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Indonesia remembers ‘irreplaceable’ Gunawan Wiradi, gentle giant of the countryside

Gunawan Wiradi.

  • Veteran Indonesian agrarian reform activist Gunawan Wiradi, a lifelong champion of the rights of farmers and rural communities, has died at the age of 88.
  • Gunawan co-founded the Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA), which documents and records conflicts and injustices in underreported regions of Indonesia.
  • Colleagues remember him as a skilled organizer bringing together disparate environmental and agrarian reform movements, and uniting peasant and Indigenous groups.

Few figures have championed the cause of Indonesia’s farmers and rural communities more than Gunawan Wiradi, who has died aged 88.

Born in Solo, a mid-size city in Indonesia’s Central Java province, Gunawan authored several influential books and, in 1994, co-founded leading nonprofit group Konsorsium Pembaruan Agraria (KPA), or the Consortium for Agrarian Reform.

Gunawan remained a leading figure in the agrarian reform movement for half a century, spanning radically different political eras: from Soekarno’s Guided Democracy (after Indonesia declared independence) to Suharto’s authoritarian New Order government and the post-1998 reform period.

After graduating from high school in Solo in 1953, Gunawan won a scholarship to attend the agricultural school at the University of Indonesia. That school would later be spun off into its own university, the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, a training ground for many of Indonesia’s leading agrarian economists and fieldworkers.

Gunawan Wiradi

Gunawan published his thesis, “Land Reform in a Javanese Village, Ngandaan,” before taking up work as a field researcher in the Ministry of Agriculture’s agro-economic survey project.

Gunawan then moved to the Malaysian state of Penang to continue his postgraduate studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). He completed this postgraduate degree in 1978.

In 1994 Gunawan formed the KPA with fellow agrarian leaders Dianto Bachriadi, Noer Fauzi Rachman, Maria Roewiastoeti and Sediono M.P. Tjondronegoro.

Ever since its founding almost three decades ago, the KPA has documented and recorded conflicts and injustices in underreported regions of the world’s fourth-largest country. Gunawan’s own writing on agrarian policy reached audiences beyond Indonesia, finding influence among policymakers in India and the Philippines.

Colleagues and friends remember him as a man who valued his role as steward to the next generation of activists and researchers. Gunawan’s writing remains required reading for many among the current generation.

“He taught by example,” KPA chairman Iwan Nurdin told Mongabay Indonesia. “When he spoke and set an example, people understood it was coming from the heart.

“It was not only knowledge, but also wisdom,” Iwan said. “He was a teacher for everyone.”

Gunawan Wiradi.

Noer Fauzi Rachman, an author of numerous books on agrarian politics and a technical manual for agrarian activists, cited Gunawan as a prominent influence.

“In my view he was an original thinker about agrarian reform,” Noer said.

Iwan recalled a man who advocated living with simplicity, but alongside a dedication to addressing the complexities of agrarian reform.

Gunawan insisted on a broadly optimistic outlook, but tempered any good news with a hint of pessimism to keep motivation high among younger colleagues. He held a broad command of his subject, which at times appeared second nature. Few people understood more about the contrasts between the main island of Java and the thousands of other islands that make up Indonesia’s hinterlands.

“He knew the differences in norms and systems for regulating land ownership in these different spaces,” Noer said.

Gunawan also drew on his extensive comparative knowledge to reference parallel experiences in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere.

Colleagues recall a skilled organizer, who did much to bring together disparate environmental and agrarian reform movements. Gunawan also worked to unite peasant and Indigenous groups.

Rukka Sombolinggi, secretary-general of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), called Gunawan a dedicated reformer and advocate.

“There was no compromise,” she said. “He would grieve the most about what the agrarian reform has become under this government.”

Friends, family and colleagues commemorate Gunawan Wiradi in Indonesia. Image courtesy of the KPA.

On one birthday, Gunawan asked several colleagues to write down their impressions about his life.

“Every time we met, whether for a discussion or just a normal chat, there would always be something that would stay in your heart,” Iwan said.

He and Gunawan spoke frequently on the phone, and met in person now and then to discuss new policy over coffee and cigarettes. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Indonesia, the meetings moved online. But Gunawan’s health was in decline by then, and he had undergone a series of surgeries.

“In the end he was short of breath and was taken to hospital,” Iwan said.

But hospitals in Jakarta were full owing to the pressure placed on health care capacity from the coronavirus. Gunawan found a place in a hospital in the southern suburb of Bogor, close to the university that launched his career.

Gunawan died on Nov. 30. He was buried by his family in his hometown, Solo.

“He taught students to have a commitment to social justice,” Noer said.

Eva Bande, who chairs the Sigi Agrarian Reform Task Force, said Gunawan was “a light along the dark path of Indonesia’s agrarian reform.”

“He was a big part of my life,” Iwan said. “In Indonesia no-one can replace Pak Wiradi.”

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on Dec. 1, 202o.

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