- Land conflicts in Indonesia have nearly doubled under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo as his administration pursues an investor-first economic agenda that has sidelined local communities and the environment, a new report shows.
- There were 2,939 pending disputes affecting 1.75 million households in the nine years to date of the Jokowi administration, compared to 1,520 disputes involving 977,000 households during the 10 years of the previous administration.
- The report by the Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA) says the government has largely failed in its reform agenda, having previously promised to register community-owned lands and redistribute expired concessions back to communities.
- A key driver of land disputes are infrastructure projects that the Jokowi administration has designated as projects of “national strategic importance,” which gives the government eminent domain rights to evict entire communities.
JAKARTA — Land conflicts nearly doubled under the administration of Indonesia’s current president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, compared with his predecessor, driven largely by his prioritization of investors and infrastructure projects over local communities and the environment, a new report shows.
Between 2015 and 2023, there were 2,939 land conflicts identified by the Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA), against 1,520 under the administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, from 2005 to 2014.
These conflicts involved a combined 6.3 million hectares (15.6 million acres) of land, mostly occupied by Indigenous or traditional communities but which have been granted by the government as concessions to plantation companies or earmarked for infrastructure projects.
As a result of these conflicts, up to 1.75 million households have been affected, with many individuals assaulted by security forces when protesting against the companies or projects in their areas, or else subjected to criminal charges or evicted from their own lands. That figure is also nearly double the 977,000 households affected under the Yudhoyono presidency.
“There’s an increase in agrarian conflicts during the Jokowi administration, even though it’s only been nine years [since the president took office], not yet 10 years,” KPA secretary-general Dewi Kartika said at the launch of the report in Jakarta. “[The increase is] nearly 100% compared to the previous decade.”
In 2023 alone, corporate activities and government infrastructure projects resulted in 241 conflicts over 638,188 hectares (1.58 million acres), affecting 135,608 households, according to the report.
Most of the conflicts involve plantation companies, and of these, primarily oil palm growers, which have long been associated with massive deforestation and land grabbing in Indonesia. The plantation sector accounted for nearly 40% of all the conflicts recorded since 2015.
“We can see that the palm oil industry has always been a [major] contributor to agrarian conflicts in the plantation sector,” Dewi said. “So the palm oil industry can’t keep ignoring the fact that it has quite a difficult task [to resolve the issue].”
Land conflicts in the plantation sector have also been deadly, claiming three lives last year alone. One of those killed, Gijik, 35, was shot in the chest during an Oct. 7 protest held by residents of the mostly Indigenous Dayak village of Bangkal, Central Kalimantan province, against palm oil company PT Hamparan Masawit Bangun Persada (HMBP).
Police opened fire on the villagers as they demanded the company, an affiliate of the BEST Group, to comply with its obligation to allocate 20% of its concession to the community under a government-mandated sharing scheme known as “plasma.”
Land conflicts last year also resulted in 91 people experiencing some form of physical violence, six being shot, and 508 people facing criminal charges. Nearly all were Indigenous individuals, farmers or activists.
“This shows how the government has failed to prioritize inclusive dialogue [in resolving land conflicts]. Instead, it has become more repressive,” Dewi said.
Investors over people
The rise in aggression has coincided with Widodo’s adoption of an economic development model that favors the market and investors, often at the expense of local communities, Dewi said.
In a speech in July 2019, his first major policy announcement since winning reelection that year, Widodo said one of his priorities was to make Indonesia an attractive place for investors to boost growth by expediting the issuance of permits. He then threatened to “chase” and “beat” anyone hampering investment in the country.
“Be careful, going forward I guarantee that I will chase, I will control, I will check and I will beat [them] up if necessary! There should no longer be any obstructions to investment because this is the key to creating more jobs,” the president said.
In a 2020 interview with BBC, Widodo again reiterated that his top priority was to boost economic growth, and that while issues such as the environment and human rights were important, he preferred to focus on one thing at a time.
“Maybe after that [developing the economy], then the environment [will be my priority], innovation and then human rights. Why not?” he said. “[But] not all can be done [at the same time]. It’s not that [I] don’t want to, but I like to be focused on working.”
Then, in December 2021, he ordered the National Police chief to fire any local police chiefs who fail to “escort investors.”
Widodo’s string of pro-investment statements have raised concerns among environmental and Indigenous rights activists, who say the remarks are a sign that environmental and human rights issues are being sidelined for the sake of attracting investment.
They also show the administration’s tendency to resort to aggression and violence in dealing with any resistance against investment, critics say. They add there are plenty of justifiable reasons to oppose or at least slow down development projects that involve the clearing of forests and customary lands. One of these is the issue of injustice, as thousands of villages sit on lands earmarked for concessions and infrastructure projects.
These overlaps, compounded by a lack of clarity about land ownership, have given rise to the thousands of conflicts under the Widodo administration, Dewi said.
