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Wariness over Indonesian president’s vow to get tough on land disputes

A woman faces the police at one of the protests in Kendari. Image by Kamarudin for Mongabay.

  • President Joko Widodo says land claimed by both companies and local communities should be given to the latter, especially if they have occupied the territory for a long time.
  • The statement is a radical departure from the Indonesian government’s record of siding with companies and moving slowly to recognize community land rights.
  • But any benefits promised look to be undercut by another administration announcement, just days later, that plantation permit data will not be made publicly accessible — thus denying claimants a way to see if their land rights have been violated.
  • The latter policy shores up an earlier prohibition on sharing permit data that Indonesia’s Supreme Court ruled illegal. Activists have filed a police report against the land minister over his refusal to comply.

JAKARTA — In the space of a few days, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has vowed to side with local communities in their disputes over land with large companies — yet also moved to shield some of the very worst aggressors from scrutiny by obscuring their land holdings.

Both announcements come in the wake of an election that Widodo is widely expected to have won (an official declaration of the results is due May 22), setting him up for a second and last term in office that he’s promised to use for the greater good.

During a May 3 meeting with cabinet members and other officials, Widodo discussed how to speed up the resolution of land disputes and conflicts. Many of these disputes involve land traditionally occupied by an indigenous or customary community that has been signed over by the government as a concession to a plantation or mining company.

Widodo, who has called for (though not always pursued) greater local community landownership since first coming to office in 2014, told his ministers that in the event of such overlaps, the state should side with the community.

“Give [the land] to the villagers, no matter who owns the concession,” he said, adding that this should apply especially in cases where communities had occupied the land in question long before it was parceled out.

If the companies refuse to relinquish their concessions, the government would revoke their permits, Widodo added.

“I have made the order to revoke the concessions if [the owners] are stubborn,” he said. “We have to be firm.”

He said it was necessary to provide legal certainty to communities and victims of land conflicts. “The sense of justice and legal certainty must be prioritized because clearly the [villagers] have lived in these areas for so long but have lost [their rights] to the concessions, which were granted relatively recently,” he said.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo plants trees during a tree-planting ceremony in December 2017. Image by @jokowi Twitter account.

30 years of conflict

A case in point is that of the state-owned palm oil plantation company PTPN V, which has since 1989 been embroiled in a dispute with the village of Senama Nenek over 2,800 hectares (6,920 acres) of land in Sumatra’s Riau province.

The company began cultivating on the concession without the consent of the villagers, sparking years of protests and demonstrations by the villagers. The dispute came to a head in 2013, when a clash broke out between the villagers and the company employees, who were backed by the police and military. Dozens of villagers were injured, one of them shot in the leg.

In the recent cabinet meeting, 30 years since the dispute began, Widodo ordered that PTPN V’s permit be revoked and the land redistributed to the Senama Nenek villagers. Sofyan Djalil, the land and spatial planning minister, told reporters after the meeting that the “conflict has been solved.”

He added he would instruct local authorities to identify and register the community members entitled to ownership of the land.

The news was welcomed by Abdoel Rakhman Chan, the Senama Nenek village chief: “We’ve been fighting for 30 years. Alhamdulillah [thank God] today we can get our rights over the 2,800 hectares of land,” he said as quoted by Kumparan.

Protesters demand farmers from Polanto Jaya village in Donggala district, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, to be released from jail during a rally. A number of farmers have been prosecuted during conflicts with a palm oil company, PT Mamuang. Photo courtesy of Walhi Central Sulawesi.

‘Hijacked by his own cabinet’

Yet any notion of meaningful change coming from this new policy appears to have been nipped in the bud by another Widodo administration policy issued just days later that cuts in the opposite direction.

Most of the land disputes simmering across the country center around territory that’s been parceled off under agricultural permits, known locally as HGU, particularly for oil palms.

In a letter dated May 6, a senior official with the Coordinating Ministry for the Economy assured the palm oil industry that no HGU data for oil palm concessions would be made publicly accessible. The pretext given was that this data was of strategic importance to the national economy.

The move chimes with the land ministry’s refusal to share detailed maps and related documents on plantation companies operating in the country to the public, even after the nation’s highest court ordered the ministry to make the documents publicly available in 2017.

Data from the Agrarian Reform Consortium (KPA), an NGO, show there have been at least 1,771 land conflicts between 2014 and 2018, the first four years of the Widodo administration, with 41 people killed, 546 assaulted and 940 farmers and activists facing criminal prosecution.

Oil palm plantations accounted for the largest number of cases, at 642.

Environmental and indigenous rights activists have long sought access to the government’s HGU maps to determine the extent of concessions and ensure the companies aren’t grabbing land beyond their permitted boundaries. In March, they filed a police report against the land minister, Sofyan, for failing to comply with the 2017 court ruling

Sofyan again justified the decision to not release the documents as an effort to protect the palm oil industry. He added that favoring palm oil companies over smallholder farmers in such cases would be of greater economic benefit to the state.

“The problem is that if it’s [smallholders] cultivating palm oil, they’ll produce just 2 to 3 tons per hectare,” he said in an interview with the investigative magazine Tempo. “If it’s a company, then it can get 7 to 8 tons per hectare. Which one is more pressing for the public interest?”

