The Growing Problem of Land Conflicts in Indonesia

By Sidney Jones

Desun Gembira village, Keremutan in Sumatra, Indonesia. Source: David Gilbert/Rainforest Action's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

A view of Desun Gembira village. Keremutan in Sumatra, Indonesia. Sumatra faces serious problems with land conflicts.  Source: David Gilbert/Rainforest Action’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Land and resource conflicts are an increasing source of violence in Indonesia, and a looming showdown in Sumatra shows why. The dispute in Mesuji, Lampung province is over an industrial tree plantation, but it could just as easily be a mine or a palm oil estate. Whatever the cause of the initial dispute—in this case a land-grab that goes back decades—the conflict has become infinitely more complex over the last two years as political and economic stakes have increased.

Several factors have come into play:

• Land values have risen in the area because of the demand for bio-fuels, and many Jakarta-based actors are suddenly interested in championing claims against the company in the hope of getting access to large chunks of land in return.

• The attraction of claiming land in the name of indigenous rights—even before the May 2013 ruling from the Constitutional Court that “indigenous forests” could no longer be considered state land—has led to the creation of several competing indigenous councils all purporting to speak on behalf of local communities. At least one of these councils made membership available for a fee to migrants from outside the area.

• A national politician attracted by the career of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and preaching radical socialism as an antidote to neo-liberalism believes he can create a political base by encouraging occupation of plantation land by poor farmers, not only in Lampung but across the country.

• Local police turned a blind eye to the organized in-migration of thousands of new settlers, despite the violation of numerous laws. Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the groups organizing the newcomers itself has close ties to the police.

• By the time thousands of new arrivals were in place, their numbers had reached the point where they were of interest to politicians needing to secure votes for local elections and of local merchants seeking custom.

All of this means that the story of a once-protected forest area-turned-plantation called Register 45 in Mesuji—described in detail in a new report released on August 13 by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC)—is no simple story of poor/good farmers against rich/bad company. Instead it is one of multiple and competing groups of farmers, legitimate and spurious claims, overlapping and contradictory laws, different parts of the government speaking with different voices, new actors coming into the picture, and constantly changing goalposts.

The conflict, however, could be reaching a showdown, as in late July the provincial government, working on instructions from the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Security, and Legal Affairs, sent 400 police and soldiers to Register 45 to warn all squatters to leave or face forcible eviction as soon as the August 8-9 Idul Fitri holidays were over. Since many have no home to go back to, the result could be resistance and bloodshed.

The question is how conflicts like Mesuji can be resolved when few trust the courts or police and the central government invariably dithers until violence erupts. Even the basic task of distinguishing between genuine and illegitimate claims is a hugely complex undertaking when corruption makes all data suspect. In this case, the best of a series of bad options is to develop a workable relocation plan for settlers who arrived from late 2011 onwards; investigate and prosecute the organizers behind the land clearing and sales; and have an independent commission review the grievances against the company. Implementing recommendations from a 2012 government fact-finding report would be a good place to start.

Perhaps more important for the future is to back the “one map movement” developed by the President’s Unit for Control and Monitoring Development (Unit Kerja Presiden Bidang Pengawasan dan Pengendalian Pembangunan, UKP4) to improve spatial planning before future land concessions are authorized. The initiative tries to ensure that a consultative mapping project takes place so that everyone is agreed where community land begins and ends. But in a place like Indonesia, where many different claims to the same land can all be legal, depending on what law is used, prevention of these disputes is not going to be easy.

Ms. Sidney Jones is director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC). She can be reached at