishment. In the end they fight against becoming agricultural labourers. The fact that the events of the countryside only rarely become known to the urban public fosters the tendency of rural struggles being fought brutally. Police and thugs hired by the plantations act with brute violence; the peasants fight with tenacity, great courage and militancy, only rarely fearing the confrontation. Their struggles are currently the most important social conflicts in Indonesia.

It will be decisive whether their struggles will inspire the agricultural labourers and whether a new movement of rural labourers and peasants can emerge – a new revolutionary movement in the countryside which reignites past historical struggles within Indonesia. Although the interests of agricultural labourers and peasants are not identical, their living space and experiences are similar and overlap. It will still be a long way to a situation like in Madagascar in 2009, when the government was toppled after having leased half of the arable land to Daewoo.


Wildcat No.90. Summer 2011


Onghokham: Perubahan Sosial di Madiun Selama Abad XIX: Pajak dan Pengaruhnya terhadap Penguasaan Tanah; in: S.M.P. Tjondronegoro dan Gunawan Wiradi (Ed.), Dua Abad Penguasaan Tanah, Jakarta 2008
Kano: Hiroyoshi Kano, Sistem Pemilikan Tanah dan Masyarakat Desa di Jawa pada Abad XIX; in: S.M.P. Tjondronegoro a.a.O.
FMN: Front Mahasiwsa Nasional, Monopoli Atas Kepemilikan Tanah dan Perampasan Tanah Kaum Tani Menyebabkan Buta Aksara di Pedesaan Begitu Tinggi, 2010 (http://bandungmelawan.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/monopoli atas kepemilikan tanah dan perampasan tanah kaum tani menyebabkan buta aksara di pedesaan begitu tinggi/), Stand 7.7.11
Situmorang1:Maginar Situmorang, Strengthening Peasant and Plantation Workers Movement in North Sumatra, 27.11.10
Vlekke: Bernhard H.M. Vlekke, Nusantara - Sejarah Indonesia, 1961 / Jakarta 2008
Mustain: Dr. Mustain, Petani vs Negara: Gerakan Sosial Petani Melawan Hegmoni Negara, Jogjakarta 2007
Dunia Dalam XX 2009: Dunia Dalam, Journal of Konsortium Pembaruan Agraria
Protes!- dari Buruh untuk Keadilan, Journal of the group KPS in Medan, 3-4/2010
Situmorang2: Dr. Manginar Situmorang (Ed.), Buruh Harian Lepas, Studi Kajian Hubungan Kerja, Upah dan Kesejahteraan di Perkebunan Sumatera Utara, KPS, Medan, 2008

1In order to guard against a popular fallacy: basis of this system was the nuclear family. A man became a eligible person and had to pay capitation tax as soon as he get married.

2This applies for the island of Java. On other islands there were other forms of feudalism too. Up to distinctive forms of slavery in South Sulawesi. Research on history outside Java is still in its infancy

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November 2011