Khalisah Khalid, a spokeswoman for the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), an NGO, said Sofyan’s statements showed how little faith he had in smallholder farmers to manage their own lands.

“There’s a huge disparity between the views of the president and his subordinates,” she told Mongabay. “If we recall back to what Widodo said during his visit to Sungai Tohor in Riau [in 2014], he said [peatlands] managed by the people were much better [than companies]. But [Sofyan] doesn’t believe that the people have the capabilities to manage natural resources.”

She said Widodo’s bid to resolve land disputes was being hampered by his own aides.

“We’re questioning how the president could appoint people who have such a stark contrast in opinion from him,” she said. “His political promises are being hijacked by his own cabinet.”

Even Sembiring, Walhi’s head of policy analysis, highlighted the practical implications of keeping the HGU data out of sight.

“Oftentimes companies cultivate outside their concessions. How can the public know this is happening [if the HGU documents aren’t published]?” Even said. “And how can the public know if their village land overlaps with concessions?”

Walhi, Indonesia’s biggest environmental group, says the plantation industry is responsible for the largest number of land conflicts because the government has failed to come up with regulation that addresses the problems of overlapping landownership in the sector.

Sofyan Djalil, the Indonesian Minister of Agrarian and Spatial Planning. Image by the Indonesian Ministry of Economy.

Opportunity for a shake-up

The notion that the administration’s agenda is being held back from within isn’t new. Days before the April 17 election, a documentary film was released online identifying the links between the country’s political elites, including Widodo and one of his top ministers, with coal mining and energy companies

“There are so many political actors in industry,” said Walhi’s Khalisah. She cited the case of Sandiaga Uno, the vice presidential candidate to Widodo’s opponent, Prabowo Subianto, whose coal holdings were also highlighted in the documentary film “Sexy Killers.”

“With such huge profits, these tycoons can control the direction of our policies,” said Abimanyu S. Aji, a project manager at Kemitraan Partnership, a governance reform NGO. “There are so many policies that benefit business people because they can do intense lobbying with their money. They can donate to political parties.”

Since the election, though, Widodo has vowed not to be beholden to those interests.

“In the next five years, I do not have any burden,” he told regional leaders gathered in Jakarta on May 9, as quoted by Reuters. “I cannot run again. So anything that is the best for this country, I would do.”

Khalisah said that without the pressure of having to run for office again, Widodo could use his last term to fight against the powerful and politically linked companies involved in land disputes.

“The president has to use this second term to keep his promises,” she said. “This is also an opportunity for the forestry ministry to leave a good legacy, such as resolving big cases that have been going on for years.”

Even said Widodo should also take the opportunity to clean his cabinet of officials undermining his agenda, whether through involvement with companies mired in lad disputes or through policies protecting such companies.

He cited Sofyan as a prime example of the latter. Aside from withholding the HGU documents, the minister has also failed to issue technical guidelines for resolving land conflicts as mandated under a 2018 presidential regulation on agrarian reform, Even said.

“Sofyan has disobeyed the law, so how can we expect him to obey the president? No way that’s going to happen,” Even said. “We don’t know why our president still trusts Sofyan so much.”

President Jokowi announces a moratorium on new oil palm and mining permits on an island outside Jakarta in April. Photo courtesy of the Indonesian government

Permit reviews

Besides a cabinet reshuffle, Widodo will also need to order a re-evaluation of all concession permits to identify land grabbing and harmful activities, Even said.

“If we’re talking about conflicts, don’t just look at land grabbing,” he said. “We have to also look at how coal mining and reclamation projects deny people their [land] rights.”

The coal industry has been subjected to intense scrutiny by the country’s anti-graft agency, the KPK, through an initiative called the Supervision and Coordination of Mineral and Coal Mining Management, or Korsup Minerba.

The initiative was established by the KPK, the mining ministry and the environment ministry in 2014 to assess the legality of mining permits and determine whether they adhered to all relevant permitting and environmental laws. As of January 2019, data from the mining ministry showed that 4,678 permits had been canceled because they were tagged as “not clean and clear,” indicating a site assessment was lacking.

A similar initiative aimed at tackling problems in the plantations sector was later launched, called Korsup Sawit. However, this initiative hasn’t seen any concessions revoked yet, leading activists to question whether any ever will be.

Walhi’s Khalisah said that even without Korsup Sawit, there were some long-standing land disputes that the Widodo administration could go after as easy wins. She cited the example of the industrial plantation firm PT Musi Hutan Persada, owned by Japanese conglomerate Marubeni Corporation, which is in a dispute with at least 34 villages on whose territory its concessions overlap in South Sumatra province.

“Musi Hutan Persada is a big company and the conflict has been ongoing for decades,” Khalisah said. “And yet it has never been resolved, even though the solution [revoking the company’s permits] is right in front of our eyes.”

Khalisah said cases like this provided an opportunity for Widodo to leave a legacy for local and indigenous communities whose land rights had long been infringed upon. Even said revoking concessions was well within the government’s authority, and the president could issue technical guidelines to do that.

“If Sofyan refuses to issue technical guidelines, then [Widodo] could issue a government regulation or presidential regulation” to serve as guidelines, he said.


Banner image: A woman faces the police at one of the protests in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. The protesters demand the government to revoke 15 mining permits in the area. Image by Kamarudin for Mongabay.

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