Most communities lack legal title to their land, stemming from the government’s failure to properly map and register lands and their rightful owners as required in the 1960 Agrarian Law, said Dadan Suparjo Suharmawijaya, a commissioner at the office of the Indonesian Ombudsman.
“This [land registration] should have been the government’s responsibility since 1960. We have to determine first who are the owners of these lands,” he said at the launch of the KPA’s report. “It shouldn’t be the people who register [their lands].”
This lack of clarity has resulted in communities being vulnerable to having their lands grabbed, Dewi said. “Because this [land registration] isn’t carried out, what happens is violations of rights and labeling of people as illegal[ly occupying lands], of Indigenous peoples as forest encroachers.”
The government has also failed to redistribute state lands whose permits have expired or which have been abandoned to local and Indigenous communities across the country, Dewi said. This land redistribution is supposed to be part of the government’s agrarian reform agenda, which Widodo promised he would do at the beginning of his presidency.
At the time, he said the reform program would cover 9 million hectares (22 million acres) of land, half of which would involve formally registering community lands that already exist, and the rest would be the redistribution of state-owned lands and retired concessions to communities.
Dewi said land registration isn’t true agrarian reform, since it’s only the act of recognizing community ownership of land that they already occupy and which the government is meant to recognize anyway under the 1960 law. Land redistribution, on the other hand, is an integral part of agrarian reform as it addresses the huge gap in land ownership in Indonesia, where the richest 1% of citizens own 68% of the land in the country.
As of the end of 2023, however, the government was only able to redistribute 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of land to communities, well short of its 4.5-million-hectare target.
Therefore, the president has failed to keep his promise of agrarian reform, Dewi said.
Dadan described the current situation as an “agrarian crisis.”
“Before [the Widodo administration], there was already a crisis. And entering Jokowi’s era, this crisis still persists and hasn’t been solved yet,” he said. “I believe this crisis will keep haunting us if our government doesn’t solve it.”
‘Land grabbing on a national scale’
Besides industrial concessions, infrastructure projects are a major source of land disputes across Indonesia, Dewi said. Many of those being forced through on community lands have been designated by the government as projects of “national strategic importance,” or PSN, which gives the government eminent domain rights to evict entire communities.
These projects include roads, railways, ports, airports, dams, power plants, industrial estates and plantations. In 2020, the government announced a list of 89 national strategic projects, most of them newly proposed and the rest expansions of existing projects, in a bid to jump-start the economy out of the COVID-19-induced slump.
By 2023, that list had ballooned to 204 projects, including a massive undertaking to build a new capital city on the island of Borneo, and a food estate program that aims to establish large-scale agricultural plantations across the country.
To speed up the projects, Widodo in 2020 issued a regulation on eminent domain that makes it easier for the government to take over community lands, including those of Indigenous groups, and degazette forests to allow them to be cleared.
The regulation expands the types of land that can be unilaterally acquired by the state for purposes deemed to be in the public interest. Limited under a 2016 regulation to land held by state-owned companies, areas that may be subject to eminent domain under the new presidential regulation now include forests, villages, and land bequeathed for religious and charitable use.
The regulation is bolstered by another from 2017 that allows projects of national priority to override local governments’ zoning plans. In practice, that means that projects can proceed in areas that would otherwise be off-limits, including forests and conservation areas.
As a result, it’s now easier than ever for the government to unilaterally claim an area of land as state-owned for national strategic projects, resulting in local and Indigenous communities being evicted without legal recourse.
Since 2020, national strategic projects have resulted in 115 land conflicts covering 516,409 hectares (1.28 million acres) and affecting 85,555 households.
“We can see that in recent years, especially from 2020 until 2023, national strategic projects kept creating agrarian conflicts,” Dewi said. “Since 2021, the KPA has been saying that these national strategic projects are a land-grabbing scheme on a national scale.”
A legacy of conflict for the next president
Widodo’s presidency is due to end in October 2024. His successor, to be decided in an election on Feb. 14, will then have the responsibility of resolving any legacy conflicts created during past presidencies.
This next president should carry out a true agrarian reform agenda and revise any regulations that hinder the agenda, Dewi said. He should fully recognize and recover the people’s rights to their lands and empower their livelihoods, she added. (All three candidates running in the election are men.)
“The end goal of agrarian reform is social transformation in villages and cities that is socially and ecologically just and empowering,” Dewi said.
The next government should also draft and pass legislation on agrarian reform as the legal basis for the agrarian reform agenda, she said, adding that such legislation should protect people from land grabbing and eviction.
“It’s not enough to have a presidential regulation on agrarian reform,” she said. “The next president should push for a bill on agrarian reform. In many countries, agrarian reform has its own law.”
Banner image: Most of the conflicts involve plantation companies, and of these, primarily oil palm growers, which have long been associated with massive deforestation and land grabbing in Indonesia. Image by Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
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