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Enduring Dispossession in Indonesia

Christian Lund—

In 2013, my friend Oji and I were talking to a group of villagers not far from Garut, in West Java. The land around had been the object of dispute and struggle for generations. It had been taken over from Javanese nobility and peasants by Dutch planters in the course of the nineteenth century. Later, when the Dutch fled during the Japanese occupation in 1942, the victors encouraged local peasants to take over the land. These smallholders continued to farm the land after Indonesian independence in 1945, and in the 1960s they were promised legal rights to it as part of government land reform. This legalization was offset by competing claims among smallholders and army groups, however. In 1965, land was confiscated by the military and handed over to a plantation company. The military had come to power through a coup, and the New Order was born in a veritable bloodbath. Hundreds of thousands of people, suspected of being communist, were incarcerated or killed throughout the country by the army and an assortment of paramilitary and civilian youth gangs, so-called pemuda. Many more were simply dispossessed of their land. Like many other places, the village we visited was seen by the military as a communist hotbed and was turned into a forced labor camp for the evicted villagers, who had to work without pay on the plantation. The village’s status as labor camp was rescinded in 1979, but the villagers retained the stigma of former political prisoners from whom land rights were withheld. At the end of the New Order and the beginning of the democratic reform era—reformasi—in 1998, the villagers occupied parts of their old land anew, and after long negotiations between the Sundanese Peasant Movement (which they had joined) and the National Land Agency they received documents legalizing their possessions. 

At every political rupture in Indonesia’s modern history, political authorities have changed, and established property rights have been suspended as new ones have been claimed. These open moments of rupture have all been violent, and some have been extremely and systematically brutal, as acquired land rights have been erased. Yet alongside profound institutional uncertainty and well-founded anxiety, an equal desire has emerged to secure the possession as property beyond the vagaries of changing regimes. While the farmers and their ancestors in the village near Garut have occupied the land many times during the past century, occupations have always been accompanied by a desire for recognition and legalization. 

Historically, Indonesia has been an agrarian society. Plantations and differentiated smallholdings—with landlords and a variety of smallholders and tenants—characterized the society at independence in 1945. Two decades into the new millennium, however, agriculture no longer dominates the economy. Services and industry overtook agriculture as economic sectors in the 1970s, and by 2010 the majority of Indonesians lived in urban areas. Moreover, the number of households engaged in agriculture has been declining with increasing speed. In 2010, around 61 million households eked out a living from farming, but by 2013 the number had dropped to some 26 million. This decline was, no doubt, partly due to new ways of enumerating “farming,” but the exclusion of the smallest farming plots, of less than 0.1 hectare, from the national statistics was in itself a telling adjustment. Farming has become the mainstay for fewer and fewer people in Indonesia. All the same, the total agricultural area has increased, reflecting the steady increase in plantation agriculture. The overall movement is one in which smallholders are pushed or pulled off the land they farm and onto land in towns and cities.

From Nine-Tenths of the Law by Christian Lund. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Christian Lund heads the global development section at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food and Resource Economics. He is the author of Law, Power, and Politics in Niger and Local Politics and the Dynamics of Property in Africa.

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